In Langscape Magazine Articles

Circles of Kinship: Faces of Turtle Island’s Seed Guardians

January 29, 2019

Text and photos by Mateo Hinojosa

“What is a seed?” Farmers, activists, academics, artists, and people of all walks of life take a moment to think of the seeds in their lives—as they digest the grains they ate that morning, finger their necklaces crafted of kernels, send a prayer to their crops in their fields back home, and remember recent ceremonies honoring their life-sustaining plants. Clayton Brascoupe, the workshop leader, opens it up for responses, which come with reverence and emotion: “Our future.” “Our ancestors.” “Our descendants.” “Food.” “Knowledge.” “Power.”

Jim Enote

Jim Enote (Zuni) contemplates the skies in Zuni Pueblo (New Mexico, USA) at the end of the rainy season, where he is irrigating his drought-resistant corn using no machinery, only ditches. “This is my fifty-ninth consecutive year planting since I was in the cradle board. They put seeds in my hand and then I dropped them into the hole as a baby. Then every year since then I’ve been planting. I have made my share of mistakes, but I’ve learned a few things too.” Now he teaches what he’s learned, mentoring younger farmers and interacting with broader community networks through the Colorado Plateau Foundation and the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center. 2016

At Meskwaki Red Earth Gardens in Iowa, we are gathered for the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit. There is a sense of great hope and resolve here, as well as grief for all that has been lost, and sober consideration of the dangers we collectively face. People are rekindling relationships that for many seemed to have been completely extinguished. The embers of the fires, though, clearly glow here, and they are being stoked. On the fires here, pots of beans stew, and people gather around their warmth to tell stories and fire newly crafted seed pots. You can see the sparkle in people’s eyes as they strategize, teach, and learn.

All over Turtle Island—North America—networks of Indigenous seed keepers are stewarding the living heritage of the land. Re-engaging old trading routes and kinship circles, this ecosystem of communities knows we must be in connection to weave the roots we need to weather the storms—ecological, economic, social, and political—that currently threaten to drown our most vital relationships. As media director of The Cultural Conservancy, I have had the honor to participate in and document these food and seed networks, gathering images and sounds, visions and voices, to support this movement. From single individuals to local associations to national and international networks, I have been deeply inspired by seed guardians mobilizing on all levels to maintain and thrive with the foods, medicines, fibers, and the plant relatives and kinship circles on which we all depend.

People are rekindling relationships that for many seemed to have been completely extinguished.

As the climate becomes more and more chaotic and food increasingly controlled by very few with only profit in mind, sovereignty is becoming recognized as the key to security and well-being. And to maintain this sovereignty, broad-based alliances and networks have formed and are actively organizing to spread knowledge and skills, share seeds across regions with changing climates, and support communal adaptation and resilience in these rapidly changing times.

One of the most striking recent sovereignty efforts is the movement for seed rematriation: the process of bringing seeds that have been long-lost back home to their communities of origin. This rematriation (inspired in part by the repatriation movement to bring ancestral remains and objects back to their homelands from museums and academic institutions) involves relationships between communities and private collections and institutional structures that hold traditional seeds, such as the Seed Savers Exchange. Currently, Seed Savers Exchange is harvesting the first crop of traditional seeds exclusively for their communities of origin, working with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN) to bring them back into the care and everyday lives of the people whose ancestors have cultivated relationships with these long-lost relatives for countless generations.

One of the most striking recent sovereignty efforts is the movement for seed rematriation: the process of bringing seeds that have been long-lost back home to their communities of origin.

Rowen White, who has been traveling the continent promoting rematriation, talks about the memory that this journey is re-activating: “It’s been a really beautiful journey of remembering . . . . It’s like putting things back together, taking all of these tattered patch pieces of story and seeds and lineage and culture that were broken apart during the time of displacement and acculturation, and through our devotion and through our creativity and through our inspiration, stitching them back together. And there might be places where there’s a piece missing, but we try and fill it in with as much beauty as we can muster. To try and create a life and a culture worth descending from, so that our children might know a better way.” The relationships being woven through these networks, clearly, are not just across geographic areas and communities, but also across species and generations.

The photos in this essay focus on corn, though the people in them are guardians of countless types of seeds.

‘It’s like putting things back together, taking all of pieces of story and seeds and lineage and culture, and through our devotion and through our creativity and through our inspiration, stitching them back together.’

