Native Corn Comes Home to the Abenaki, Now Recognized by Vermont

A unique strain of corn is finally coming home to the Koasek (Cowasuck) Nation community in Vermont’s Connecticut River Valley after being gone for centuries. The Abenaki, who harvested this corn in the rich valleys of the Connectict River until the 1700s, have not cultivated the plant in 300 years.

The Calley Family, who gave the seeds to Koasek Abenaki Chief Nancy Lyons on September 13, received the corn as a gift 35 years ago from Carroll Greene, a direct descendent of the first settlers in southern Vermont, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader. Greene taught the Calley family how to grow and care for the corn, which is smaller and sweeter than regular corn, before moving to New Hampshire.

"This is a friendly and kind gesture," said Howard Lyons, husband to Nancy and member of the Mohawk Nation. "It’s fitting for the Calley’s to hand the corn to Nancy," he said, referring to the fact that Sarah Calley owns the old brick school house that Chief Lyons intends to purchase for an Abenaki Cultural Academy.

This is just the next step for the Abenaki in a generations-long struggle to reclaim their cultural identity.

This past May, the Abenaki of Vermont won state recognition, as Bill S.117 was signed into law. Proposals to recognize the tribe had been introduced in the Vermont legislature year after year in various resolutions and in bills that always stalled in committee.

Bill S.117 recognizes the Vermont Abenaki as a minority group, which enables them to market their crafts as Abenaki and apply for housing and education grants allocated for minorities. It also establishes a new seven-member Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs. The commission is made up entirely of Native Americans and replaces the now-disbanded Governor’s Advisory Commission on Native American Affairs, which operated for many years to advocate for the well-being of the Abenaki community.

There are two historical bands of Abenaki in Vermont: the Missiquoi/Sokoki band in the Lake Champlain region led by Chief April St. Francis Merrill, and the Koasek band, whose homeland is along the Connecticut River and also extends into New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The Koasek are led by Co-Chiefs Nancy Lyons and Brian Chevenert.

Chief Homer St. Francis of the Missiquoi/Sokoki band (the current chief’s father) led a long, hard fight for recognition after the Abenaki had spent many years underground, hiding their identity to escape ethnic persecution and a state-sponsored sterilization program in the 1920s. Ironically, the fact that they successfully preserved their history, culture, and identity in secret was used against them when the time came to stand up for recognition.

Former Governor Howard Dean and Attorney General William Sorrell opposed state recognition, fearing that it would aid the tribe’s petition for federal recognition, which, in turn could lead to land claims and casinos. The attorney general’s office claimed that the modern-day Abenaki were frauds because there was not adequate historical proof to support their ties to their ancestors.

While the Abenaki are demonstrating that their culture is alive and well, the new state law is an overdue step toward restoring justice to the tribe and healing a long-standing tension with the state. And the return of the corn seems a fitting symbol for the closing of a circle. As Chief Lyons’ said, "This is an unbelievable gift."