Home » Seeds of Strength: Native American Seed Sanctuary Sings a Song of Gratitude

Seeds of Strength: Native American Seed Sanctuary Sings a Song of Gratitude

By Tracy Frisch

Mainstream agriculture would have us believe that seeds are just another input — a commodity that farmers have to purchase in order to produce their crops. But there are other ways to think about seeds. For many Native Americans, seeds are cherished relatives with whom one has a reciprocal relationship. As they see it, seeds take care of them and they take care of the seeds.

Among the Haudenosaunee (pronounced how duh-noh-soh-nee and meaning “people of the longhouse”), singing seed songs restores the human connection with sacred seed. These songs are powerful enough to stir seeds from their slumber. Rowen White, founder of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, celebrates the revival of native seeds and the culture they support. “This land is again hearing the songs infused with gratitude,” she proclaimed.

Cleaning seeds from Buffalo Creek Squash by hand.
Cleaning seeds from Buffalo Creek Squash by hand.

But many factors have caused such relationships to fade away across indigenous communities. “Native American communities all over Turtle Island are in the same situation. Within a couple generations of people not planting their culture’s seeds and not singing the seed songs, these seeds can disappear,” White said.

White first became fascinated with indigenous crops as an 18-year-old student at Hampshire College from Akwesasne, the Mohawk nation in northern New York State. In the University of Massachusetts library, she found the book, Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation (1912-1915) written by an unconventional ethnographer who sat with women and listened to their stories about food. The book prompted her quest to look for these seeds in indigenous communities, introducing her to what would become her life’s work.

This is a story about how one group of people is renewing that special relationship with their ancestral seeds. It concerns the Haudenosaunee, the confederation of six tribes — the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora — that the French called the Iroquois. It reveals some of the things that indigenous people can teach those of us who have lost our instructions for relating to the natural world.

The Foundation of a Culture

The three sisters — corn, beans and squash — are central to the cultural and spiritual life of the Haudenosaunee, including their traditional song, dance and ceremony. Rowen White puts it succinctly. “Food and seed sovereignty are inextricable from the process of revitalizing our culture.”

“All the foods we eat and all the dances we do” revolve around corn and other treasured foods, declared Mary Arquette, a Haudenosaunee environmental activist, cultural educator and co-leader of the Native American Seed Sanctuary. As a long-time Akwesasne leader engaged in restoring traditional culture and food ways, she understands the importance of seed.

Arquette lives in Akwesasne (pronounced Ah-kwuh-sahs-nee), the Mohawk tribal territory in northern New York on the Canadian border. The place name, which means “land where the partridge drums,” refers to the region’s abundant wildlife.

Mary Arquette harvesting Six Nations Blue Corn in the sanctuary
Mary Arquette harvesting Six Nations Blue Corn in the sanctuary

Her emotional connection to native seeds goes back to her childhood. “I grew up in the garden, loving it,” she said. But beyond her individual experience, the seeds also underpin the collective identity of the Mohawk people.

“Keeping our language and our seeds alive is important, because without them we no longer exist as a people. Without them, we’re not able to communicate with the creator or with the other species on the planet. It’s the way we pick medicine. It’s the way we live,” she explained.

A Covenant With Corn

Arquette’s commitment to keep alive the seeds of her people is grounded in her culture. “We promised the corn that we would always take care of her babies if she would take care of ours.” But that promise was not always kept. “There were times when we forgot to be thankful,” she said.

Through their oral histories, the Haudenosaunee people are able to date their ancestors’ promise to the corn back to a precise historical moment more than two centuries ago, Arquette said.

In 1779, the Clinton-Sullivan campaign attacked the Seneca nation, one of the Mohawk’s sister tribes in the Haudenosaunee confederacy. The United States military expedition aimed to destroy the ability of the Six Nations to wage war on the new nation. Acting on orders of George Washington, General Sullivan burned one million bushels of native corn in western New York that the Seneca had put away until the next harvest. Sullivan’s troops also destroyed Seneca villages and hundreds of acres of their fruit orchards and cornfields. In attacking food supplies, agriculture and families’ homes, the military targeted women’s domain, Arquette said.

“With corn, we were supposed to be generous. Even when our cornfields burned, we rose up resiliently. We even learned to eat burnt corn,” Rowen White related.

