By Sarah Fiorello

Photo: Sonja Skelly

A campus collaboration with the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ (Cayuga Nation) seeks to conserve biodiversity and simultaneously safeguard human cultural values and traditions – including language – that depend on these natural resources.

Cornell Botanic Gardens and faculty of the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program (AIISP), in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, have joined with the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ to help ensure that the nation’s language and cultural traditions are carried to the next generation.

The collaboration with the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’, whose traditional homelands include Cornell’s Ithaca campus, pairs the conservation and propagation of heritage plants with a course that teaches the Cayuga language and culture (AIIS-LING 3324), co-taught by Jessica Martin (Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’/ Cayuga, Otahyǫ́:ni:/Wolf Clan), Kurt Jordan, (Anthropology/AIISP, College of Arts and Sciences) and John Whitman (Linguistics, A&S).

Because much of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ language reflects the close relationship  between their nation, nature and growing plants, many class lessons focus on the planting cycle. Students in the class visit Cornell Botanic Gardens to engage firsthand with plants deeply knitted into the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ way of life and used in their cuisine, medicine, materials, art, ceremony and more.

Corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and tobacco are planted in the Pounder Vegetable Garden at Cornell Botanic Gardens, with corn, beans and squash growing in the traditional “Three Sisters” intercropping system – planted together on a low mounds to deter weeds and pests, enrich the soil and support each other. These heritage seeds all culminated from generations of skilled Indigenous farmers who have saved seeds from the best plants year after year for generations.

The Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ contributed seeds of three varieties of bean and one of tobacco. The Ska:rù:rę’ (Tuscarora Nation), one of six nations along with the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ in the Hodinǫ̱hsǫ́:nih (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, provided one variety of squash. The corn and sunflower were grown from heritage seed from the Hopi nation in Arizona.

Staff and faculty from AIISP, the Department of Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, Cornell Botanic Gardens and Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ knowledgekeeper, Stephen Henhawk, collaborated to develop interpretive panels that reveal the deep relationship between the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ and the plants that have sustained them and the Hodinǫ̱hsǫ́:nih Confederacy for thousands of years. The panels include many words in the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ language, which reinforce vocabulary for students in the Cayuga Language class and educate visitors to Cornell Botanic Gardens.

“The Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ language is polysynthetic, bringing individual phrases together as one unit, thereby creating new meaning,” said Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora), co-founder of the Cayuga Language and Culture Class and associate professor, history of art (A&S). “The collaboration between AIISP, Cornell Botanic Gardens, the Department of Linguistics and Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ speakers demonstrates this idea by providing an immersive language-learning experience with culturally significant plants in the Pounder Vegetable Garden.”

Saving and growing heritage plants, together with revitalizing language, are two key strategies for sustaining and preserving Gayogo̱hó:nǫ’ agricultural practices and traditions.

“This is one instance of the countless languages on the brink of extinction worldwide,” said Christopher Dunn, director of Cornell Botanic Gardens and chair of the U.S. National Committee of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “With this loss of language comes the loss of knowledge of the natural world that is essential to the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s biodiversity. Cornell Botanic Gardens is actively developing alliances locally, nationally and globally to support the conservation of biocultural diversity and to give voice to indigenous peoples.”

The Three Sisters planting and related crops are displayed in the Pounder Vegetable Garden at Cornell Botanic Gardens through mid-October. Cornell Botanic Gardens is open daily, dawn to dusk, and is free of charge.

Sarah Fiorello is the Interpretation Coordinator at Cornell Botanic Gardens.

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