‘Gete-okosimin’ is a beautiful pre-Columbian squash originally grown by Native Americans in the area now known as Wisconsin. Until recently believed to be extinct, the squash is making a comeback, thanks to ancient seed unearthed by archaeologists, and to the dedicated efforts of seed stewards around the country.
The seeds were found in 2008 during an archaeological dig on a Menominee reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The dig was conducted by Canadian Mennonite University. A clay vessel, about the size of a tennis ball, was recovered; such devices were used in the region for seed storage. Sure enough, the vessel was found to contain seeds—in this case, seed of what was to become known as ‘Gete-okosimin’ squash. The artifact was carbon-dated to about 850 years ago, according to Susan Menzel of Chicago’s American Indian Center, in an article published by the Chicago Tribune.
The University gave the seeds to Frank Alegria, who in turn passed them on to Winona LaDuke, who, among other accomplishments, is a well-known native foods seed sovereignty advocate. Incredibly, the seeds grew! She named the variety ‘Gete-okosomin,’ which in Anishinaabe, an indigenous Canadian language, means “really cool old squash.” The seeds were grown out by White Earth Land Recovery Project, and fresh seed was saved. The seed was then distributed among various northern peoples. The squash themselves have been served to elders, children, and used for ceremonies at White Earth.
Our introduction to ‘Gete-okosimin’ squash came September of 2015 at the Fifth Annual National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa, California. There, Roger Smith, a northern California farmer and contract seed grower for Baker Creek, proudly showed some examples of the venerable squash. Smith got his seeds from a friend in West Virginia. The seeds Smith received were about 6 generations removed from the original find, and he grew the variety during the summer of 2015. The fruits he exhibited caused an immediate sensation among gardeners and squash aficionados attending the Expo. The fruits we saw ran about 3 feet long and weighed about 18 pounds. The color was a rich deep orange, with lighter orange striping running the length of the banana-shaped fruits. The surface was mildly bumpy, and the elongated fruits were amazingly beautiful. The pre-Columbian squash was delicious—sweet, with hints of melon, and possessed of a wonderful texture. To think that here was a treasured squash variety, hitherto extinct and suddenly resurrected, was truly mind-boggling!
The vines proved to be quite rampant, running as much as 25 feet. The ancient variety is very productive, with four plants yielding two dozen fruit in one 2013 planting in Wisconsin! ‘Gete-okosimin’ belongs to one of four commonly-grown squash species, Cucurbita maxima. This is the same species that gives us ‘Hubbard’ squashes, all of the most enormous pumpkins, and many other varieties. Numerous other C. maxima varieties and landraces were widely grown among Native peoples of the upper Missouri River valley and elsewhere in the northern Plains.
As of this writing, Smith was planning to share the squash at a ceremonial meal with various tribal elders. Although he had received the seeds without the knowledge or express permission of the White Earth people, he told me he was planning to return the increase in seed to them, as a way of offering back and acknowledging the profound debt that we all share to native peoples and their agricultural accomplishments.
Randel A. Agrella has overseen rare seed production at Baker Creek since 2005. He writes and lectures extensively, and owns and operates AbundantAcres.net, which has grown and shipped strictly heirloom, chemical-free veggie starts and plants, since 2004. He has recently relocated to Maine, and you can follow the development of his organic micro-farm, Parsnippity Farm, on Facebook.