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.”
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.’
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 https://vimeo.com/193666359
Alianza Milpa. (n.d.). Alianza Milpa [Website]. Retrieved from http://alianzamilpa.org/
Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. (n.d.). Indigenous seed keepers network. Retrieved from https://nativefoodalliance.org/indigenous-seedkeepers-network/
Storytellershouse. (n.d.). Artwork by Natasha Smoke Santiago. In Facebook [Fan page]. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/storytellershouse/
The Cultural Conservancy. (n.d.). Revitalizing Indigenous land and cultures: 30 years of history. Retrieved from http://www.nativeland.org/
Yakanal. (n.d.). Yakanal [Website]. Retrieved from http://www.yakanal.org/