Seed Keeping & Culinary Mentorships Could Restore Native Food Traditions That Have Been Under Attack for Centuries

Two hands plant seeds in the dirt, among other green grasses

Indigenous communities across the U.S. have had a long and historic battle against federal policies that have promoted land theft, relocated Native tribes, and destroyed entire ecosystems. 

A study that surveyed data collected over 300 years — and encompassed 400 Native American tribes in the U.S. — revealed that Native Americans have lost 99 percent of their land due to dispossession and forced migration. 

Land theft and forced removal of Native tribes began during the early European colonization of North America in the 17th century. Dispossession continued on for centuries — including the Trail of Tears in the mid-19th century which resulted in the removal of 60,000 people and the deaths of thousands. 

This displacement not only resulted in the physical destruction of farms, fields, and ecosystems that Native tribes relied on for food and wellbeing, but also the generational loss of cultural heritage and agricultural teachings. 

Fortunately, the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance is working hard to restore and revitalize Indigenous food systems and promote food sovereignty. 

What is food sovereignty? 

Food sovereignty is a food system in which the producers and consumers of local agriculture also regulate the production and control the distribution of that food.

It places power in the hands of farmers and agricultural workers and advocates for environmentally sustainable farming, hunting, fishing, and gardening practices.

Food sovereignty promotes resilient localized food systems and values traditional techniques and cultural practices.

Although they often overlap and align in human rights efforts, food sovereignty is different from food insecurity — which addresses the inability for individuals to access and afford food. 

Unfortunately, food sovereignty has been harder for Indigenous communities to achieve due to land loss, displacement, and the decimation of Native food sources like bison

NAFSA is on a mission to correct that. 

NAFSA’s primary initiatives promote seed keeping and skill sharing. 

NAFSA first sprouted up in 2005 when representatives from 13 Native tribes across North America convened to share knowledge, skills, and seed keeping techniques. 

Seed keeping, also known as seed saving, is a practice that traces back to over 12,000 years ago and involves preserving seeds from vegetables, grains, flowers, trees, nuts, berries, herbs for future planting. 

A shelf is full of jars and containers holding various seeds
Photo courtesy of NAFSA

“Across Turtle Island, there is a growing Indigenous movement of the grand rematriation of seeds and foods back into our communities,” said Rowen White, the National Program Director for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network. 

White continued on to say: “Some [seeds] have been missing for centuries, carried on long journeys in smokey buckskin pouches, encircled around the necks of peoples who were forced to relocate from the land of their births, their ancestral grounds … Decades later, these seeds are now coming home.” 

NAFSA was founded in 2013 and incorporated in the Navajo Nation in 2014. 

A decade after its creation, NAFSA continues to leverage natural resources and promote knowledge sharing nationwide through programs like the Indigenous Seedkeeper Network and Food and Culinary Mentorship Program

“From Indigenous seed keeping to mentoring Native chefs at regional food summits, NAFSA is connecting people with resources, education and mentoring,” said NAFSA Executive Director Diane Wilson. “At the heart of our work is a commitment to honoring the ancestral knowledge that will restore food security and ensure the health of our communities.”

NAFSA grants help a network of native communities across the country. 

In early 2023, NAFSA Food and Culinary grants totaling $105,000 went directly to individuals promoting food sovereignty in their communities. 

A number of people work together inside a commercial kitchen
Photo courtesy of NAFSA

The funds went toward a variety of cultural practices that included bird harvesting in the Wabanaki homelands of Maine, beekeeping introduction to Navajo communities in New Mexico, and the Texas Tribal Buffalo Project in the Lipan Apache Band of Texas. 

“Bringing buffalo back to where they are from is just like bringing us, our families, back to where we were from, to acknowledge that they actually lived here,” said Richard Gonzalez, Vice-Chairman of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas. “There’s people in Texas today that never knew there were ever buffalo in Texas, just like they didn’t know there were Apaches here.” 

NAFSA is putting Native educators at the forefront. 

NAFSA is currently producing a ten-part series of free seminars from a wide network of educators who lead talks on gardening, cooking, plant medicines, cultural traditions, climate resilience, and much more. 

“The land needs us and we need the land,” Mariana Harvey said in an online seminar for NAFSA on Plant Teachings. “We get so many messages around why we’re so destructive and if no humans were here everything would just be great and that’s not true…we can be healing to the land.” 

On October 9th, the official NAFSA Instagram account posted a statement in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day: 

“As we reflect on this day, it is evident that ancestral practices and traditions have outlasted institutions, initiatives, entities, and bureaucracies. Our bond, our shared stories, are rooted deep in ancestral wisdom.”

Header image courtesy of NAFSA

Article Details

October 9, 2023 2:53 PM
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