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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Who We Are
Seeds are a vibrant and vital foundation for food sovereignty, and are the basis for a sustainable, healthy agriculture. We understand that seeds are our precious collective inheritance and it is our responsibility to care for the seeds as part of our responsibility to feed and nourish ourselves and future generations.
The mission of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network is to nourish and assist the growing Seed Sovereignty Movement across Turtle Island ( North America). As a national network, we leverage resources and cultivate solidarity and communication within the matrix of regional grass-roots tribal seed sovereignty projects. We accomplish this mission by providing educational resources, mentorship training, outreach and advocacy support on seed policy issues, and organizing national and regional events and convenings to connect many communities who are engaging in this vital work. We aim to create a collaborative framework and declaration for ethical seed stewardship and indigenous seed guidelines for tribal communities to guide them as they protect their seeds from patenting and bio-piracy. We support the creation of solutions oriented programs for adaptive resilient seed systems within tribal communities to enhance the creative capacity to continue to evolve as the face of our Mother Earth changes.
ISKN is a shade tree of support to the essential work of regional and tribal seed initiatives , as we offer a diverse array of resources aimed at nourishing and supporting a vibrant indigenous seed movement, as a compliment to the growing Food Sovereignty movement within Indian country. In honor of the grand lineage of Seedkeepers who have faithfully passed down seeds for our nourishment, we make restored commitment to care for these precious seeds for those yet to come.
One seed has the ability to multiply exponentially into hundreds and eventually thousands.
We are working with tribal communities in collaboration with other non-profit organizations to revitalize native food systems as well as the rich cultural knowledge and practices that go with traditional food ways.
We have organized and hosted numerous Indigenous Seed Keeper trainings, including a large Indigenous Seed Keeper Summit in May of 2014, where we had over 30 participants from many tribal communities all over the country, including Dakota, Lakota, Anishinaabe, Oneida, and Chippewa and Umatilla nations. The Seed Keepers trainings are focused on empowering and equipping indigenous leaders with the tools and knowledge on how to re-integrate seed stewardship back into their communities and create sustainable projects and programs that focus on tribal seed sovereignty. We offer facilitation and mentorship, but aim to craft the trainings so that they are highlighting the inherant leaders and mentors that already exist in these communities, and bring people together to engage in powerful dialogue about the restoration of traditional food and seedways.
In an indigenous ecology of education, we combine practical hands on skillbuilding with thoughtful conversations around policy, health and healing, cultural memory, and indigenous economies.
The resilience of indigenous communities in amazing, as we move to a place of renewal, restoration, and abundance with our health and culture. Re-establishing ancient relationships in our hearts and minds. There are so many positive implications of this Seed Keeper gathering in relation to agricultural development, cultural renewal, and collective health goals within the many tribal nations that were represented.
Through our mentorship and leadership trainings, we aim to see the number of confident seed stewards within tribal communities growing exponentially. Our project coordinator and several of our collaborating partners have been working within indigenous communities to identify places where we can strengthen the resources needs to support seed sovereignty efforts. Traditional and regionally adapted seeds are at the foundation of any truly durable and sustainable food sovereignty program. By nourishing and supporting the development and growth of Seed Sovereignty projects, this project will assist communities in increasing access to regionally adapted traditional seeds. This has impact on the success and sustainability of local Food Sovereignty projects, which will have great impacts on the overall health and sustainability of indigenous food systems. The result is increased Seed Security in tribal communities, which has a direct impact on sustained Food Sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples.
Many of these traditional, culturally appropriate food crop varieties are not commercially available. Developing resources that support in-situ stewardship of these varieties within their communities of origin is a fundamental aspect to ensure these foods remain accessible to Indigenous Peoples. These varieties are a fundamental aspect of success in a local food program, for they are adapted to bioregional climate conditions over many generations. Access to traditional seed varieties ensures abundant harvests in regions with marginal resources. Seed stewardship is a fundamental tool for communities who face the consequences of climate change, increasing the creative capacity of indigenous food systems to evolve as our Mother Earth changes.
