Saving seeds, saving communities: Rowen White describes the dynamic relationship between Native people and their crops

Published in Indian Country Today in 2004. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Turin, Italy — Ethnobotanist Rowen White (Akwesasne), shown here during an interview in an Italian garden, gathers and grows out Haudenosaunee heirloom crops. She does so for the Akwesasne Seed Restoration Project, a community-based organization. She also has a personal project underway: recording the stories of her grandmother, who was brought up on an isolated island in the St. Lawrence River. 

Nowadays, White is not in upstate New York, where her reservation straddles the U.S.–Canadian border, but rather in the hills of northern Massachusetts, where she’s on the faculty of her alma mater, Hampshire College. White, who got her degree in 1999, is expecting her first child. We spoke during the 2004 session of Terra Madre, a Slow Food gathering of indigenous and traditional food producers.

Q: Tell me about your project.
A: Our goal is to create a network of Haudenosaunee seed growers. That involves finding and cataloging our heirloom varieties. There are approximately forty different kinds of beans, two dozen varieties of corn, and half a dozen squashes that are considered Haudenosaunee. I go into our communities and look for old crops. I talk to elders about foods they remember, and I also ask people to be on the lookout for certain plants. One of their neighbors might be growing something very old and not realize it. In some cases, there are only a handful of seeds of a certain variety left on the planet. So, we see this as a race against time. We want to collect the seeds and get them grown out to the point where we have enough to redistribute.

Q: What’s the mechanism for doing that?
A: Among other things, we have an email listing to get seed swaps going among community members.

Q: What’s the community’s role in all this?
A: We especially want to give people our Haudenosaunee corn, so a lot of it can be grown at once. To keep a population of corn plants healthy, you need many of them, so they can diversify. A biologically diverse population is a strong one; each plant has a unique combination of strengths, so if there is a drought, let’s say, or an early frost, some plants will always survive. But, nowadays, because there are so few seeds left of some corn types, they’ve lost that flexibility. Certain varieties are not as robust as they once were. Our corn needs our people to grow it and live with it and select it for certain characteristics — to rediversify it, as we Haudenosaunee people have been doing for millennia.

Q. You don’t sound like a mainstream seedbank.
A. Not at all. Non-indigenous seedbanks see seeds as static.

Q: You mean, a Paiute bean is a Paiute bean, and that’s that? They wouldn’t want it to change?
A: Exactly, but for indigenous people, our seeds are the witnesses to our past. Now, because of climate change, environmental degradation, and land loss, the seeds are suffering. We have to bring them back to health, and they, in turn, will heal us.

Text and photo c. Stephanie Woodard.

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