Indigenous Seed Acknowledgements, Present & Future

I just attended the virtual Slow Seed Summit, a project of Slow Food USA. (They’re a great organization doing important work, with a goal of “good, clean and fair food for all” — please check them out.) It was an excellent, educational event, highlighting the work of many seed stewards who are safeguarding one of our most precious resources on the planet. I especially appreciated all the news, ideas, current projects, and stories that were shared — and how they highlighted the voices of elders, Indigenous people, and African and African-American seedkeepers.

At the end, they had an open session. I decided to speak up about something that has bothered me about the mainstream seed movement for years: acknowledging Indigenous origins of seeds. (I also mentioned this in my recent piece on seed rematriation, published in Red Rising Magazine.) I wanted to share my comment here, in case anyone else is also interested in this issue.

“A request I’d like to put out there, as an Indigenous person and seedkeeper:

Please acknowledge the Indigenous origins of any seeds you are stewarding. When you share these seeds, please share the name of the people/tribe/nation where your seeds originated. Too many organizations that work to preserve heirloom seeds don’t acknowledge those seeds’ Indigenous origins. (For instance, many heirloom seed catalogs give the impression, in their descriptions, that tomatoes are from Europe.)

Also, when sharing these seeds, please refer to the Indigenous people who they are from in the PRESENT tense — even if you don’t think we exist any more, and even if you don’t think that we grow them any more. (ie, say “X Tribe grows these seeds” — not “X Tribe used to grow them”). This leaves open the possibility of our present and future relationship with our seeds.

All the speakers at this conference done an excellent job of this, which is such a refreshing change. However, our larger seed movement often uses language that erases Indigenous people and seed origins.

Thank you for considering this request.”

Update:

After I said this, there were a couple comments from attendees about how it can be difficult to correctly credit the origins of certain seeds, in situations where multiple tribes/Indigenous Nations claimed the seeds as their own. This isn’t really what I was talking about. If you run into this problem, it means that you are trying to acknowledge the origins of the seeds you steward — which is exactly what I am hoping everyone will do. The organizations/people I was referring to are not trying; they publish seed catalogues that say their tomatoes originated in Russia, or they say that their corn was developed in Italy, without giving any credit to the Turtle Islanders who first developed these crops.

I don’t have all the answers here, I can’t speak for anyone besides myself, and I am certainly no authority on the right way to do this. But what I wish I had seen, as a young person browsing through seed catalogs, talking to seedkeepers, and learning about crop origins, is an honest accounting for where the seeds originally came from.

What do you do if you’re not sure which tribes/Indigenous people first grew the seeds you currently steward? Keep researching — and in the meantime, make sure you pass on as much information as you currently have about the geographic origins of your crop. (Even if you can only point to the continent of origin, please give credit where credit is due. For example, I wish more people knew that black-eyed peas originated in Africa — too many people think they’re from the Americas.)

What do you do if the seeds you steward have multiple origins? (For instance, a cowpea that originated in Africa, and was developed into a regionally-adapted variety of black-eyed pea somewhere else, or a Native American bean that an immigrant community has grown for centuries?) Personally, I would like to see stories of all the groups of people who have worked with, saved, and passed along a seed honored and acknowledged when we talk about, or share, our seeds.

What do you do if multiple groups claim that the seeds you steward originated with their community? Again, I am not an authority on this — but if it was me, I would pass along both origin stories whenever you share your seeds. Unless you can personally trace the lineage of the exact seeds you steward back to a particular tribal community of origin with 100% certainty, I would not attempt to judge which community might be “correct” when claiming the seeds were originally theirs. I would also be open to the possibility that multiple origin stories for a single seed could be true.

