Scents of savory corn fritters and sweet hoecakes drifted through the air as onlookers gathered on Solitude’s lawn to celebrate Native American dishes.

For the first time since its planting, Virginia Tech’s Indigenous Friendship Garden produced enough Tutelo-Monacan strawberry corn to be harvested and shared with the community.

The Oct. 10 event, held in celebration of Indigenous People’s Day, incorporated food demonstrations that showcased traditional Native American dishes, largely using produce harvested from the garden or foraged within a few miles of Blacksburg.

As brilliant and colorful as the October leaves, strawberry corn was the day’s star ingredient. The corn is part of a repatriation project, meant to return the crop to its homeland.

“This corn basically found its way back here,” said Bryce Burrell, a member of the student organization Native at Virginia Tech. “We’ve been growing it year-by-year to give back the seeds to the tribe, and to have it adapt back to this region.”

The garden, located at Virginia Tech’s Turfgrass Research Center, was cultivated as part of a 2014 class collaboration between Sam Cook, director of American Indian Studies, and John Galbraith, associate professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences. None of the seeds planted in the garden are purchased, but instead come from seed exchanges.

Those leading the cooking demonstration showcased Tutelo-Monacan strawberry corn, a crop that the Virginia Tech Indigenous Friendship Garden is working hard to repatriate. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

Since its founding, the garden has grown into something more. Assistant History Professor Mae Hey, along with a group of Virginia Tech students spanning a multitude of disciplines, gather every week to work in the garden. According to students, not only is the garden’s existence a way of restoring Native American crops, but the weekly meetings also serve to restore Native land relationships and the human spirit.

“Dr. Hey just does her thing and she brings people toward her,” said junior wildlife major Charlotte Moore. “At the garden, we tend to the earth, we tend to ourselves, and tend to each other.”

Hey, along with the students, worked in tandem to prepare and serve the dishes, such as elk and three sisters fritters — a savory dish made of corn, beans, and squash. They also used foraged, gifted pawpaws — a native fruit that is often used by Monacan and other Indigenous  groups — to prepare sweet maple and pawpaw hoecakes. Students also taught onlookers about refreshing teas that Hey made in advance using traditional spices like sassafras leaves, sumac, anise, and ginger.

Burrell, a graduate student studying creative technology and who conducts research for the garden, grilled elk — an animal that was once prominent in the Eastern portion of the United States — to share with the crowd.

Native at Virginia Tech member Bryce Burrell prepares elk for the grill. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

The elk was donated by a 12-year-old friend of the garden, who made the kill in Arizona over the summer. The young hunter’s father, Neno Ripepi, is a professor of mining engineering and the Indigenous Friendship Garden’s pitmaster, while his mother, Melissa Ripepi, works with the Office for Inclusion and Diversity and is also a friend of the garden.

Due to unsustainable hunting habits and habitat alterations, elk became extinct in Virginia in 1855. They were reintroduced to the state between 2012 and 2014, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.  

Burrell said food is especially important to Native people, because it is directly tied to land sovereignty.

To Hey, cooking is a form of love, she said as she garnished dishes with colorful herbs, hot peppers, and heart-shaped carrot slices. Working quickly over hot skillets, Mae took time to explain the history of the dishes to onlookers, including how Natives nixtamalize the corn before turning it into dough — a process that involves simmering corn with ash water to soften it.

Chan Jung, a former student of Hey's Intro to American Indian class and an active member of the friendship garden, brought a plancha to help with the day's demonstrations. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

While the corn isn’t yet thriving in the garden, it is improving, thanks to work alongside a network of other knowledgeable Natives, Hey said, noting that the repatriation project is helping re-knit communities that sometimes became divided under colonial forces. The group worked diligently to save enough seeds for the occasion she said, noting that the corn demonstrates the struggles involved even when Natives are reclaiming their homes.

Hey is also involved in Virginia Tech’s Food Studies Program, which promoted the event. Anna Zeide, an associate history professor and the founding director of the program, said she is impressed by Hey’s approach to her work, and her ability to share her knowledge not with just students and faculty in her department, but across the university.

“It’s important to everyone,” Zeide said. “One reason food studies is such a valuable field at Virginia Tech is that it has so many different touch points. Mae Hey’s work with the Indigenous Friendship Garden highlights the connections between food and people, history, culture, land, and environment.”

Hey prepared tea, infused with traditional spices like sassafras leaves, sumac, anise, and ginger, to share with the community. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

Chris Donaldson, a sophomore studying history and social sciences, is enrolled in Zeide’s U.S. Food History class.

“A lot of people don’t know what grows in their local areas and don’t know people who have knowledge of these foodways,” Donaldson said. “It’s important to share for that reason, but also for the benefit of the people who are storing these traditions.”

Chris Donaldson, a student in Anna Zeide's U.S. Food History Class, holding a plate of food from the day's demonstration. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

The celebration, part of Virginia Tech’s Indigenous People’s Day lineup, also included Native American music from artist Charly Lowry, and special messages from Virginia Tribal leaders and Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. 

The garden’s planting was also guided by Jeffrey Kirwan, professor emeritus and forestry Extension specialist in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Victoria Ferguson, a Monacan Indian and program coordinator at Solitude. Both attended the celebration — Kirwan using stones to break open and share black walnuts — while Ferguson spoke.

“We are here to celebrate our ancestors and to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ day,” Ferguson said to the crowd, before sharing a poem. “We can’t do that without words. Words are important. For us, words help us to record the history that we have passed from generations to generations. Words that we hear in our songs, words that we hear in our stories, and words from poems.”

November is Native American Indian Heritage Month

Written by Kelsey Bartlett