“We Are Still Here”: Courtney Streett on Native Plants & Indigenous Knowledge - Brooklyn Botanic Garden
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“We Are Still Here”: Courtney Streett on Native Plants & Indigenous Knowledge

Courtney Streett (Nanticoke Indian Tribe) is the cofounder of Native Roots Farm Foundation (NRFF), a nonprofit that aims to restore Native relationships to the land while recognizing and sharing Indigenous ecological knowledge with the wider public.

A woman in an orange sleeveless shirt smiles at the camera.
Native Roots Farm Foundation co-founder Courtney Streett. Photo courtesy of Courtney Streett.

Streett, who delivers the keynote address at this year’s Making Brooklyn Bloom, is a former news producer whose career shift was sparked by a desire to save the family farm in Delaware. We spoke with Streett about her journey into nonprofit work, NRFF’s vision for a public Hakihakàn (the Lenape word for farm or garden), and the plant stories, and names, that should be common knowledge.

How did you come into the work you’re doing today with Native Roots Farm Foundation?

I’m a member of the Nanticoke Tribe, which is based in lower Delaware. My family has been from that area since time immemorial.

We, historically, as Indigenous people, have been tied to the land. And humans and agriculture, humans and nature are intertwined. We have relationships with plants, what Robin Wall Kimmerer calls a “reciprocal” relationship. We nurture plants, and plants nurture us; they provide us with food and medicine and lodging, and textiles and paints.

In 1608, the first European made contact with the Nanticoke people, and that was a guy named John Smith, who many people are familiar with. Colonization and forced assimilation damaged the relationships that many Indigenous people have with the natural world, and much of that knowledge and many of those relationships have been disconnected.

And so, fast forward to the ’90s into the 2000s. My family has had a farm in lower Delaware for over a century, and I grew up going there during the summer weekends, making mud pies and harvesting strawberries and blackberries and potatoes. That was one of the places where I learned to appreciate the environment and food systems and family, and to see that they’re really all intertwined.

When my partner John and I were leaving the Nanticoke Indian Powwow in 2018, we drove by the farm, and there was a “For Sale” sign on the land. And my heart sank, because there’s familial history here. There’s agricultural history, but there’s also cultural history, and that it was for sale reflects a bigger issue, that Nanticoke country is now one of the fastest developing regions of the country.

Open spaces and green spaces and farmland are disappearing. And Indigenous people in Delaware are at risk of being disconnected from the places that uphold our cultures and our identities.

I was living in Brooklyn, working as a television news producer. But this seed was planted when I saw the farm up for sale, and it just started to grow.

I totally did not mean to make a plant analogy, I swear!

It’s hard not to!

I was like, we can’t lose this farm. You know, there’s so much tied to this space. And I saw the price tag, and it’s like, Oh, no, I can’t afford that. So I started making a lot of calls, having a lot of conversations, and ultimately, Native Roots Farm Foundation was formed.

In 2021, I left my job and moved to Delaware to bring the organization to life. And today, our goal is to create a public Hakihakàn. That’s the Lenape word for garden or farm. On this site, we’ll grow native plants and identify them in Indigenous languages, particularly in the Lenape and the Nanticoke languages, because those are the Tribal communities who have lived in Delaware.

We’ll lead community programs that share the relationships that Indigenous people have with those plants—as food, as medicine, as textiles. And we’ll also demonstrate Indigenous land stewardship practices.

Right now, we’re putting our mission into action through programming. Our programs use art and food and horticulture to share native plants and Indigenous languages, ethnobotany, cultural expression, art, and connections to the natural world. We work with three sister Tribal communities in our region—the Nanticoke Indian Tribe in Delaware, the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe in southern New Jersey—as well as organizations throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

So while my journey has definitely not gone as planned, there is a lot of overlap between what I’m doing right now and my life as a journalist, and it’s storytelling. Before I was helping other people tell their stories for television, and now I am helping tell plants’ stories and my ancestors’ stories.

What does the work look like day-to-day right now?

Right now it is “quiet season!” So there’s a lot of grant writing and preparations for spring, summer, and fall, when we lead a lot of public programming.

I was walking around in my garden yesterday, and was just so excited to see anise hyssop and mountain mint and monarda coming through the soil in the springtime. The serviceberry or shadbush trees, Amelanchier spp., are about to bloom.

