Restoring Ancestral Seeds To Indigenous Communities

June 17, 2021

Restoring Ancestral Seeds To Indigenous Communities

Through the process of seed rematriation, Indigenous communities restore relationships with their ancestral seeds.

Illustration by CLAIRE GUNN

About the Artwork ↑
This illustration depicts the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. This triad is a cornerstone of Indigenous agriculture, and when planted close together, these crops benefit from each other. Beans provide essential nutrients, including nitrogen, to the soil, while corn offers a pole for the beans to climb, and squash shades the ground and protects the other sisters against pests.

Editor’s Note: This story is published in The History Issue of Life & Thyme Post, our exclusive newspaper for Life & Thyme members. Get your copy.

Most conversations about food tend to travel along a horizontal plane, spanning the distance from farm to table. But in continuing the work toward a more just food system, we also must travel vertically — deep into the soil. We need to talk about seeds and, in doing so, some of us need to do less talking and more listening. 

Shiloh Maples, who is affiliated with the Ojibwe and Odawa tribes as part of the larger Anishinaabe community and is based in Southeast Michigan, acts as Upper Midwest regional coordinator for the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, a national program organized by the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. Her work is centered on seeds as a core element of food sovereignty for Indigenous communities across the United States.

In conversation with Maples, it is evident that the language often used in discussions about food is inadequate or problematic — including the phrase “food system.” 

“We’re trying to move away from the language of ‘food system’ because it’s very sterile,” says Maples. “It gets at the relationships between sectors, but not all the relationships that really exist.” 

Instead, Maples prefers terms like “relational foodways,” which she learned from Rowen White, a seedkeeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. White collaborates with Maples through the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network and has played a fundamental role in developing a new lexicon that addresses some of the foodways issues that uniquely affect Indigenous communities. In many instances, White advocates for modifying terms with which we are already familiar to shift the focus from food to seeds — food security to seed security, food sovereignty to seed sovereignty — highlighting the importance of seeds in traditional Indigenous foodways. Almost all of the terms in this lexicon can be connected to one concept in particular: seed rematriation.

Seed rematriation is a process through which seeds are returned to their place of origin. However, this definition presents a purely practical perspective of the process that diminishes the magnitude of the meaningful work that White, Maples, and countless other Native American people have undertaken. 

The seed rematriation movement is led by Indigenous women, who traditionally act as the caretakers of seeds, ensuring they are healthy from one season to the next. There is a maternal quality to seed stewardship that exists in the relationship between the seedkeeper and the seed, as in the way the seedkeeper guarantees family members are fed from generation to generation. The choice of the created term “rematriation,” rather than the common term “repatriation,” to describe this process emphasizes the role of women as seedkeepers and deviates from the patriarchal cultures that allow the ownership of seeds. When a seed is rematriated, it is not owned by its community of origin; rather, it re-enters into a reciprocal relationship with that community. 

“As many varieties of these crops exist, so do the variety of traditional stories and cultures surrounding them,” says Maples. “In that way, the practices of seedkeepers also make them historians and cultural memory-keepers, passing on the stories of how Indigenous peoples and their plant kin have evolved through millennia together on this shared landmass.” 

For a non-Indigenous person to begin to understand the importance of seed rematriation, they must first try to comprehend the role of seeds in Indigenous cultures.

“Our seeds are our relatives,” Maples explains. “They’re living beings, so we need to treat them with the utmost respect.” 

While different Indigenous communities have different ways of referring to seeds — as relatives, ancestors, kin or otherwise — the belief that these seeds are alive and intimately linked with their own lives is a common cultural thread, which is fundamentally opposed to how Western culture views seeds. 

“Anishinaabe agricultural practices include cultivating food forests, diverse annual crops in guild systems, or what some folks refer to as ‘companion planting.’ One of the most well-known of these guilds is the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash,” says Maples, describing how her community considers themselves in relationship to certain seeds. 

