Crops now grown in the United States differ from varieties grown a century ago. They’ve been hybridized and have been genetically modified. Older seed varieties, known as heritage or heirloom seeds, are disappearing. They’re mass produced and optimized for pest resistance and an ability to survive global shipment.

But as plants have been selectively bred, the variants and strengths of their forebears have been lost. Their disappearance poses challenges for our future food supply, sustainable farming methods, and traditional plant-related cultural practices and knowledge.

Ethnobotanists study the cultural use of plants, and U-M ethnobotanists historically collected a wide variety of plant material from Native American communities throughout North America for the U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (UMMAA). “Plants from the Great Lakes region are well represented,” says Lisa Young, a lecturer in LSA’s Department of Anthropology.

Young, along with Matthaei Botanical Gardens Associate Curator David Michener, co-leads the Heritage Seeds for Sustainable Lifeways project at U-M’s Graham Sustainability Institute, which works to share seeds and information from the UMMAA collection that have cultural significance to native communities.

Young notes that the Great Lakes plant collection includes not only crops, but also many wild plants. Past museum curators such as W. B. Hinsdale, the dean of the U-M Homeopathic Medical College from 1895 to 1922, took an interest in wild plants for their medicinal use and related traditional knowledge.

Anishinaabe tribal members in the Great Lakes region have handed down seeds and cultural knowledge about plants and their care for generations. But many of their heritage seeds are in danger of extinction, and tribal members, along with ethnobotanists working today, want to save the seeds.

Growing the Collection

The UMMAA contains one of the oldest and biggest continually operating ethnobotanical collections in North America. Many seeds and items in the collections date from the early- to mid-1900s. Melvin Gilmore, the first curator of ethnology at UMMAA, and his assistant and eventual successor, Volney Jones, developed a laboratory devoted to identifying and amassing specimens from all over the world.


Specimens in the ethnobotanical collection of LSA's Museum of Anthropological Archaeology ordinarily sort by scientific naming systems. But when Native American tribal members and researchers assembled earlier this year, tribal members recognized plant materials as organized by geography, which provided information about ancestral origin and context for traditional knowledge.
(People left to right: David Michener, Scott Heron, Sydney Martin, Shannon Martin)


The ethnobotanical collection is vast, and many of its seeds were “found within occupational archaeological sites or collected by anthropologists who came to speak with our people,” says Shannon Martin, director of the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinaabe Culture and Lifeways. This pattern of ethnobotanists collecting culturally significant seeds for museum collections was repeated in many native communities across the country.

In assembling the collection, Gilmore and Jones organized plant materials by their scientific classifications. But parts of the collection such as corn, wild rice, ash tree bark, sassafras roots, and seeds also have cultural significance.

Young reviewed the historical notes in UMMAA’s Ethnobotanical Laboratory: notecards that include the plant’s scientific name, where the plant was collected, and how the plant was used by native people. Each card, Young says, represents the “remnants of a dialogue” between the ethnobotanists and the people they interviewed when the plant or seed was collected.

Over these physical reminders of an age-old relationship between people and plants, the project hopes that today’s tribal members can come together to find their roots in heritage seeds.

These Are Our Seeds

The Heritage Seeds for Sustainable Lifeways Project team organized a meeting earlier this year that involved tribal members from Anishinaabe communities, the Intertribal Agriculture Council, UMMAA, Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with support from the Graham Sustainability Institute.

Young and anthropology Ph.D. student Elspeth Geiger laid out the seeds and plant specimens from the collection—paired with field notes recorded by the historical U-M ethnobotanists—across tables at the open lab of the Research Museums Center, where UMMAA curates its collections. This arrangement helped Anishinaabe tribal members reunite with the plants that researchers had collected from their communities decades before.

The organizers and attendees hoped the meeting would mark the beginning of a collaborative contemporary partnership between U-M and Anishinaabe communities, a relationship grown around the UMMAA heritage seed collections. The group also discussed how to evaluate whether the archived seeds are viable. Together, they’re exploring pilot projects to grow some of the heritage seeds and share what they learn from these important plant collections.

“Anishinaabe communities have lived sustainably for thousands of years,” says Kevin Finney, a tribal consultant. “It’s all about the relationships we have with the land and everything around it.”


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Images courtesy of the U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology