by Melissa K. Nelson
“We’re being guided by forces seen and unseen that are telling us it’s time to pick up the seeds again. It’s time to learn how to grow these foods again.”
—Rowen White, Episode One, “Native Seed Revolution”
Seeds and Stories. Seed stories and stories as seeds. How and why are they so intimately connected? And why are they critically important in today’s world?
Here we share the origin story and tendrils of Native Seed Pod, a new podcast created by The Cultural Conservancy (TCC), a Native-led organization that has been working to protect and revitalize Indigenous cultures since 1985. As gardeners, documentarians, oral historians, and advocates for Indigenous food sovereignty, we at TCC have been involved with the Indigenous food movement for over twenty years. We have also been active in the recording and revitalization of Indigenous stories, languages, songs, and other oral traditions since our beginning over thirty years ago. Combining our passions and experiences in revalorizing Native American oral traditions and restoring Indigenous food systems, we thought it would be important to amplify the extraordinary food work happening in North America’s Indian Country (and throughout the Indigenous world) by using the ancient method of storytelling in the modern medium of the podcast.
Each Native Seed Pod episode launches on the New Moon, again following a Native American way of tracking time and seasons.
This podcast is focused on celebrating the diversity and beauty of Native seeds, soils, and Indigenous foods. Our 2018 pilot podcast season follows the arc of farming in the Northern Hemisphere, as we launched our first episode in the spring when we began planting our corn and other Native foods. It has flourished during the summer and harvest seasons and will continue and complete this winter when farmlands rest with the longer and colder nights. Each Native Seed Pod episode launches on the New Moon, again following a Native American way of tracking time and seasons. We look forward to planting a new podcast season next spring.
The Native Seed Pod is a fertile place to explore thinking about Indigenous sciences and the physical and poetic seeds needed to renew the health of the Earth and all our relations. The hope is that this new audio educational program will serve (in the words of the podcast’s tagline) as “an antidote to the monoculture” of the industrial food system and will inspire participation in the Indigenous food revolution now occurring. By asking a set of questions—What seeds have we inherited? What seeds have we lost and are revitalizing? What seeds are we planting to nourish the future?—we hope to disrupt monocultures of the mind and invite deeper polycultural dialogue, whereby multiple perspectives and worldviews can be respected and held simultaneously. This podcast, like swelling peas in a late summer seedpod, broadcasts the wisdom of Indigenous seed keepers, Elders, farmers, and allies working in the food sovereignty movement. Through wild and cultivated story and pollinated conversation, we feature those individuals and communities who safeguard the health of soils and seeds and who protect the sanctity of our First Foods to nurture harmonious coexistence.
We hope to disrupt monocultures of the mind and invite deeper polycultural dialogue, whereby multiple perspectives and worldviews can be respected and held simultaneously.
In the spring of 2017, I had the opportunity to have a series of conversations with Robin Kimmerer, Potawatomie botanist, award-winning author, and professor in the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at the State University of New York–Syracuse (SUNY ESF), and Jaune Evans, executive director of the Tamalpais Trust, to talk about how to raise up the wisdom of Native science and share stories about all the good work going into safeguarding and renewing Indigenous lifeways and relationship to place. We also had the opportunity to speak with the first cohort of graduate students in Kimmerer’s groundbreaking Masters of Science program, “Sowing Synergy,” a graduate program aimed to “integrate Indigenous and scientific knowledge for sustainability and biocultural restoration.” This program is housed at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment in SUNY ESF. The young Native learners there all had a keen interest in using media and technology to help preserve and share Indigenous knowledge and practices. I suggested we call our informal think-tank the “seed pod,” and then the “native seed pod.” The idea of holding regular “native seed pod” conversations took root, and with support by Tamalpais Trust, this podcast was born.
Our first five episodes feature award-winning activists, writers, farmers, and educators from across Turtle Island (North America). We started our season with Mohawk seed keeper Rowen White talking about the “Native Seed Revolution.” Our second episode, “The Re-Emergence of the Buffalo,” featured renowned Blackfoot leader Leroy Little Bear discussing the Buffalo Treaty, which is now signed by over thirty First Nations and Native American tribes in Canada and the USA. The third, “Seed Sovereignty Sisters,” featured a conversation among three Native women discussing seed sovereignty concerns in Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and the USA. Our fourth, “Trusting in Abundance: Finding Your Regeneration Niche,” featured Kimmerer discussing wild seed germination strategies, the rights of nature, and the need for biocultural restoration. Our fifth, “Green Corn: Evolution and Transmission of the Life Sustainers,” highlights Haudenosaunee white corn traditions with Seneca knowledge holders Dave and Wendy Bray from the Seneca Nation. By the time this is published, additional episodes rounding out the pilot season will have appeared.
The depth and range of wisdom already shared with these first five podcast episodes communicates the profound cultural fertility and intellectual sovereignties of Native American and Indigenous leaders today. Several key intertribal themes have emerged, along with great differences in terms of each individual’s and communities’ experiences of persistence, loss, recovery, and access.
