Seed Rematriation; Bringing our Seeds Home
The seeds are coming home to us. Across Turtle Island, there is a growing intergenerational movement of indigenous people proud to carry the message of the grand rematriation of seeds and foods back into our indigenous communities. Some having been missing from our communities for centuries; carried on long journeys in smokey buckskin pouches, upon the necks of peoples who were forced to relocate from the land of their births, their ancestral grounds. Generations later, these seeds are now coming back home; from the vaults of public institutions, seed banks, universities, seedkeeper collections and some laying upon dusty pantry shelves of foresighted elders, seeds patiently sleeping and dreaming. Seeds waiting for loving hands to patiently place them into welcoming soil once more so that they can continue to fulfill their original agreement to help feed the people.
“Rematriation; This term describes an instance where land, air, water, animals, plants, ideas and ways of doing things and living are purposefully returned to their original natural context--their mother, the great Female Holy Wild. Like the repatriation of prisoners after years of war or millennia of unwilling slavery in service to an unconscious civilization, exploited and depleted for their wild vitality, any attempt to ‘rematriate’ them back to the Holy in Nature is the beginning of cultural sanity and healing” ( Martin Prechtel, The Unlikely Peace of Cuchamaquic)
There is a healing and hopeful trend that is emerging at the cutting edge of the indigenous food/seed sovereignty movement and the social justice movement, which is in the Rematriation of Seeds. We are all familiar with the journey for the repatriation of cultural property within indigenous communities. Within native communities we are very familiar with the word Repatriation, which is the return of treasures, ancestral remains and sacred objects of cultural heritage to their communities of origin and their descendants. The displaced cultural property items are physical artifacts that were taken from this place and people of origin usually in an act of theft, whether in the context of imperialism, colonialism or war. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Public Law 101-601; 25 U.S.C. 3001-3013) describes the rights of Native American lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations with respect to the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of Native American human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony, referred to collectively in the statute as cultural items, with which they can show a relationship of lineal descent or cultural affiliation.
In the seed movement, we have begun to use the word “Rematriation” as it relates to bringing these seeds home again. In many communities, including my own Mohawk tradition, the responsibility of caring for the seeds over the generations is ultimately within the women’s realm. Both men and women farm and plant seeds, but their care and stewardship are part of the women’s bundle of responsibility. So the word “rematriation” reflects the restoration of the feminine seeds back into the communities of origin. The Indigenous concept of Rematriation refers to reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge and resources, instead of the more Patriarchally associated Repatriation. It simply means back to Mother Earth, a return to our origins, to life and co-creation, rather than Patriarchal destruction and colonisation, a reclamation of germination, of the life giving force of the Divine Female.
Over the last few centuries of the disruption of our indigenous food systems, many of our traditional varieties have left our communities, only to be stewarded by non-native farmers or seedkeepers. In addition, many of these traditional seeds have been stewarded or stored within public or private collections, institutions and organizations such as public seed banks, universities, museums and seed companies. As a part of the indigenous seed sovereignty movement, we are recognizing the need for these seeds to be back in living context. In an era of displacement and acculturation, some of these varieties were completely lost in their communities of origin, and we are now locating derivatives of these seeds in such public and private collections. Some were carried on long journeys in smoky buckskin pouches, upon the necks of peoples who were forced to relocate from the land of their births, their ancestral grounds. Some of these seeds remained in the hands of our people, and some of the seeds left, sometimes by force or theft, and also by trade or gift. Seeds move and migrate, just like people do.
As it has been told to me by my elders, people who have taught me well, who themselves have learned from the seeds as teachers along this pollen path that we walk….the seeds are a reflection of the people...when the seeds are weak and struggling, it means our communities and nations and people are struggling...and when our seeds are strong, it means our nations and communities and people are strong and in good health. That these sacred and precious seeds carry our story, sprouting alive into new form to nourish us in many ways. Our beautiful seeds are deeply connected to lineage and specific lands of origin.These foods and seeds are our mirror, our reflection; their life is our life, we are intimately intertwined with their wellbeing. We are bound in a reciprocal relationship with seeds that extends past beyond living memory…these agreements between us and the plant kin-dom are imprinted into our cellular memory… These food plants and seeds have been with us all since the dawning of our creation stories..they are the extension of a thousands years old lineage of responsive and respectful seed stewardship; the seeds always adapting and responding to the changes in the face of our Mother Earth.
For this I deeply thank all of the foresighted elders and ancestors for keeping the seeds alive during times of incredible oppression and acculturation, without which we would not have these seeds today.
What an act of courage for our ancestors to keep the seeds protected and safe in the face of violent transitions, relocations, assimilations, and war. What an act of courage to think creatively and proactively in the face of disease, and look to food, agriculture and seeds as a vessel for our collective healing and transformation. What an act of courage to plant a seed and save it again for future generations.
Rematriation is deep and multi-layered. As we carry these sacred bundles of our seed relatives home to their mother communities, we re-awaken time honored relationships once again. When we come together to cultivate the Earth and sing our seedsongs and prayers on behalf of future generations, we embody the great generous and benevolence of our own beloved Mother Earth.