A story to illustrate that last point:

A few years ago, I met a seedkeeper from Anishinaabe territory who had been taking care of a rare corn variety. He told me it was called Bear Island Flint Corn. I’d never heard the name before, but as soon as I saw it, I knew this corn. It was a multicolored corn with a very particular color palette. Some kernels had an unusual, distinctive, familiar pattern of stripes. It looked exactly like the corn I had been stewarding. I must have asked him at least 4 times, “Are you sure this isn’t Mandan Bride corn?” He was very polite, and allowed me to ask a lot of questions about his corn. Not only did it look identical to what I had, but the two types had some other important traits in common: 85-90 days to maturity, and a reputation as a superior, high-protein flour corn. I couldn’t identify any differences between the two corns, besides the geographic origins.

Bear Island Flint Corn has a long historical relationship with Anishinaabe people in Michigan. And Mandan Bride Corn has a long historical relationship with the Mandan people in North Dakota. Are they the same corn? Maybe yes — people have been trading and sharing seeds for a long time. But also, definitely no — even if DNA tests were to show that these 2 corn varieties were totally identical, the exact seeds that my friends carries have deep roots in Anishinaabe communities and the soil of the Great Lakes region, and the exact ones that I carry are just as deeply connected to Mandan people and the northern reaches of the Missouri River. The seeds, and their histories, are not interchangeable.

I realize that this story — two known, definite origins for what may (or may not) possibly be one type of corn — is not exactly the same situation as the conundrum that the seedkeepers at the conference posed. But I share it as an illustration of the fact that multiple seemingly-contradictory seed stories can be true. If I wasn’t sure of my corn’s genealogy, I would share both origin stories whenever I shared my seeds. I would share all the information I had — because when someone is taking responsibility for the life of a seed, and all the generations of descendants that seed carries within itself, I think it’s important for us to pass along everything we know about the seed to any new seed steward, so they can care for it in a good way.

Other Resources from the Slow Seed Summit:

Here are several other resources I found out about from this conference, that I wanted to share:

Slow Food USA’s “Share a Seed” initiative:
I love the idea of this program — to redistribute people’s extra seeds to others who will plant them, so seeds are not wasted.
https://slowfoodusa.org/plant-a-seed/share-a-seed/

Slow Food USA’s “Plant a Seed” campaign:
This is a great campaign, where you can purchase a set of 5 seed varieties”endangered and biodiverse seeds that tell a story,” grow and enjoy them in your garden, and join other seed stewards the work of preserving them.
https://slowfoodusa.org/plant-a-seed/

True Love Seeds‘ African Diaspora Seed Collection:
This is the work of my friend and his partner, who started an amazing project of connecting people with the seeds that their ancestors grew. This particular collection is focused on seeds from African and African-American communities.
https://trueloveseeds.com/collections/african-diaspora-collection

True Love Seeds’ African Diaspora Seed Bundle & Postcard collection:
This is a pack of 4 seed varieties, 5 seeds each, and accompanying art postcards. Perfect size for a gift, or for beginning seed gardeners.
https://trueloveseeds.com/collections/print-shop/products/african-diaspora-collection-seed-packets-and-postcards

Forest Gardens of Europe: Someone at the conference shared this link. I was really intrigued to see this. When the Europeans first came to North America, they thought they were seeing a vast, wild wilderness that was untouched — “unspoiled” by any human hands. What they failed to notice was that a lot of the land here was actually a carefully cultivated forest garden. It just didn’t look like a European garden, with rows of crops, so they didn’t have a reference point to understand what they were seeing. Well, apparently, Europe has (or had) its own forest gardens, too. I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, but I found it very interesting.
https://www.shelterwoodforestfarm.com/blog/the-lost-forest-gardens-of-europe

Oscar Will, a North Dakota seedman from the early 20th century who I hadn’t heard of before (but probably should have):
https://www.ndstudies.gov/gr4/north-dakota-agriculture/part-2-production-agriculture/profile-oscar-h-will

This Native American Ethnobotany database:
The interface is pretty bare-bones, but there’s an impressive amount of info on here: 44,691 listings of plant uses, for 291 tribes. You can use it to search for the name of a plant (ex: “nettles”), a tribe (ex: “Apache”) or a symptom that you need a plant to treat (ex: “inflammation”).
http://naeb.brit.org/

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