Seeds are held close to the heart in many of the cultures Indigenous to Turtle Island. This is certainly true for the Iroquoian societies of the Lower Great Lakes region, including the Wyandot who lived in the village at Crawford Lake.
The Onkwehón:we, or Iroquoian Indigenous people of this region, traditionally live in agricultural societies grounded in the 13 moon calendar, which guides the planting, tending, harvesting and processing of food crops throughout the year, as well as the annual cycle of festivals. One of the first festivals in the Haudenosaunee longhouse year celebrates ká:nen tánon onónhkwa (the seeds and medicines). It is a time to express gratitude to these beings for all of the ways they support human life.
In Kanien’kéha, the Mohawk language, we refer to our traditional staple food crops of corn, beans and squash collectively as tyonnhehkhwen, that which sustains us. Scientists tell us those food crops and our most sacred medicine, tobacco, were domesticated from wild plants in South and Central America beginning 10,000 years ago. They hypothesize that prior to contact the seeds must have spread throughout the Americas along trade routes.
Our Haudenosaunee Creation Story tells us those same seeds, along with many others, first came to the earth with Sky Woman, grasped from the celestial tree as she fell through the hole at its roots. Those sacred seeds became our foods and medicines. When sown and nurtured, they grow the plants that sustain us, heal us, and carry our messages to our ancestors and our creator.
Onkwehón:we spirituality has its foundation in the duty and responsibility of the people to demonstrate respect and gratitude to all of the other beings in this world. Recognizing these relationships and responsibilities is an important part of our identity. Onkwehón:we understand our place in the world as one of a vast number of interconnected beings, and the balance and reciprocity of those relationships is essential to the world functioning as it should.
In the beginning, all beings received their original instructions for the way they should act in the world. As human beings we were instructed to be respectful stewards of the land and the natural environment and to always adhere to these original ways. This sets us apart by granting us the ability to act with intention rather than instinct alone. This is the gift we have to share with the other beings of the world.
The gift of intention is particularly important when we think about our life sustainers, the plants. We do not just take what we need from them without giving back. In the case of cultivated crops, this involves supporting them to fulfill their purpose through planting, tending, and harvesting every year. To balance their responsibility to provide for us, our responsibility to them is to ensure their survival through time by continually planting and saving seeds.
Because of our long and close relationship to the seeds of our food plants, many of our ancestral seed varieties carry histories which are bound up with our own. Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans are one such example. They were carried by Cherokee families as they were driven from their homelands in the Southeast and forced to relocate by foot to what is now Oklahoma under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This event is known in the Cherokee language as Nunahi-Duna-Dlo-Hilu-I, the trail where they cried. Of the more than 16,000 Cherokee forced to undertake the harsh 1,900 km journey by foot, between 4,000 and 8,000 are estimated to have died from hunger, exposure and disease.
Dr. John Wyche, a descendant of one of the Cherokee families who carried the seeds on the Trail of Tears, kept and grew the beans in Oklahoma. He offered to send seeds to anyone who promised to grow them and keep the beans and the story of their people alive. In saving seeds, we preserve our history. In this way, seeds become a direct connection to our ancestors and a reflection of our collective resilience in the face of colonial violence.
Another story from Tuscarora Elder Norton Rickard further illustrates how the understanding of our relationships and duties to the food plants has been maintained through the work of our people. As a boy, Norton was given some rare Tuscarora Bread Bean seeds as a gift from an Elder in his community. The Elder told him that the seeds were very special, that he must ensure that they are planted every year and to never let them die.
Norton heeded the call to preserve the beans, planting them dutifully every year. He went on to dedicate much of his life to the protection and preservation of ancestral seeds, including Tuscarora white flint corn. This is a favourite among the Onkwehón:we for lying–a process in which the kernals are washed in an alkaline solution of water and lye or hardwood ash in order to remove the tough hull and increase the nutritional value of the corn. It can then be dried again for storage, and cooked into some of our favourite foods: cornbread, corn mush and Pow Wow favourite, lyed corn soup.
Like Norton Rickard, there are many people in Indian Country who have taken on the role of seed keepers: they grow and harvest ancient seeds to preserve our ancestral foods. This work is essential to protect these crops from extinction and preserve our traditional foods for current and future generations.
It is said that 75% of crop varieties that existed in Canada before the 20th century are extinct, and 15% of remaining varieties survived, because they were kept over the years by individuals and families. It is not uncommon among the Haudenosaunee to find families that have been saving seeds for generations. Some can tell you exactly when and where particular seeds came into their family care, as well as the history of the people who kept them down through the generations.
The modern world unfortunately brings a number of barriers to seed saving. The proliferation of GMO seeds in North America can make it difficult to control for cross pollination with heritage and ancestral varieties. This is a special concern with corn, which can cross-pollinate easily on the wind within 200 m, resulting in hybrid and sometimes sterile seeds.
Another barrier to seed saving are the regulations around moving seeds across international borders, which now bisect lands where people traditionally traded and moved freely. The countries known as Canada and the USA both have strict laws around the importation of seeds, which can be a challenge for grassroots seed savers to navigate.
Despite these barriers, our communities continue to practice seed saving as we have done for thousands of years. It is essential to our survival. Seed saving helps to preserve our cultures, as we share the songs, ceremonies and agricultural knowledge passed down from our ancestors.
Traditional foods are significant to certain cultural events and ceremonies too, many of which have protocols around the types of food to be served. Our ancestral foods are also the most nutritious foods for our people: over millennia our bodies have adapted to these foods and it is important for the health and wellbeing of our communities that these foods are made readily available for our people again.
In this time of human induced climate change and pollution, drastic economic disparity, worsening global food insecurity, and centralization of agricultural and seed technology within a few multinational corporations, Indigenous Food Sovereignty is an answer for the people. It is imperative that we back the movement to transition away from a global industrial economy to sustainable local food economies reinforced with Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the underlying respect and responsibility to all other beings.
Indigenous Food Sovereignty supports the sovereignty and the health of our nations. If we can feed our people by taking control of our own food production for our own communities and families, we can support the healing, strengthening and regrowth of our roots on the land.
Last modified: October 17, 2018