There is powerful healing work of reconciliation when we work cross-culturally to bring these seeds home to their communities of origin. We are working within the Indigenous SeedKeepers Network to assist communities who are working towards Rematriation of their precious seed relatives. We are working cross culturally with many stakeholders, including native farmers and gardeners and representatives from tribal communities, institutions and organizations who have such seed collections, and also other people who can help facilitate and lay out the needed framework to assist in these seeds finding their way home. We are working towards establishing the protocols and guidelines in this complex and healing work of seed reconciliation. There are deeply embedded cultural and spiritual aspects of these work, as well as legal and political aspects that directly address seed justice. "It is not enough to save heritage seeds. The culture of those people to whom each seed belongs must be kept alive along with seeds and their cultivation. Not in freezers or museums but in their own soil and our daily lives.” ( Prechtel, 2012, forward)
Here are two bags of corn seeds of two rare ancestral Haudenosaunee corn varieties, one of which had been lost in our Haudenosaunee communities. Iroquois Tooth corn on the left and Seneca Hominy on the right. Now I am helping to rematriate them back home in this project we are working with Indigenous SeedKeepers Network. I feel like this is such an honor to serve the seeds in this way, working with public and non-profit institutions such as Seed Savers Exchange to restore such varieties back into cultural contexts and tribal communities of origin. Thankful for the incredible resilient journey that these seeds have been on in the last many decades, and for all the hands which have kept these seeds alive amidst such transitions over the last several generations. We carry these seeds our relatives and ancestors back home to the feast table and community gardens. I feel as though my seed service is all for moments like this. It's deeply healing to offer these precious seeds entry back into living context outside the seed vault. It's emotional and deeply nourishing, working through intergenerational grief and trauma to work cross culturally to care for these seeds once again, cultivating and restoring trust and collaborative relationships where we all can honor our ancestral agreements to care for he seeds, and work together to heal the wounds of the past.
Part of this rematration path, of finding our seed relatives and carrying them home, is reawakening the intertwined harmonies of seedsongs of our ancestors, ourselves and those yet to come. Whatever it takes, we must continue to carry our ancestors greatness into tomorrow, and our seeds are one of their precious gifts for us in this day... Inside those seeds, Our ancestors prayers are still protecting us. Our voices come together with theirs as we make the needed prayers for those yet to come. As we welcome the seeds home, we step into each day in ways that make our ancestors proud, may those songs of resilience that course through our blood and bones give us the strength to do what needs to be done to feed the children. Today we worked together to greet acknowledge the path ahead to uphold our responsibilities to our ancestors, our children and all our relations. I am thankful to have met so many amazing indigenous farmers and gardeners who are joining this seed revolution and bringing our seeds home. Pawnee seedkeepers bringing home seeds to ancestral soil, working hand in hand with settler descendants in a grand act of reconciliation to keep the seeds alive; Ponca farmers planting red corn in ancestral fields for the first time in 167 years since relocation; Mohawk farmers working in collaboration with farmers of many settler descendants to rematriate traditional seeds to ancestral farming grounds; heirloom beans and corn emerging from museums and seed bank vaults to the loving and calloused hands of native peoples, who see these seeds and foods as treasured relatives. Knowing that our hearts beat in promise to carry this bundle of seed gifts to share with the world, these seeds help us to hydrate the stories that make up the constellation of who we are. May we continue to be there for these seeds, as we turn our prayers into actions for this new day, may we remember we are the sweet water held in the snow, which will melt in time to bring the fragrant wild flowers in the coming season.
Each one of us reading this has the ancient and cellular memory of being a seedkeeper; the communities we descend are resilient and tenacious survivors. Just like our seeds, we have overcome so much adversity.
In the kernels of these red corn seeds being rematriated to ancestral homes and hearths there is a seedsong and story.
This is a story of healing through many generations.
A great-great-grand-daughter who is allowed to speak her language,
This is the story of a mother who sings the songs of the sacred corn to her children.
This is the story of children being proud of who they are, where they come from.
This is the story of my great-great-grandmothers dreams and wishes coming to life,
In the beat of the water drum and the seeds of the rattle.
This is the story of intergenerational resilience coming alive to dance into another day.
The seeds are the witnesses of the past, and also the hope for the future. I’m so thankful these seeds have endured. I promise to carry them well to hands of children and grandchildren who love them like family members.
We all carry rivers of the fierce love of so many strong women in our blood...deep seeded love which has whispered to our own hearts how to care and nurture, how to love and protect, how to carry a heavy burden with laughter and hope in our heart, how to make sacrifices to do what must be done to feed the children. We descend from women, from the dawning of our Creation story, when Original Woman shuffled her feet upon the Earth, carrying seeds in her hand and singing the world awake...all of us, we descend from those kind of women; creative, fertile, fierce, loving, complex, insightful, wise, resourceful, and ever-changing. The infinite faces of the feminine, we honor you. As a Mohawk SeedKeeper, I am thankful to dance through life in this same manner, in a continuation of this Creation story, which never did end...it is kept alive in the small loving acts of mothers caring for children, in women's hands planting seeds, in the soft lullabies sung to newborns, in the fierce determination of a mother working the night shift so she feed her babies, women standing on the front lines to sing songs for the waters and the earth, women's hands making art, writing stories, playing music, building homes, oh the creative and healing hands of women. I am thankful that a day without women is not possible, that our lives are infused with the rich and earthy presence of women of all colors and creeds. I am thankful for all the women in my life, who inspire me each day to stand up in honor of Life. “And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see - or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”
The Seeds are coming home to us. They are helping us to heal.