Seed saver Rowen White works to ensure Native seeds get their due
Seeds of heirloom corn and other food crops are a collective inheritance that should be carefully stewarded with special regard for the ancient ancestors who did the wise work to bring them into being, according to a leader in the seed saving movement.
Rowen White is the founder of the Indigenous Seed Keeping Network. She lives and works on a 10-acre farm in northern California that serves as a living seed bank with more than 400 varieties of heirloom crops.
White talked about the importance of reciprocity and accountability, at a time when so much of seed development has been privatized, during a recent grain forum hosted by the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in collaboration with the Colorado Grain Chain and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
The people and stories behind every seed should be respected, acknowledged and credited, White said. But she stopped short of calling for a purely transactional approach to accomplishing that.
White’s initiative works with seed companies to find ways to ensure indigenous seed contributions are properly recognized.
One of the first steps has been to examine the lens through which seed descriptions are written, with special emphasis on giving credit where due.
“What are the stories behind those seeds and how can we give attributions where they are needed?” she said.
Seed companies are finding diverse ways to tie financial contributions to those credits, by donating to indigenous communities or local seed rejuvenation projects. Fedco Seeds, of Maine, uses something similar to a seed royalty, while High Mowing Seeds, of Vermont, tithes a certain percentage of sales to seed preservation efforts, she said.
Grand Prismatic Seed, in Salt Lake City, set up a partnership with the Dine, or Navajo, to grow and distribute the tribe’s traditional seeds.
“There are a lot of ways to work together, but what’s important is that it’s not just transactional, it’s relational,” she said.
Repatriation is the act of returning historical artifacts to their ethnic communities of origin. Seed rematriation is a similar process that acknowledges seeds as sacred objects, which have been dispersed widely through exchanges of mutual benefit, White said.
Rematriation efforts help rebuild relationships that have fractured over time and often lead to “a beautiful dialogue of recognition of the contributions indigenous people have made,” White said.
One particularly moving example involves the exchange of seeds between the descendants of Nebraska settlers and the Pawnee, who were driven from their ancestral homelands to a reservation in Oklahoma 150 years ago.
Those traditional seeds had never grown well in eastern Oklahoma, where they were poorly adapted, but flourished when planted in native prairie soil.
Since that initial exchange, some Nebraska landowners have either agreed to deed back land to the tribe, which will be used for burial of repatriated remains, or place it in a permanent trust to ensure it will never be developed, and the Pawnee will always have access to it.
White said the network she founded is now working on a written action guide that will help more people get involved in seed rematriation.
But honoring the seed is a simple act anyone can do at any time and place, she added.
Start with “origin accountability,” an effort to better understand where the seed came from and how it got to where it is now, she said.
Do some due diligence. Ask the source of the seed where it came from. Seek out the expertise of groups such as Seed Savers Exchange — White currently chairs its board — which have seed historians on staff.
Then commit to passing that story on to others along with the seed.
The indigenous seed network has a written seed sharing protocol that spells out the proper way to exchange native seeds.
Indigenous seed keepers in particular fear having their seeds patented or genetically modified, White explained.
Their proprietorship agreement includes specific language — printed on every seed packet — dictating that the enclosed contents will not be used in any type of patenting or proprietary situation.
In the end, however, it mostly comes down to the ethics of individuals, she admits, which is why the group is devoted to education and raising awareness.
They are also working to build a new infrastructure for the distribution of seed.
“We are currently working on developing a prototype of a regional seed cooperative in the Northwest, a worker owned cooperative, where we can integrate regenerative economic principles that will align with our cultural values,” she said.
White developed her interest in the topic while working on an organic farm in Massachusetts and reflecting on her lineage in the northeastern Mohawk tribe.
“While hoeing the corn, I was thinking about the seeds that fed my ancestors, and asking why so few farmers were growing them, and how could I bring them back,” she said.
She began envisioning a new model of agriculture that would merge old and new, including plantings of the famous “three-sisters” polyculture — squash, corn and beans — designed in such a way that it would allow organic farms to integrate and scale it up while using modern tractors and planting equipment.
As she questioned what it meant to be an indigenous woman in the modern world, she was also seeking to understand how indigenous crops and farming practices could remain relevant and adaptable to the challenges facing the current generation.
Years later, when the pandemic hit, she’d already laid the foundation to help facilitate a new societal shift.
“It’s been quite a transformative year,” she said. “It held difficulties but also some silver linings. We’ve seen a return to traditional life-ways, including planting and saving seed.”