Before colonialism, the Potawatomi lived semi-nomadically as hunter-gatherers, picking Earth’s bounties seasonally. Often, they collected nuts, which provided fats and nutrients to cook, fry and survive the harsh Great Lakes’ winters.
Because of the Potawatomi removals from the Great Lakes region, the Tribe not only lost ancestral lands, but it also left behind the plant and animal knowledge that had sustained them for hundreds of years.
“When a community is removed from where Creator said they were meant to be, you lose not just the physical presence in that space but all the other associated things that go along with it,” said Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center Director Kelli Mosteller, Ph.D. “For people whose cosmology ties them so directly and unquestionably to a specific place, it was very earthshattering to be removed from that.”
The foods available on the plains varied drastically from those produced in the woods of their ancestral homelands, but they discovered that survival required quick adaptation.
“Our ancestors had to figure out how they were going to feed their family,” Mosteller said. “They didn’t know the growing seasons. They weren’t able to bring seeds with them.”
However, they found groves of pecan trees, similar to the nut-bearing trees in the Great Lakes region.
When seeing pecans, “you have to image it was a comfort, even if pecans weren’t a food staple for us previously,” Mosteller said. “There has to be something reassuring when you go somewhere, and there’s food waiting.”
Lindsay Jones Marean, CPN member and a practical linguist at Owens Valley Career Development Center in Oregon, recently discussed the etymology of the word ‘pecan’ with the Hownikan.
“Began, some say bgan, is a generic word for nut. It could describe a pecan, hazelnut or walnut, for example,” Marean said.
She explained the English borrowed the word ‘pecan’ from French who initially took the word from an Algonquian-based language.
“It’s hard to say why the source meaning ‘nut’ became more specific in the borrowing languages, but this sort of meaning change is pretty common when words are borrowed,” she said.
Marean’s family pronounces the English word as “puh-KAHN,” which is close to the Potawatomi word.
“I know that other people sometimes pronounce the English word like PEE-can, and I always wondered if our family’s pronunciation is a holdover from the generation that still spoke Potawatomi as a first language,” Marean said.
CPN tribal member Robin Wall-Kimmerer is an ecologist and distinguished professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF). Kaya DeerInWater, CPN tribal member, is a current master’s student studying under Dr. Kimmerer. For his graduate program, DeerInWater conducts research at CPN tribal headquarters and manages the CPN Community Garden, Gtegemen (We grow it).
“Nuts are extremely important. They’re one of the best places you can get healthy fats and oils, so they are highly prized by any Indigenous person,” DeerInWater said.
He explained the nuts known today as pecans are in the same family as walnuts, and both are native to North America.
“Pre-colonialism, we got our fat or vegetable fats from things like pecans and other nuts, which are high in Omega 3s and have a lot of nutritional benefits,” DeerinWater said.
However, these trees bear more than edible bites of healthy fats and energy.
“As Indigenous people over the millennia, we use the wood to make bows, lacrosse sticks, you name it. It’s a unique, sought after wood. Even some of the leaves themselves can provide medicinal treatment,” he added. “It’s not just the nut; it’s everything.”
In Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she highlights the pecan’s impact on the Potawatomi.
Dr. Kimmerer wrote, “There is now compelling evidence that our elders were right — the trees are talking to one another. They communicate via pheromones, hormone like compounds that are wafted on the breeze, laden with meaning.”
Pecan trees mast, which “is some kind of social cue, from a Western scientific perspective,” DeerInWater said. “The trees kind of get together, and they chat about it.”
If the trees decide to produce nuts, “a whole region will mast,” he said. But since good nut production isn’t guaranteed year to year, “that makes them even more sought after because they aren’t there all the time.
“I think there’s a lot to be said for masting and just how plants communicate,” DeerInWater said. “They know what’s going on more than we do.”
The Great Lakes region boasts eight to 10 native species of nut-bearing trees compared to only three commonly found in central Oklahoma.
“We were used to seeing those types of trees, like pecans, other hickories and walnuts, but we were probably used to a greater diversity,” he said.
Pecan trees grow best in bottomlands or flood plains, and portions of Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma, fall under this category.
“That’s because of access to water. The ground water is really shallow in riparian floodplains. Plus, historically, floodplains provided a constant source of nutrients,” DeerInWater said. “Every time it flooded, little silty particles would come in and fertilize the whole area. Pecan trees like it moist and fertile, and unfortunately, so does agriculture. Dominant modern agriculture replaced a lot of the historic pecan forests found in this region.”
When they arrived in Oklahoma, many Potawatomi chose allotments near waterways where they found pecan trees growing.
“That’s how important water is and other things that come along with water,” he said. “There are certain medicines that our ancestors probably used that are only found along waterways here in Oklahoma.”
When the pecan trees across CPN’s land bear nuts, CPN Maintenance Director Bill Everett conducts market research to find where the Nation can sell them at the highest price.
“We take care of the trees, and then come harvest time, we harvest them and sell the nuts. We don’t do any of the processing,” Everett said.
Due to the reconstruction of FireLake Golf Course last year, Everett’s team couldn’t reach all of the groves.
“There’re probably at least 100 or more on the golf course by itself,” he said. In 2017, CPN harvested approximately 10,000 pounds of nuts, and he hopes this year produces even more.
At one time, CPN held powwows and other events under the shade of the groves located at Tribal headquarters. Although the Nation no longer continues this tradition, the trees stand tall, reminding others of their impact on the Potawatomi in the past, present and potential future.