Only 13 years before Sullivan devastated the Seneca, King George of England had issued the Proclamation of 1763, which prohibited colonists from establishing settlements west of a line drawn by England. That royal measure closed down westward expansion in order to mitigate conflict with the indigenous people of the continent. In one interpretation, this prohibition served as one of the motivations for the War of Independence. “George Washington was a big land speculator,” Arquette said.

She continued her narrative of that dark historic period. The winter that followed the Clinton-Sullivan campaign was unusually cold. With their villages decimated and their winter food stores wiped out, Seneca survivors sought refuge at Fort Niagara in Canada, where they were reduced to relying on rations for survival. Some people hid in caves. The profound dislocation of the Seneca prevented them from planting their crops again until 1799, and the tribe fell into despair.

As Arquette tells the story, the Seneca renewal began after one of their leaders, an older man named Handsome Lake, had a vision that led him to make a promise to the corn — that his people would always take care of her babies if she would care of theirs. The Haudenosaunee interpret this agreement to mean that they must plant corn every year.

Even while away at college as an undergraduate almost four decades ago, Arquette, a Cornell-educated veterinarian and toxicologist, said she managed to keep her ancestor’s promise by planting corn every year.

A Seed Sanctuary

For the past four years, the Native Seed Sanctuary has been multiplying the seed of endangered varieties of traditional Mohawk foods. The Seed Sanctuary is a collaboration between the Akwesasne Mohawk people, the nonprofit Seedshed and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub. The Seed Sanctuary grows crops on a 26-acre field at the Farm Hub, a nonprofit center for farmer training and research on 1,000 acres of good bottomland that was formerly a large sweet corn farm.

Growing out their seeds on ancestral Mohawk lands in New York’s Hudson Valley has agronomic benefits. That’s where the crops were selected, rather than in a colder, wetter climactic zone a five-hour drive to the north, where the tribe was relegated two centuries ago. The project has also been important for cultural renewal.

“When the land of the Haudenosaunee in the mid Hudson Valley was taken from the Mohawk people, they were forced to move much further north to their hunting grounds, which are on swampy land, where the St. Regis and St. Lawrence rivers come together along the U.S. border with Canada. The soil moisture and climate are different enough that their crops were not adapted to the conditions there,” explained Ken Greene, the visionary behind Seedshed and the Seed Sanctuary project.

A Powerful Vision

Greene is an organizational entrepreneur who finds inspiration in seeds. “Seeds are small and powerful, and every time we plant them involves a leap of faith,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, Greene founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which laid the groundwork for a similarly named heirloom seed company. More recently, he established Seedshed, a nonprofit that engages communities in seed stewardship practices that strengthen agricultural, cultural and biological diversity. Seedshed is unique in elevating culture at the same time as saving heritage seeds.

In Greene’s vision, seeds can serve as a vehicle for social change. He said he sees seeds “as time machines, part in the past and part in the present. With the act of planting, we are transforming the story in the future. We frame it as seed justice.”

Imagining possible directions for the organization, Greene came up with the concept of seed sanctuary. It would be a place where seeds can remain connected with their cultural roots.

“Some seeds are endangered and need a safe place to be cared for until they can return home,” he said. In other cases, he said the seeds are not coming from their home, so “we have to figure out where their home is.” Or maybe seeds from a particular culture or community are offered in a commercial seed catalogue and that culture or community would benefit from having more sovereignty over the fate of its seeds.

In another example, a single person may be hanging onto a variety that is important for a culture, whether for its ceremonial role or because it’s central for a food way. Circumstances like the aging of the seed keeper or the seed keeper being at risk of losing their land would jeopardize the variety’s future.

Seedshed does not swoop in and take control of a variety’s dwindling seed stock. Rather, it partners with the community or person in possession of the seed. They’re always the ones who get to make the decisions about how the seed is grown and what happens to it. The role of Seedshed would be to lend support and provide resources, such as skill sharing, access to land, and financial resources. “In each case, it may be different,” Greene said.

The Origins of the Seed Sanctuary

Greene was work-shopping his seed sanctuary idea when his friend Rowen White came for a visit. The Mohawk woman is a remarkable teacher and seed collector who besides founding the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, also chairs the board of the Seed Savers Exchange and is the co-founder of a small seed company in northern California, where she lives.

Greene has called Rowen White his “seed fairy godmother.” Early in their acquaintanceship, he remembers telling her about Otto File corn from Italy, which is known for making amazing polenta. But from White, he learned that the Haudenosaunee had actually developed the origins of the variety.

During her visit with Greene, White entrusted her friend with some rare indigenous seeds that originated in the Hudson Valley. “These beans were jumping out of my bag,” she said. They were telling her that “they wanted to grow on this land,” Greene recalled. Before she handed over the seeds, the two friends made an agreement. “When I was producing more seeds, I would return them to the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network or we would work together to return them to their original community,” Greene related.

It was May when she left for the long drive across the country back to her home. “Corn was just sprouting in Kansas. I remember feeling exhilarated before my mind could kick in. They were probably GMOs doused with glyphosate, but they were still corn and they wanted to be sung to, too. My kids sang to them,” White said.

“The day that Rowen left, then director Bob Dandrew of the Hudson Valley Farm Hub called me,” Greene said. The director said that they recognized that the Farm Hub was on land that once belonged to indigenous people. He was asking what they could do to honor that history and shift the dynamics, Greene reported.

Ionawiienhaw and Karhatiron with Buffalo Creek squash
Ionawiienhaw and Karhatiron with Buffalo Creek squash

Contributing to the Farm Hub’s interest in incorporating Native Americans into the organization’s work was Bob’s discovery later in life that he had a Mohawk ancestor in his genealogy. “That was the call of seeds,” said White.

The phone call from the Farm Hub served as a perfect opening for Greene to present his seed sanctuary idea and mention that his friend Rowen White had just given him those indigenous seeds. The Farm Hub director replied, “What if we partnered with Seedshed?” With that overture, everything started coming together.

Greene phoned White, who was on the road, and they talked over their next steps. “Rowen said what would make it feel right is if we partnered with the nearest Mohawk community, Akwesasne,” which is also her home community, Greene recounted. “She told us the people she would like us to approach about it, to see if they were open.”

After Dandrew and Greene met with folks in Akwesasne, a group came forward that would become the core leadership for the Seed Sanctuary. By then it was really late in the spring of 2016. With all the partners contributing different skills, they managed to get their first Three Sisters garden planted. “We had to move super quickly,” he recalled.

Last year was their fourth season. “Every year we grow one indigenous corn variety. The first two years we grew Mohawk red bread corn. The third year it was he’gowa corn and in 2019 Six Nations Blue Corn.” In 2019 they grew 16 bean varieties of semi bush, runner beans and pole beans. Each year they also grow one sunflower variety, and different squash varieties of each species, or sometimes only one variety.

“Climatic challenges make some crops more successful than others,” Greene said. As far as squash goes, they mostly focus on large winter squash, such as Buffalo Creek squash, which ranges in size from 20 to 40 pounds each. “They’re very susceptible to pests and disease, especially when there is a lot of moisture,” Greene said. “We’ve also grown Canada Crookneck, which is similar to Butternut in flavor and texture. This winter squash has a bulb, which encloses the seed cavity, and a neck that can curve back on itself.”

Historic Trauma

In creating a sanctuary for endangered native seed varieties, Seedshed also works to create a safe space for cultural restoration and intercultural understanding. Along side reproducing seeds, the work has to involve cultivating trust.

At its inception, Akwesasne seed savers didn’t immediately embrace the Native Seed Sanctuary, according to Kenny Perkins, who leads the project in partnership with Seedshed and is now also a Seedshed employee. And he himself was “kind of suspicious,” he said. “We don’t allow non-natives into our ceremonies.” But over time, he said he got to know Greene and the others from Seedshed really well and he saw “that they got it — that understanding of the relationship between human beings and the earth.” And he was very impressed with the people from the Hudson Valley Farm Hub and how respectful they were.

Greene said that the Native Seed Sanctuary has experienced cultural tensions because there is “so much historical trauma around everything that happened.” Even in their cooperative seed work, where they have set as their intention to learn from each other and heal, issues sometimes arise. “Four years in, it doesn’t mean people won’t be triggered.”

Greene stresses the need for awareness. The seed partnership must grapple with questions like, “Where is the leadership centered and who is doing the support work? How can we deepen our relationships?” Working through these concerns has deepened the relationships in the seed collaboration and made it more special. “I wouldn’t feel like I’m doing the work if we shy away from those conflicts,” he added.