A shadbush or downy serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) tree in bloom. Photo by Blanca Begert.

There’s a really rich history between the Lenape community and serviceberry. When the shadbush blooms, it has indicated to Lenape communities that the shad are running upstream to spawn. Lenape people have developed this knowledge over centuries, and it's indicated the change of seasons as well as what's happening with wildlife, which is pretty incredible.

Later in the summer, it’s pokeweed season. Pokeweed is called Chàkinkwèm in the Lenape language, and it’s called poke-weed by most people, but it really is an incredible plant.

It’s incredibly poisonous, please do not eat this! But we actually led a class last summer called Painting with Pokeweed where we foraged for Chàkinkwèm berries and we made an ink and painted with it.

Mahchikpi or pawpaw (Asimina triloba) fruit. Photo by Michael Stewart.

And then as we get later into the year, there’s pawpaws. The Lenape word for pawpaw is Mahchikpi. I actually saw my first Mahchikpi fruit at BBG! Mahchikpi are the largest fruit native to North America, and they grow right here, which is surprising to most people who try it because they taste incredibly tropical.

Indigenous people have made ropes and strings from the bark of Mahchikpi trees. And we’ve also ground the seeds into a powder to prevent head lice.

I’ve loved reading the plant stories on your website. How are you piecing them together?

I did not grow up with this knowledge. It’s knowledge that is being shared with me by relatives, members of our Tribal communities, and good old-fashioned Google. They’re based on relationships that I’ve built. This should be common knowledge, but because of colonization, because of capitalism, it isn’t, and we’re working to change that.

I took a landscape architecture class in college, and we started in Italy, and then we moved to France, and then we moved to England, and then we moved to gardens in the U.S. And that was it, there was nothing else. So it’s a white European perspective that has controlled the narrative of what a garden should look like.

The word Hakihakàn translates to garden or farm because there is no clear English translation. The dominant view is that a garden and a farm are two different things, but 600 years ago there were edible ecosystems everywhere on this continent.

So it’s critical that we show everyone, and particularly BIPOC communities, that there’s so much more to the environment, and to landscape history, than Italy, France, England, colonial U.S. And there are a lot of other people doing this work besides NRFF. Chenae Bullock, who has worked with BBG; Soul Fire Farm, Abra Lee, Rowen White, Linda Black Elk, Sean Sherman, and so many more people.

This past spring, we collaborated with our local Tribal communities for a chestnut tree blessing. The only known mature American chestnut tree in the state of Delaware was recently identified.

Indigenous people cultivated the landscape around chestnut trees to make sure that they flourished. There’s a saying that a squirrel could go from Georgia to Maine without touching the ground, and that’s because these trees were so cared for, not only for food but because the chestnuts were used to attract deer and other game.

We gathered after the blessing to eat some food and reflect on the experience. And somebody asked about what the flowers looked like. And I was talking about how it was described as looking like a cloud of white—they have white flowers, and they were so prevalent, and it just stretched as far as the eye can see.

The word for chestnut in the Lenape language is Ohpemenshee. And one of the people who’s working on revitalizing the Nanticoke language, who’s on our board, said, Well, it’s interesting that you say that, because the root of the word Ohpemenshee actually means “white.”

So in bringing people together and being in community, it’s amazing the conversations that can happen, and the learning that can happen.

We often hear the story of chestnut blight, that massive loss in the landscape, in a purely ecological context, without talking about the people who shaped these ecosystems and relied on these plants. Speaking of Robin Wall Kimmerer—that’s something she really addresses in her writing on ash trees, for example.

Yes! It was a reunion with this tree. And it is unwell, it has the chestnut blight. But it is surviving. So it was powerful for us to be in community with it, but also to recognize it, to recognize the fight that it’s going through. Our local Indigenous communities survived by hiding in plain sight. And this tree did the exact same thing. It’s still here, and we’re still here, and we are still in relationship with each other.

There are a lot of people who are surprised to learn that there are still Native American people in Delaware. In New York City as well, and across the East Coast, our history has intentionally been erased. But we are very much still here.

The Nanticoke language hasn’t been spoken in over 150 years, since 1856. So while the work that’s been done within language revitalization is its own project, our work is also interrelated. And being able to identify these plants in their first languages is both grounding and exciting. It’s a realignment.

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Image, top of page: Blanca Begert