The spring sun rises over Mashantucket each year, over storied rhododendron groves and the Great Cedar Swamp, over lands which have been tended by indigenous people for 12,000 years. This spring, a new ethnobotany garden at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center offers another living, breathing dimension to this vibrant landscape.
Ethnobotany explores how cultures use indigenous plants for food, medicine, religious ceremonies, and materials. It places the cultivation of flowers, fibers, herbs, vegetables and other resources meaningfully, in the center of daily life and activity.
That cultural perspective comes to life in the gardens planned for the 60,000-square-foot terrace at the museum. The terrace is a ‘green roof’—carefully designed, planted and managed to utilize the usually-wasted space on the roof of a building. In this case, the terrace covers all the permanent exhibits, two levels which are below ground.
The gardens have been in the planning stages for about two years. Pequot tribal member and museum educator Nakai Northup is particularly enthusiastic about having a place to grow inherited knowledge.
“We don’t have any [reference] books,” says Northup. “I was taught by my grandparents and father, reinforced by my uncles, and learned from being out in the woods.” Tobacco, sage, sweet grass, and cedar are among the plants used in a majority of tribal ceremonies, whether solstice fires, the birth of a child, or burial rites.
“Sweet fern is probably the most awesome plant around because it helps keep away the mosquitoes,” he notes. “We use jewelweed for ointments for rashes, and there’s a ton of witch hazel in the woods,” Witch Hazel is a natural astringent and anti-inflammatory, historically used to treat skin abrasions and swelling. Food sources are also readily available: skunk cabbage, groundnuts (Indian potatoes), sunchoke, and cattails.
“If you really, really boil it down, you can eat skunk cabbage,” Northup explains. “And cattails were a huge source of food because you can eat the roots, the tuber, the stalk, the pods, and the seeds. Plus the reeds are used to cover our homes in the summertime. They’re waterproof and don’t let the rain through.”
The garden is yet another opportunity for the museum to demonstrate how northeastern Native traditions are adapted to contemporary life, says Dr. Jason Mancini, executive director. “We want to provide opportunities to tribal community members to cultivate, to share, to convey their really rich histories of this region,” he says. About half of the museum staff are Native people, representing 10 different tribal nations from around the country. “A lot of the plant uses that are Native to the space in New England, or native to North America, have a deep, long history with Native people,” he says. “We can document that for 12,000 years here in Mashantucket.”
The terrace will be home to several types of gardens, according to Northup. “We’ll be putting in a fiber garden, planting milkweed and dogbane—also called Indian hemp. We use those plants to make cordage. Dogbane is really strong, about two times the strength of cotton.” Another advantage of dogbane is that the cordage can be processed by hand, no other equipment is required. It’s been traditionally used to make nearly unbreakable fishing line and nets, hunting snares, bags and other woven items.
The garden will also celebrate the seasonal nature of Native flavors and foodways. There will be blueberries, strawberries, and the traditional ‘Three Sisters’ gardens of corn, beans, and squash. In this companion planting, the corn offers the climbing beans needed support, while the beans pull nitrogen into the soil, and the squash’s large leaves protect the threesome by shading the soil around the plants, preventing weeds. Combinations of groundnut and Jerusalem artichoke (whose tuberous root has a potato-like flavor), a sunflower garden, and many varieties of gourds are also in the works.
Visitors can also experience the harvest in the culinary offerings at the museum’s restaurant, the Pequot Café, which features authentic indigenous food — blueberry slump, fried sun choke, frog legs, stuffed quahog, venison skewers and turtle soup are among the specialties. Chef Sherry Pocknett, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, holds decades of experience in catering. She created the cafe’s menu and shares her techniques and insight in a series of cooking classes each year.
“I love to teach people about foods that are already here. Think farm-to-table, hunting, fishing—all our natural resources. ... It makes people more conscious of how they treat Mother Earth,” she says.
Mindful care of the Earth, and living in accordance with seasons is a core value in Native culture. “We eat everything seasonally,” Northup explains. The Pequot, or ‘The People of the Shallow Water,’ live predominantly in the Noank, Stonington, Mystic areas. Mashantucket is winter hunting territory, with abundant deer, turkey, coyote, fox, beaver, and other wildlife.
For Northrup, the garden’s caretaker, the planting of the garden continues a process of cultural restoration and reclamation. Returning to the subject of traditions, his voice softens with reverence. “Here in Mashantucket—which means Place of Many Trees—we have varying landscapes. Lots of hills, very rocky, and with some wetlands. Behind us is the Great Cedar Swamp, filled with rhododendrons, cedar, and maple trees.” He smiles. “The rhododendrons are an important plant for the Pequot, specifically. Rhododendrons typically flower in a pinkish hue, but here in the swamp, they flower with a deep red tint. We call it the Bloody Heart because it mourns the loss of our people,” he says. “In history, there was a lot of warfare here.”
Remnant gardens, including plants such as bloodroot and wild ginger, have been discovered on the reservation, at abandoned house sites. Archaeological excavations, including a site from King Philip’s War (1675-1676), have yielded information on the very early incorporation of European domesticated plants and animals into Native food systems. “There are hundreds of different plants that are now documented to have been used in southern New England by Native people,” Mancini explains. “Part of the purpose of this garden is to repatriate these knowledge systems and honor the place where they originated.”
The effort enlarges our understanding of how Native and European communities intersected and interacted over time. “We find dandelion. We find carrot. And pig and sheep and cow,” he adds. “And peach pits. We have probably the earliest peach pit found in North America right here. We know from historical documents that the Pequots cultivated their own orchards at Mashantucket by the late 1600s and that reflects the tradition of adaptation and incorporation that will become part of the Pequot Museum’s ethnobotany gardens.”
The Mashantucket-Pequot Museum and Research Center reopens to the public on March 29. Garden tours are included in admission. The Pequot Café is open to the public, free of charge, Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, visit pequotmuseum.org.
Writer Toni Leland contributed to this story.