How the Seeds of Heritage Are Sown

Anna Williams is an avid gardener, but when she was gifted corn and bean seeds connected to her Odawa heritage, she felt she needed more knowledge to grow them well.

“I didn’t know these seeds, but they were very special to me,” says Williams. “In all my years, I have never had [seeds] directly from that heritage. They were a part of my heritage that was coming back to me.”

Williams, who lives near Ann Arbor, Michigan, was thrilled when she discovered UW–Madison’s new seed stewardship group for members of Upper Midwest tribes. In particular, she was excited the group would be co-led by Rowen White, a national leader in the indigenous seed keeping movement.

Seeds play an important role in Native American culture. Each tribe has its traditional varieties — of squash, corn, beans, and other crops — that come from specific heritage seeds. Unfortunately, many of these indigenous seeds and the cultural practices surrounding them were lost during European colonization, acculturation, and assimilation. Today, very few people are growing the traditional varieties. But a shift is under way.

“We are in an era right now where there’s a resurgence of [Native] people understanding how vitally important it is to have control of the way we feed and nourish ourselves,” says White, national program coordinator for the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network. “When we aim as indigenous peoples to revitalize our culture, a big part of that is revitalizing the traditional foods that are at the center of culture. Being able to restore the relationships between tribal community members and their culturally significant seeds is a really important part of that cultural restoration.”

Based in California, White travels all over the United States teaching seed keeping workshops. She trains people how to grow traditional crops, collect their seeds, and process and preserve them. Demand for her expertise has increased in recent years, but she can’t be everywhere at once.

“Rowen travels a lot doing this work,” says Claire Luby MS’13, PhD’16, an assistant faculty associate in the horticulture department, who first met White at a seed-related conference. “She is leading a movement to empower more people to become seed stewards and to serve as resources for others in their own communities.”

Luby wondered how the university could help, so she assembled a small team to brainstorm ideas. In addition to Luby and White, the group included Dan Cornelius, general manager of the Intertribal Agriculture Council’s Native Food Network and outreach specialist with the UW Law School; Jessika Greendeer, seed regeneration manager for Minneapolis-based Dream of Wild Health; and Irwin Goldman PhD’91, chair and professor of horticulture.

The team came up with the idea for the seed keeping group as a program to help “train the trainers,” and they were able to secure funding for it through the university’s Baldwin Grant program, which supports collaborative university-community projects. In addition, the grant provided support for a garden project for Native youth; a new UW course on seed and food sovereignty; and a project to grow indigenous seeds and distribute them to tribal members.

“This is an opportunity for UW–Madison to partner meaningfully with Native Nations in the Upper Midwest to support the stewardship of the many plant varieties that have been developed by Indigenous seed keepers from these communities,” says Luby. “Our goal is to help create culturally appropriate resources that will mesh with the traditions and relationships around food and land in these communities.”

During last year’s growing season, a cohort of around 20 Native people participated in the seed keeping group. They completed online learning modules, met for monthly online meetings, and gathered in person for two intensive hands-on work- shops, one on pollination and one on seed harvest. The experience provided participants with the foundational knowledge needed to do seed keeping work — and the self-assuredness to share it with others. “A highlight for me was when I started to see confidence building in some of these folks, and they were really seeing themselves as teachers and mentors and community leaders on this,” says White.

Over the course of the growing season, while participating in the group, Williams cultivated her special Odawa seeds — with success. She also developed a network that she deeply values.“It’s been very nurturing and rewarding,” says Williams. “I’ve grown a circle of people around me that has knowledge about how to do these things. And now it’s about passing that on.”

That network is already yielding good things, including — through a connection with the Seed Savers Exchange — a nonprofit seed bank that houses more than 20,000 heirloom varieties. Some of the group’s more advanced gardeners are partnering with Seed Savers to grow indigenous seeds found in the organization’s collection. One of these advanced gardeners is Becky Webster.

“[The Seed Savers Exchange] people sent me this spreadsheet, and it had its own tab for [Oneida] seeds, and I thought I was going to have a heart attack because it was so exciting,” says Webster, who plans to grow the seeds in her extensive garden on the Oneida reservation this year.

“The Oneida people, we were originally from what is now New York State, and we were removed to Wisconsin. Many of the varieties of seeds that we may have carried with us, nobody grows them here anymore [except white corn],” she says. “I’m hoping to be able to pick out certain varieties of seeds and grow them here and then share the seeds with the community.”

The project is a good model for participatory engagement between the university and marginalized communities, says White, and she sees the project as a solid foundation on which to build more positive collaborations that benefit tribal communities. Through their participation, members of the seed stewardship group are in a better position to promote and protect the seeds that are such an important part of their culture.

“We are doing our good works now so that we can be a good link in the chain,” notes White. “[We are part of] a bigger trajectory — of people carrying these teachings and these seeds down through time.”

This article was posted in Economic and Community Development, Food Systems, On Henry Mall, Spring 2020 and tagged , , , , , , , , .