By Rowen White
I am sitting here in front of my ancestral seed collection. Rows of carefully placed colorful cobs of corn: sacred ‘Mohawk Red’ bread corn that looks like juicy pomegranate gems; ‘Six Nations’ blue corn whose kernels are lined up in 8 neat rows of shades of grey, slate, and nearly purple; multi-colored ‘Seneca Calico’ corn whose pearlescent seed-coats catch the light of the eastern morning; jars of beans, some speckled and resembling birds eggs, others earthy and mimic soft buckskin; all invisibly pulsating with the dynamic life energy that infuses us all.
I feel so honored to know these seeds and foods that have fed my ancestors for generations, since the dawning of agriculture in the Northeast woodlands. I am a Mohawk woman, from a small community called Akwesasne, which sits upon the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and straddles the New York/Canadian border. Our tribe is one of six nations that make up the Iroquois confederacy, yet we know ourselves not as Iroquois but as Haudenosaunee: People of the Longhouse.
Our people are well known for their unique agricultural planting methods, known by many as “Three Sisters.” This indigenous polyculture planting method of corn, beans and squash, reinforces the collaborative nature of inter-planting, where all three crop types work together in harmony to bring abundance in the garden.
I always had an affinity for the garden, and at 17 began to apprentice on an organic farm. On the farm, I began to learn about the importance of biodiversity, and learned for the first time about heirloom seeds. Knowing my ancestors were agricultural people, I began to wonder: Who was still growing our heritage seeds? What sorts of corn, beans and squash varieties were out there that had been planted and selected within “Three Sisters” polyculture over the last many centuries?
I spent six months on the road, gathering seeds and stories from the few remaining traditional gardeners. Seeing that it was mostly elders who were keeping these seeds alive, I knew that it was the responsibility of my generation to step up and care for these seeds, as so many had done before me.
This inquiry into the varieties still being grown in our Haudenosaunee communities was the spark that ignited my passion for seed stewardship, as I began to re-establish these time honored relationships with the foods that nourished my people. Following the path of seeds and traditional foods, I have come home to understanding more of the intricacies of my culture and cosmology. Understanding the cultural dimensions of biodiversity, I see vibrantly that cultural memory, tradition and community relationships play a central role in our community seed restoration efforts.
I can’t help but imagine the rich journey of these seeds through the ages, the perseverance through the tumultuous history of displacement and new beginnings, of migration and relocation, of love and loss, of praise and grief; the nourishment they provide for those who take the time to care, beyond the prejudice of culture or color. Seeds are magnificent talismans of abundance that inspire generosity and connection, healing and forgiveness. The seeds have been witnesses to the past, passing from hand to hand in so many different contexts and cultures, adapting to different soils and ways of cultivation. The seeds nourish vibrant histories and geographies of the heart.
About: Rowen White is a Seed Keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and a passionate activist for seed sovereignty. She is the director and founder of Sierra Seeds, an innovative organic seed cooperative focusing on local seed production and education, based in Nevada City, California. In July 2016, White was named Chair of the Seed Savers Exchange board of directors.
This article originally appeared in the Heritage Farm Companion, the Seed Savers Exchange member publication. Learn more about becoming a member.