The Long Way Home; Seed Rematriation at Taos Pueblo

Article written by Rowen White 
Photos provided by Dan Cornelius, Nicole Yanes, Elizabeth Hoover, Clayton Brascoupe

The seeds are coming home to us.  

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Across Turtle Island, there is a growing intergenerational movement of  indigenous people proud to carry the message of the grand rematriation of seeds and foods back into our indigenous communities.  Some having been missing from our communities for centuries; carried on long journeys in smokey buckskin pouches, upon the necks of peoples who were forced to relocate from the land of their births, their ancestral grounds.  Generations later, these seeds are now coming back home; from the vaults of public institutions, seed banks, universities, seedkeeper collections and some laying upon dusty pantry shelves of foresighted elders, seeds patiently sleeping and dreaming. Seeds waiting for loving hands to patiently place them into welcoming soil once more so that they can continue to fulfill their original agreement to help feed the people.

This past weekend, as part of the closing circle of the Southwest Intertribal Food Summit, hosted by NAFSA, TCEDC, Red Willow Farm and Taos Pueblo,  precious Taos Pueblo squash seeds were safely gifted back into the loving care of elders and farmers here in this beautiful Pueblo village. Under beautiful bright sunshine and glistening snow upon the mountains above Taos Pueblo we feasted to honor the indigenous foods, the ancestral knowledge of our food ways and our seeds as a part of the SW Intertribal Food Summit. Indigenous Seedkeepers Network had the honor to assist and facilitate in the Seed Rematriation of an old landrace variety of Taos Pueblo squash that had been away from this community for decades in the Seed Savers Exchange Seed bank.

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This reunion was deeply symbolic, incredibly emotional, and ultimately genuinely healing.  It was a deeply healing and emotional welcoming home circle, as the Governor of the Taos Pueblo and elder farmers like Henrietta Gomez received the gift of the first harvest of seeds.  They pledged their renewed commitment to multiply these seeds for future generations and expressed deep heartfelt joy that these seeds were coming home to this land where they co-evolved since beyond living memory. The women caressing the squash like a baby, tears glistening in their eyes, there is so much love on this path to restore our relations to the foods of our ancestors. The squash and a bundle of seeds for planting was welcomed back into the community like a long lost relative, to many tears, hugs, and deep appreciation.  The farmers at Taos Pueblo and Red Willow are already excited to think about spring planting, and sharing the abundance of these seeds within their community.

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This past year, ISKN has initiated a relationship with one of the largest public access heritage seed banks in the world, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE).   Working cooperatively with SSE, we identified that there are hundreds ( potentially thousands) of varieties within their seed vault collection, that have origins within tribal communities within North America.  Over the winter of 2018, we came into an agreement between NAFSA and SSE to collaborate on a Seed Rematriation project, where we would sponsor the rematriation process of initially 25 native varieties of corn, beans and squash back to tribal communities.  As a part of this process, we are working with a focus group of native farmers and seedkeepers, as well as other stakeholders from similar seed rematriation projects happening with regional seedbanks, museums and universities, to develop a shared action framework and best practices guideline document for other communities wishing to engage in the Seed Rematriation process.  

There is powerful healing work of reconciliation when we work cross-culturally to bring these seeds home to their communities of origin.   Indigenous SeedKeepers Network is working to assist communities who are working towards Rematriation of their precious seed relatives.  We are working cross culturally with many stakeholders, including native farmers and gardeners and representatives from tribal communities, institutions and organizations who have such seed collections, and also other people who can help facilitate and lay out the needed framework to assist in these seeds finding their way home. We are working towards establishing the protocols and guidelines in this complex and healing work of seed reconciliation.  There are deeply embedded cultural and spiritual aspects of these work, as well as legal and political aspects that directly address seed justice.

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Working collaboratively with Seed Savers Exchange has been very inspirational, and mutually beneficial.  As a non-native organization, they have had incredible respect and willingness to allow native leadership in this process, and are doing internal work on educating staff as well as adopting this process to inform future community engagement. They are setting a wonderful precedent for other seedbanks and non-profit organizations to work respectfully and collaboratively with native communities in the process of reclamation of traditional seeds.  It has been a very insightful process for all involved. Seed Savers Exchange has been willing to share about their comprehensive seed banking methods with seedkeepers from native communities who wish to establish seed banks/libraries from their own communities, as well as share protocols and methods for seed history and cultural memory documentation, as well as seed bank database and critical methods for seed storage. ISKN and our circle of seedkeepers have helped inform this organization on how we view these seeds as part of our cosmology, and offer a wider perspective outside the western scientific view of seeds, as well as inform them of how to move forward in culturally appropriate ways to honor not only the seeds but the communities of origin as well.  There has been a cultivation of mutual respect and benefit, as well as building trust to ensure that our beloved and sacred traditional seeds are returned to our communities with honor and dignity.

Indigenous Seedkeepers Network has been working together in a collaboration with many people and organizations to reunite native seeds back into tribal communities of origin.

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Part of this rematration path, of finding our seed relatives and carrying them home, is reawakening the intertwined harmonies of seedsongs of our ancestors, ourselves and those yet to come. Whatever it takes, we must continue to carry our ancestors greatness into tomorrow, and our seeds are one of their precious gifts for us in this day… Inside those seeds, Our ancestors prayers are still protecting us.

Our voices come together with theirs as we make the needed prayers for those yet to come. As we welcome the seeds home, we step into each day in ways that make our ancestors proud, may those songs of resilience that course through our blood and bones give us the strength to do what needs to be done to feed the children.

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Today we worked together to acknowledge the path ahead to uphold our responsibilities to our ancestors, our children and all our relations. Thankful to all the actions and prayers and forces, seen and unseen, that made this seed Rematriation possible. We are all humbled to bear witness to the healing that is happening in our native communities, one seed at a time.

There will be 19 more seed rematriations this fall with a diversity of Native communities, and we hope to continue this project for seasons to come.  

The Seeds are coming home to us.  They are helping us to heal.

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