Native American history alive in woman’s garden
October 11, 2013 4:02PM
Cindy Deardorff | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 14, 2013 6:13AM
“The Three Sisters (corn, beans and squash) are inseparable and will only thrive when planted together.”
— Iroquois belief
Cindy Deardorff has great neighbors. The farmhouse where she lives in Wheatfield is surrounded by land owned by the Nature Conservancy, Department of Natural Resources and NIPSCO Savanna. Three wild turkeys foraged near the gravel road as I approached Deardorff’s place.
Deardorff, 53, is an accountant who enjoys growing Native American heirloom varieties of vegetables and re-enacting in the Colonial period of our country.
“Kankakee Valley High School and Valparaiso University,” she said. “I have a degree in business administration. But I’ve always been a history buff. My mom’s a history buff. I don’t think she thought I’d end up being a re-enactor even though she took me to The Feast of the Hunter’s Moon when I was little.”
Where do you work?
“In Merrillville for Keilman, Austgen and Sinal; it’s an accounting firm. I’ve been there for more than 25 years.”
Are you a member of any historical societies?
“The Kankakee Valley Historical Society.”
I always see you at Aukiki River Festival near Baum’s Bridge outside of Kouts. There is usually another lady that you share your campsite with.
“That would be Judy Judge; she’s my best friend.”
You both dress in Native American attire. Have you thought of dying your hair black?
“No, because I talk about being a captive that has been adopted into the tribe.”
“She actually was from Pennsylvania. During one of the Indian raids, she was taken from her Quaker family and brought back to Indiana. She ended up marrying a Miami chief named Deaf Man. The tribe was located near Mississinewa by the Wabash River. Francis became known as Young Bear. Almost 60 years later, two of her Quaker brothers were able to track her down near Peru. They identified Francis by a disfigured finger. She remembered her surname, but that was the only English she knew. Although Joseph and Isaac Slocum pleaded with their sister to come back ‘home,’ she chose to stay with her adopted family, saying in the Miami language: ‘I would be like a fish out of water.’”
“The famous artist George Winter painted Francis Slocum and her two daughters. One of the daughters refused to look directly at Winter, a Miami custom. “
Being a gardener, I’m sure you know the American Indians knew what they were talking about regarding the legend of the Three Sisters.
“Yes. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans create nitrogen in their root systems which improves fertility, and the shallow rooted squash plants serve as a living mulch keeping the ground moist and preventing an overgrowth of weeds.”
It’s kind of neat how you’ve melded your re-enacting with your gardening.
“It’s a nice fit. When I first started, you could see demonstrations of pioneer cooking and turn of the century cooking, but there weren’t many demonstrations on Native American cooking. The colonists adopted a lot of the Native American culinary ways.”
Cindy, one of the most powerful political cartoons I’ve seen showed extremely gaunt Pilgrims standing one behind the other waiting their turn as a band of Native Americans handed out flour, dry beans, root crops, venison and slaughtered turkeys. The cut line simply read: “America’s first welfare line.”
“Yes, the Indians taught the Pilgrims how to make corn dishes and other things. Without being taught about the Three Sisters, many more colonists would have perished.”
You must have researched these topics?
“I started out reading some very old books. The Internet was helpful. I learned a lot from other re-enactors. Then, I took classes with some of the tribes. I learned how to make things like cattail mats. I don’t think I’ll butcher a deer, but I was shown how by the Potawatomi in Michigan. I build my own wigwam and cook with clay pots.
Cindy, I really like all the wild flowers, herbs and native plants you have growing around the barns and sheds. Can you give me the dime tour?
“Here we have foxglove, wild phlox, tansy, fleabane, milkweed, goldenrod, purple coneflower... . These are called ground nuts or wild beans. This garden contains Miami Indian flour corn.”
Where did you get the seed?
“A Miami person gave it to me as a gift. I’ve been planting it every year since. You’ll never find this seed in, say, a Burpee’s catalog. I also have seeds from the Potawatomi tribe up in Michigan.”
What do we have here?
“That’s a squash called a white scallop which goes back to the 1700s. Actually, it’s a native plant that the Indians ate before that. These are cranberry beans. This is sweet grass. Native Americans used it in ceremonies.”
Are you an organic gardener?
“Can’t you tell by all the weeds?”
Are those extremely tall plants with the yellow flowers what I think they are?
“If you’re thinking Jerusalem artichokes you would be correct.”
They produce an edible tuber.
“Yes, the Native Americans called them sun chokes. They taste like a potato with a little bit of a radish bite to them.”
Cindy Deardorff. A woman who counts beans in Merrillville and plants beans in Wheatfield.