Seed Rematriation; The seeds are coming home to us

The seeds are coming home to us.  


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.


The Indigenous Seedkeepers network is proud to be one of many who are assisting in this healing pathway of bringing our traditional seeds home from that many places they are waiting for us, outside our communities.  


There is a healing and hopeful trend that is emerging at the cutting edge of the indigenous food/seed sovereignty movement and the social justice movement, which is in the Rematriation of Seeds. We are all familiar with the journey for the repatriation of cultural property within indigenous communities.  Within native communities, we are very familiar with the word Repatriation, which is the return of treasures, ancestral remains and sacred objects of cultural heritage to their communities of origin and their descendants. The displaced cultural property items are physical artifacts that were taken from this place and people of origin usually in an act of theft, whether in the context of imperialism, colonialism or war.  The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Public Law 101-601; 25 U.S.C. 3001-3013) describes the rights of Native American lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations with respect to the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, referred to collectively in the statute as cultural items, with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation.


In the indigenous seed sovereignty movement, we have begun to use the word “Rematriation” as it relates to bringing these seeds home again.  In many communities, including my own Mohawk tradition, the responsibility of caring for the seeds over the generations is ultimately within the women’s realm.  Both men and women farm and plant seeds, but their care and stewardship are part of the women’s bundle of responsibility. So the word “rematriation” reflects the restoration of the feminine seeds back into the communities of origin. The Indigenous concept of Rematriation refers to reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, instead of the more Patriarchally associated Repatriation. It simply means back to Mother Earth, a return to our origins, to life and co-creation, rather than Patriarchal destruction and colonization, a reclamation of germination, of the life-giving force of the Divine Female.


There is powerful healing work of reconciliation when we work cross-culturally to bring these seeds home to their communities of origin.  We are working within the Indigenous SeedKeepers Network 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.


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.  


We gathered for 2 days at the Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm in Decorah Iowa on July 23rd and 24th, 2018.  18 participants from communities based in the Northeast and Upper Midwest convened to discuss protocols and guidelines for Seed Rematriation, as well as visited the 25 seed crop varieties in the field that are being regenerated for rematriation this fall.  It was a very heartfelt gathering, where we shared many ideas and thoughts and reflections on this process of Seed Rematriation. Seed Rematriation is deep and multi-layered, encompassing spiritual, emotional, practical, scientific, and legal and political realms.  As we carry these sacred bundles of our seed relatives home to their mother communities, we re-awaken time-honored relationships once again. When we come together to cultivate the Earth and sing our seed songs and prayers on behalf of future generations, we embody the great generosity and benevolence of our own beloved Mother Earth.

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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.


This year we are rematriating seeds back to communities of the following tribes: Mohawk, Seneca and other Haudenosaunee, Odawa, Ojibwe, Taos Pueblo, Cherokee, Arikara, Mandan, Hidatsa, Stockbridge Munsee, Pawnee, Kickapoo, and Narragansett.  


We are seeking continuing support and funding to continue this collaborative project into future seasons, and assist other groups and communities in this work.  ISKN is part of an advisory group for seed rematriations that are happening with the University of Michigan, Minnesota Museum of Science, UW- Madison, and potentially the Field Museum.


ISKN will be hosting Seed Rematriation listening sessions as a part of this focus group and development of this working document at two upcoming events, both sponsored by NAFSA.  First, we will be gathering at the Intertribal Food Sovereignty Summit on August 21-24, 2018; hosted by both the Narragansett and Mashantucket tribes. You can learn more and register for this event by following this link: Intertribal Food Sovereignty Summit  

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We will also be hosting another Seed Rematriation listening session, as well as bringing a sacred bundle of seeds home to the Taos Pueblo at the Southwest Food Summit, hosted at Taos Pueblo on October 26 and 27th, 2018.  You can learn more at the NAFSA website as the event planning evolves.

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For those of you who may be interested in joining the Indigenous Seedkeepers monthly working group calls, follow this form to be placed on our email list.  


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. Today we worked together to greet acknowledge the path ahead to uphold our responsibilities to our ancestors, our children and all our relations. I am thankful to have met so many amazing indigenous farmers and gardeners who are joining this seed revolution and bringing our seeds home.  Pawnee seedkeepers bringing home seeds to ancestral soil, working hand in hand with settler descendants in a grand act of reconciliation to keep the seeds alive; Ponca farmers planting red corn in ancestral fields for the first time in 167 years since relocation; Mohawk farmers working in collaboration with farmers of many settler descendants to rematriate traditional seeds to ancestral farming grounds; heirloom beans and corn emerging from museums and seed bank vaults to the loving and calloused hands of native peoples, who see these seeds and foods as treasured relatives.


Knowing that our hearts beat in promise to carry this bundle of seed gifts to share with the world, these seeds help us to hydrate the stories that make up the constellation of who we are. May we continue to be there for these seeds, as we turn our prayers into actions for this new day.  Each one of us reading this has the ancient and cellular memory of being a seedkeeper; the communities we descend are resilient and tenacious survivors. Just like our seeds, we have overcome so much adversity.


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