“The Three Sisters garden embodies interdependence. When planted close together, these sisters offer their unique gifts to the group. Corn, the oldest sister, roots herself steadily into the soil and provides a tall pole for beans to climb,” Maples explains. “Bean, the middle sister, climbs ambitiously while fixing essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, into the soil — making those nutrients more available to the group. Meanwhile, little sister, squash, helps retain soil moisture by shading the ground while her broad leaves and her prickly vines help guard the guild against pests. In their interdependence, the Three Sisters show when we are able to share our individual gifts with the larger community, we all thrive.”

Noah Schlager, in his role as conservation program manager at Native Seeds/SEARCH — a nonprofit organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that conserves, sells and donates heirloom seeds in the interest of preserving seed biodiversity and promoting food security — has experienced firsthand the contrast between Indigenous and Western seed-saving approaches. 

“I think of seeds as populations,” says Schlager, who identifies as “a mixed Mvskoke-Creek person with Alabamo, Catawba, Cheraw, Jewish, Black and Anglo ancestry.” “A Western model treats seeds as inventory, which has real consequences. It’s such a different way emotionally and spiritually to treat seeds as living beings.” 

When Maples and Schlager talk about seeds, the terms relationship, reciprocity, responsibility and respect surface repeatedly. 

“Nature, in so many ways, shows us reciprocity is fundamental to all of our survival and to being in the right relationship with each other,” says Maples. “It might look different for various people in various cultures, but it’s important to have some amount of respect and reverence for the seeds.” 

“Some of our oldest teachings throughout many Indigenous cultures are: if we take care of the seeds, they take care of us,” she adds. “We have to remember what our role and responsibility is to the seeds to uphold our part of that agreement.” 

Schlager affirms that Indigenous people are singularly capable of caring for their seeds through growing and saving them from one season to the next based on practices rooted in “traditional ecological knowledge” that has been “built off thousands of years of relationships between a people and that variety.” 

The need for seed rematriation was born of a forced rupture in these relationships due to colonization in North America beginning around the 16th century and, over the following centuries, repeated separations caused by a variety of factors ranging from warfare to the development of industrial agriculture. 

“One of the first things colonizationists aimed to do was control food, because that’s how you control people,” Schlager explains. “That’s the quickest way that you starve people or make them dependent. Native people were very quickly enslaved by European people through the destruction of fields and corn and controlling seeds. You have all these examples where our food and seeds and animal relatives we depend upon both for our livelihood and as an essential part of our identity are used in an oppressive system.” 

Under these conditions and as a result of being displaced from their ancestral lands, it was extremely difficult, or sometimes impossible, for Indigenous people to save their seeds from destruction or theft. As a result, the seeds of some Indigenous nations are believed to have been lost forever. However, Schlager’s work and the work of those engaged in seed rematriation is not concentrated on confirming or cataloguing these losses. 

“In my community — Mvskoke — there are many corn and bean varieties that are historically documented that are no longer around in our community (and may be completely gone),” says Schlager. “I don’t know that anyone has done a comprehensive report on the lost varieties remembered by elders. [I’m] just trying to focus on preventing any more from being lost.”

Some seeds have survived centuries of separation and poor caretaking, but still need to be reunited with their communities of origin. Maples explains, “Anthropologists and archeologists over past decades have gone into communities of color and brought these seeds back and held them within institutions. The communities of origin may not have access to those seeds any more.” 

Schlager observes that even Native Seeds/SEARCH, which collaborates with Native American communities, has not rematriated many of the seeds within its collection, pointing out, “The whole lot of Tohono O’odham seeds needs to be returned, including several varieties of O’odham 60-day corn, tepary beans, and Ha:l squashes.”

For Native people, the consequences of the separation from their seeds and the inability to maintain traditions that rely on them are acutely felt. “It can be deeply unsettling or harmful for communities — socially, spiritually, physically, in a lot of ways — to be separated from our cultural foodways, and part of that is from our seeds,” says Maples.

For some Indigenous people, it is not only a question of having access to their seeds — which feature prominently in many traditional meals and ceremonies — but also a sense of spiritual or familial duty to make sure these ancestral seeds are properly cared for. 