Margaret Brascoupe and Clayton Brascoupe

Margaret Brascoupe (Tesuque Pueblo) and Clayton Brascoupe (Mohawk) hold a few of the many varieties of corn they keep in their home—keeping their relatives close. “The seed needs care just like a child, an infant, needs that care to be able to grow strong and healthy,” Margaret says. Clayton is the founder and director of the Traditional Native American Farmers Association and leads trainings and workshops on seed keeping and cultivation. He sees the potential to create culture shift and catalyze political power for biocultural protection: “There has to be a way that we could get these fields, especially the cornfields, designated as sacred sites. . . . If our fields somehow do get assaulted by GMOs [genetically modified organisms] . . . then we’d have more of a protection.” 2016

Rowen White

Rowen White, a Mohawk seed keeper, says that Corn Mother “carries a message of hope . . . of generosity and kindness and abundance. . . . We as a colonized people were given the story of scarcity, that there wasn’t enough. . . . Corn, her voice is one of exponential abundance. That one seed turns into a hundred, and a hundred turns into a thousand, and then exponentially more. . . . It’s seeing seeds as these sacred talismans of hope and potential. [Corn] sings that song of abundance and of endless nourishment. . . . Corn is our mother, she will always be there to nourish us, protect us, take care of us. But it’s also our responsibility and our duty to take care of her.” She trains and organizes in large networks of seed keepers, through ISKN and Sierra Seeds, her own company. 2016

Emigdio Ballon

Emigdio Ballon sifts Hopi Blue Corn in front of the Tesuque Seed Bank, built by the community of adobe, straw bales, and car tires. A Quechua Bolivian farmer working in Tesuque, he is “inspired by the needs of the people. I think the needs of the people in South or Central or North are almost the same. . . . It’s your piece of land there. It’s your ancestors there. They’re giving to you the power, the energy of the things you’re eating.” As with so many in these networks, Emigdio’s work is intensely local, managing Tesuque’s farm, and extensively global, networking and educating through Slow Food and other networks. 2016

 clay sculpture, by Natasha Smoke Santiago

This micaceous clay sculpture, by Natasha Smoke Santiago (Akwesasne Mohawk), holds heirloom corn. At a Great Lakes intertribal food sovereignty summit, the cobs were used to impress corn patterns into cooking and seed pots. 2018

Shpeyiah Swimmer

Shpeyiah Swimmer sings to his corn in the field. He cultivates in his Native territory of Kawaik (Laguna Pueblo, New Mexico, USA) with other youth of Yakanal, a cultural exchange organization whose name comes from the Western Keres and Yucatec Mayan words for “corn”: yaa’ka and nal. Yakanal hosts gathering and facilitates projects with youth working on Indigenous exchange throughout the Americas to strengthen cultural identity and leadership, including in food and seed sovereignty. 2016

Roger Cook

Roger Cook (Mohawk), who lives and cultivates in Onondaga (New York, USA), works with the Braiding the Sacred network. “I’m trying to do my part so that the Seventh Generation will see the corn still, that they’ll be able to eat it, that they will be able have it for ceremonies, and just to enjoy everything that comes with the corn. . . . We’re seeing these exchanges happening now of our old seed, traditional seeds. . . . A very important part of keeping all those strains alive is entrusting people with seeds to carry it on for us. Maybe in the event that our crop fails here, our seed will be alive in another area. And maybe their seed will be alive in our area for them. It’s a seed bank within ourselves. We are the seed banks.” 2016

David Bray

David Bray (Seneca) holds Onëo, Seneca White Corn, planted and harvested at his farm in Cattaraugas Territory (New York, USA). Brought to California as seeds through The Cultural Conservancy, this corn has been adapted and shared with the Bay Area intertribal community. David’s daughter, Kaylena, and his wife, Wendy, shared the knowledge of how to cook the corn in the vast diversity of ways possible at each moment of its growth. Relationships in these networks are often familial, and this work is intensely personal and intimate at the same time communal and political. “Growing up doing corn, I’ve often just gathered information, anecdotal so to speak, from various Indigenous people, whether it was doing work with the United Nations or just visiting people.” 2016

Seneca White Corn

Onëo, Seneca White Corn, planted and harvested by David Bray (Seneca). 2016

Kaylena Bray holds ceremonial corn

Kaylena Bray (Seneca) holds ceremonial corn and hardwood ash, which is used both as an offering to newly planted seeds, as well as a nixtamalization agent to “ash” flour corn. Ashing is a process of boiling corn with hardwood ash to remove the indigestible pericarp layer and allow for making hulled corn soup, boiled cornbread, and tortillas. Hardwood ash, like so many elements related to seeds, holds both practical as well as sacred significance. 2016


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Mateo Hinojosa is a Bolivian-American photographer, documentary filmmaker, artist, and educator. He currently serves as media director of The Cultural Conservancy in San Francisco, a Native-led nonprofit dedicated to protecting and restoring Indigenous cultures.

Most of Mateo’s photos emerged from The Cultural Conservancy’s partnership with Alianza Milpa to support the Braiding the Sacred network of Indigenous corn cultures and the Voices of Maíz photo exhibit. View a short film from The Cultural Conservancy, Braiding the Sacred – Trenzando lo sagrado, at

Further Reading

Alianza Milpa. (n.d.). Alianza Milpa [Website]. Retrieved from

Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. (n.d.). Indigenous seed keepers network. Retrieved from

Storytellershouse. (n.d.). Artwork by Natasha Smoke Santiago. In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved from

The Cultural Conservancy. (n.d.). Revitalizing Indigenous land and cultures: 30 years of history. Retrieved from

Yakanal. (n.d.). Yakanal [Website]. Retrieved from


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