Developing indigenous seed systems has direct impact on the health of local food economies. Our forthcoming training publication entitled “Seed Sovereignty Assessment Toolkit” includes guidelines and support in creating regenerative economic models that support seed stewardship initiatives. Well maintained seeds only increase in value, and are a rich form of sustainable agricultural wealth. A section of our publication outlines how Seed Sovereignty programs can be woven into value added food programs to enhance sustainable and ethical economic development within tribal communities, using real community case studies. In this publication, we will illuminate strategies on how to create democratic strategies for long term seed stewardship and maintenance, which increases seed security and tribal control over collective seed resources. In the age of biotechnology and appropriation of genetic resources, it is essential for tribal communities to retain control over their seeds.
We have seen a global movement ( with organizations like Navdanya and La Via Campesina) working towards creating a collaborative framework, uniting the efforts of local and regional communities to strengthen the overall movement and to leverage resources that are not immediately available for smaller community initiatives. It is a critical time for the Indigenous SeedKeepers network to emerge in such leadership in Turtle Island ( North America) to help communities steward, protect, share and sustain their precious seed resources. ISKN works with a focus group/advisory council of over a dozen seedkeepers from a wide range of tribal communities across Turtle Island. This council will be a part of the listening and feedback sessions, to offer support and insight into how we can continue to create outreach and educational program that is a direct representation of the native people we serve. This advisory council is comprised of all indigenous farmers and gardens and food justice leaders.
An additional aspect of our long term vision is to provide assistance, support and detailed protocol for communities who are rematriating sacred ancestral seeds from public institutions, such as universities, museums and public access seed banks. Many communities are embarking on the path to reclaim heritage seeds once lost to their own communities during the era of colonization and acculturation. A critical aspect of revitalizing seed systems is identifying places where ancestral seeds still exist, and help carry them home in ways that are in alignment with their cultural protocols.
In our mentorship and educational resources, we will illuminate strategies on how to how to create democratic strategies for long term seed stewardship and maintenance, which increases seed security and tribal control over collective seed resources. In the age of biotechnology and appropriation of genetic resources, it is essential for tribal communities to retain control over their seeds. The result is increased seed security in tribal communities, which has a direct impact on sustained food sovereignty for native peoples.
The foundation of our work is in outreach, education and community organizing. Like the parable “ give a man a fish and you can feed him for a day, teach him to fish and you can feed him for a lifetime,” we seek to teach and empower through peer-to-peer mentorship training, which we bring directly into the communities we work with. Cultivating a network of community members, we empower them in their leadership and seed stewardship skills to create and sustain community seed intiatives and project, many of which will have a regenerative economic impact on the local food system.
A central focus to our educational programming is intergenerational transmission and mentorship. Seed work is intergenerational, as sacred traditional seeds are passed down from one generation as a precious collective inheritance. We work with a full spectrum of participants from all age groups, and we have a committment to serving our youth in learning the vital skills of seed stewardship and to gain more seed literacy. Many of our curriculum resources are aimed to assist school garden and natural science programs, and we are developing capacity to implement seed stewardship internship programs, which will offer in depth and hands on training for aspiring young seed stewards within a circle of participating community seed initiatives and farms.
In addition, at our SeedKeeper trainings and Intertribal Seed Summit, we have a youth component and a youth track of learning, which engages young people to learn, and also empowers previous mentees to serve in a teaching and leadership position. We have presence and programs we offer with the IAC Youth in Agriculture Leadership Summits, to inspire the next generation of seed stewards.
Long term outcomes are:
- Biennial Intertribal Indigenous Seed Summits
- A robust website with a virtual library of downloadable Seed
- Stewardship Resources and templates
- Seed Sovereignty Assessment Booklet and Survey/ Toolkit
- Policy, Advocacy and Legal support for Indigenous Seed Protection initiatives
- Curriculum Development for Seed Mentorship Programs
(intergenerational, with a youth component)
- Mentorship ( Train the Teachers) Trainings
- Flow Funding: Small Regranting for Tribal Communities Seed Sovereignty Initiatives
- Membership directory and Yearbook of Participating Community Seed Initiatives