Many institutions — including museums, seed vaults, and for-profit seed companies — are founded on Western cultural values that consider seeds as inventory. Guided by only the principles of conservation or capitalism, these institutions rarely follow traditional Indigenous seed-saving practices, which determine how often the seeds are grown, how seed biodiversity is maintained, and how the story of the seed (including its place of origin, community of origin, associated cultural traditions, and ideal growing conditions) is passed along to future seedkeepers.

“Historically, there were practices of people coming together and putting all their seeds in a basket and mixing them up and everyone taking out the equivalent of what they put in so everyone is sort of sharing their genetics that way,” Schlager explains. “Obviously, the language wasn’t ‘genetics,’ but there’s an understanding of heritage and of doing these things to keep the seeds fresh and vital.” 

Western institutions, however, tend to keep their seeds isolated and inactive in storage (sometimes for decades at a time), and when they do grow their seeds, they do so on narrow plots of land, which is detrimental to the wellbeing of the seeds. “If you keep growing small numbers, you get inbred populations, which don’t have that vigor,” remarks Schlager.

Institutional mistreatment of Indigenous seeds is not only harmful to the seed, but to their communities of origin. “It’s really disheartening to think our seed relatives are stored away for generations,” says Maples. “Their purpose is to grow and produce fruit and flower and feed us. They can’t fulfill their purpose if they’re in a box somewhere.”

“It becomes just about a number,” Schlager says of the Western perspective of seed conservation, which tends to prioritize the quantity, rather than the quality, of the seeds. These institutions “put their own interests above the long-term health of the seeds. They’re not thinking about the longview — about seven generations ahead. They’re thinking about the next year and how much money they’re going to make.” 

“So much of Western agriculture has been about capitalism and about accumulation of wealth and land and power and control over individuals,” Schlager continues. “Indigenous agriculture is inherently a more cooperative model. There’s a lot more focus on food and feeding people.” 

In his role at Native Seeds/SEARCH, Schlager aims to push seed conservationists to “refocus on the seeds as populations that we need to keep healthy, not just inventory or a genetic library.” 

This work is related to, but not synonymous with, the work of seed rematriation. He points out that through Native Seeds/SEARCH, “If you’re a Native person, you can get up to 10 packets of seed for free every year. But that’s not rematriation; it’s just a service. Seed rematriation is about being brought back into the community.” 

For Schlager, this means “seeds are thriving and growing and have people who are caring for them and maintaining the traditional ways of keeping them healthy and getting food from them and producing recipes that feed the people and that bring them fully into daily life.” 

Maples offers an example of a seed rematriation that is truly successful by these standards: “Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians was recently reunited with one of their corn relatives, Bear Island Flint. Their tribally-run farm has been growing this out for the last couple of years. They now have enough seed to start making hominy to share with their community.” 

She explains that this farm has begun providing fresh food boxes containing their produce and value-added goods (including hominy and maple syrup) to community members since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the global health crisis, the work of seed rematriation has gained a new sense of urgency. Food security for Native American communities has been imperiled ever since colonists first set foot on the North American continent and, for centuries, Native people have been disproportionately affected by health problems linked to reduced accessibility to healthy foods, including ingredients that reflect their cultural culinary traditions. The pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and injustices that impact Native foodways, further emphasizing the importance of seed sovereignty. 

The strains on the food supply chain that we have experienced over the last year have made it evident just how deeply disconnected we are from our food sources — starting with the seeds that feed us. Although non-Indigenous people cannot relate to seeds in the same way Indigenous people do and cannot directly participate in seed rematriation, all of us can reevaluate our relationship to seeds. 

“We don’t want you to try to appropriate or profit from our knowledge and practices, but I think there’s a way you can appreciate the wisdom of our communities, learn from them, and try to incorporate some of that into your life,” says Maples.

The next time you eat a tomato or plant a bean in your garden, take a moment to think about the origin of that seed, about who harvested it, and the soil in which that plant grew. Whether it is hybrid or heirloom, every seed has a story. Consider what your role is in that story. 

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