Land as Teacher
The primary foundation we all stand on is Mother Earth herself. She literally holds us up, grounds us, and represents the fundamental source that we spring from, materially. She holds and stores our seeds and offers them back to us when the conditions are right. Every seed storyteller on our podcast understands that seeds are our teachers. Seeds, soils, and all of the more-than-human relatives that give us life are teachers and partners in a co-creative process. This relationship is codified in many unique ways with the different Native nations of Turtle Island and around the world. It is strongly communicated in the Haudenosaunee’s Thanksgiving address offered at most gatherings and activities that acknowledges the gifts of life. Dave and Wendy Bray speak to this in Episode Five through an appreciation of all that nourishes life represented by Oneo-gen, Haudenosaunee white corn, a sacred food. Robin Kimmerer eloquently shares that “plants are teachers” in Episode Four—an understanding echoed ithe writings of Nishnaabeg author and scholar Leanne Simpson, such as her award-winning essay “Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation.” Both Kimmerer and Simpson suggest that humans shouldn’t just learn about the land but learn from the land. This subtle but significant distinction represents one of the core differences between Indigenous and Eurocentric ways of learning and knowing. Leroy Little Bear shares this understanding as well in his episode when he talks about the first buffalo dialogues held to discuss if and how to bring back the buffalo. During these dialogues, an empty seat was placed in the circle to represent the spirit of the buffalo so that its direct voice could be part of the circle.
Every seed storyteller on our podcast understands that seeds are our teachers.
The Generosity of Seeds
Seeds teach us to be generous. They are fecund and abundant and produce immense gifts to share widely. Just look at one apple tree. All that fruit, all those seeds. Enough to share widely with brimming bags to friends and random distribution to ants, worms, birds, and the soil below. Seeds are shared with saints and sinners, no discrimination. One of the first poems I wrote was about persimmons, “dripping gems,” which I relished as a young girl (and still do). I ended the poem with the line, “the tree still finds innocent mouths.” I shared the poem with Gary Snyder at an Art of the Wild writer’s retreat in the early ’90s. He shared with me that if an ax murderer passed through the orchard and found the ripe persimmon tree that he would be indulged fully as well. The tree, the fruit, and the seeds do not discriminate among those whom they feed. They give abundantly, generously, and without judgment. Trusting in abundance and learning from the magnanimousness of seeds is a consistent teaching from the Native Seed Pod. By embracing “abundance consciousness” versus “scarcity consciousness,” one is able to be more grateful and compassionate.
The tree, the fruit, and the seeds do not discriminate among those whom they feed. Learning from the magnanimousness of seeds is a consistent teaching from the Native Seed Pod.
Guardianship and Renewal
The ethical principle and cultural practices outlined above are based on observations of seeds and natural cycles. Sadly, these native seeds and the life-affirming practices that have safeguarded them have been violated and abused by colonialism, commodification, privatization, and monocultures of the mind. Rowen White, Mohawk seed keeper, and Elizabeth Hoover, Mohawk professor and author, share various strategies to resist the monopolization of seeds in Episodes One and Three, including the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network’s “rematriation” of seeds being held by various private collections and museums back to Native communities.
If you were to ask random people on the street for one example of Native American agriculture, I bet eight out of ten would say “corn.” And some with more knowledge would even say “the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.” These three crops are a perfect example of the symbiosis of plants and the traditional ecological knowledge of Native peoples. They are ecologically and nutritionally symbiotic, meaning they produce a fourth quality whereby the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Many oral narratives speak of these intimate “sisters” as critical mentors and guides, and, as sacred foods, they are essential sources of nourishment. There is something more to this collaboration of plant relatives, which is that they need us, the fourth sister (or brother), to tend to them, praise them, and feast upon them! Our human role as guardians and relatives means that we are the fourth sister and brother to the Three Sisters of Native American agriculture. They model reciprocity and the power of interdependent sovereignty in that corn has to be fully itself to offer its gifts to beans and squash, and likewise, those other sisters need to be fully themselves to create harmony through this diversity. Robin Kimmerer shares deep insights into this relationship in Episode Four as we explore the regeneration niche of seeds and human beings alike.
In all of the episodes, there is a strong emphasis on the importance of intertribal and intercultural collaborations that are based on respect and reciprocity. For example, Mariaelena Huambachano and Kaylena Bray share about the role of local, national, and international networks in advancing seed sovereignty. They also discuss how intertribal and intercultural exchanges are building solidarity and strengthening self-determination in the protection and renewal of biocultural diversity.
As a result of colonialism, many Native peoples lack access to ancestral lands and to the knowledge and practices of traditional land-based practices in farming and wild food gathering. Native peoples need allies to advocate for the protection of their places and to rematriate these lands for ancestral guardianship. Humanity faces great uncertainty due to climate change, and we need to collaborate with people from all over the Earth to learn together, share wisdom, and collectively find sustainable solutions to maintain and restore the biocultural diversity of foods that nourish our bodies and promote collective well-being.
Melissa K. Nelson, PhD, (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), is an ecologist, writer, Indigenous scholar–activist, professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, and president of The Cultural Conservancy, a Native-led Indigenous rights organization. Melissa is the editor of and contributor to Original Instructions (2008) and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (2018).
Kimmerer, R. (2014). Returning the gift. Minding Nature, 7(2). Retrieved from https://www.humansandnature.org/returning-the-gift
Nabhan, G. P. (2002). Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation. Phoenix, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
Shiva, V. (1993). Monocultures of the Mind: Perspectives on Biodiversity and Biotechnology. London, United Kingdom: Zed Books.
Simpson, L. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3(3), 1–25.
The Cultural Conservancy. (n.d.). The native seed pod. Retrieved from https://www.nativeseedpod.org/