“This relationship with Akwesasne is ground-truthing our concept — that we are working in an ethical and culturally appropriate way,” Greene said. “The challenge we just talked about is also the big success — that we continue to build trust and deepen and expand the program. That trust has allowed this cultural restoration work as well as the revival of seed and food ways.”

In her work bringing endangered native seed varieties back from the brink, Rowen White has sometimes worked with unconventional partners, including the descendants of past adversaries. She hasn’t been afraid to forge unlikely relationships toward the goal of re-matriating lost seeds to their communities of origin.

The Annual Harvest

In early November, when the corn and beans have dried in the field, a small contingent of elders and young people make the five-hour drive from Akwesasne for the harvest. By then, the squash in their Three Sisters gardens has already been collected prior to the autumn frosts.

Beyond reproducing the seed of traditional native staple crops, the seed sanctuary also produces a significant amount of food for Akwesasne. “Our partners from Akwesasne lead the harvest ceremony and show how to harvest the crops and make selections. Some of corn is braided; some is loose. It all goes up to Akwesasne in a trailer in November,” said Greene.

Onondaga Sunflower with netting to protect seeds from the birds.
Onondaga Sunflower with netting to protect seeds from the birds.

One of the people who comes down to lead ceremonies is Kenny Perkins, who is involved in much of the ongoing cultural restoration work at Akwesasne. Like Mary Arquette, Perkins has fond early memories of hanging out in his family’s garden. As a boy, Perkins was also drawn to the longhouse and its ceremonial life. “At a very young age, I took to the songs. As a kid, I’d go the longhouse and only a dozen people would be there. In the 1970s and 1980s not many people went there. Today there’s been a revitalization of food and culture.”

The harvest ceremony is open to everyone who has helped in the growing cycle. It is trilingual — in English, Mohawk and Spanish. The Farm Hub has a language justice program to provide a safe space for all. The Akwesasne Mohawk translate their own words into English while a bilingual interpreter translates English and Spanish.

Raul Carreon is a farmworker at the Farm Hub, who was part of the crew tending 30 acres of mixed vegetables in 2015. He was invited into the Native Seed Sanctuary as an interpreter in 2017. At a panel discussion held about the project last January, Carreon described his involvement with the seed sanctuary as a life-changing experience. “When I first heard the language. I froze. It was the original language of this land,” he said.

As he waited for his first ceremony to begin, someone from Akwesasne offered some thoughts that penetrated deeply into Raul’s consciousness. They said that the seeds had chosen to be here and that everyone here was chosen to be here. And they spoke of the seed garden as a safe zone from anything negative. They said that one should only enter the garden with good intention and heart.

 The Wider Community

Each year after the harvest, Seedshed and the Hudson Valley Farm Hub hold an afternoon of harvest activities open to the public. In 2019, about 75 people gathered in and around a hoophouse to select and braid seed corn, thresh sunflowers, winnow beans, and enjoy samples of cooked Buffalo Creek squash and generous helpings of blue corn mush with maple, which was as close to ambrosia as many of us had ever tasted.

At the harvest event, youth from Akwesasne taught non-native participants how to select corn for seed. This year the Seed Sanctuary grew Six Nations Blue Corn. Only the long, non-brittle ears with straight rows and uniform kernels with no mold or insect damage made the cut. Braiding is used to conserve the best ears of corn for seed stock. Hung from rafters, it is protected from pesky rodents. In demonstrating the art of corn braiding, which requires that some of the cornhusks be retained, Mary Arquette made the craft look easy. Corn that wasn’t good enough to plant as seed would later be shelled and stored in secure metal garbage cans for food. The Mohawk use wood ash to process their corn for eating, as limestone is not common in their traditional territory. A very small fraction of the harvest was only fit for composting.

At another station, Kenny Perkins coordinated bean threshing and winnowing, with each variety being threshed and cleaned in turn. There were potato beans, skunk beans and many other distinctly colorful varieties. The black and white skunk beans resembled the starry sky.

First, people stomped on beans on a clean tarp to separate the beans from their pods. After the beans were shelled, everyone was able to try their hand at winnowing the beans. This entailed flipping them up in a specially designed winnowing basket to remove the chaff. The motion required was surprisingly difficult to master.

The gathering opened and closed with everyone standing in a large circle around a display of the harvest bounty. About eight Akwesasne Mohawk adults were present. They were leaders in traditional culture, who are the partners at the Seed Sanctuary, as well as young people who are learning to lead. They introduced themselves in their indigenous language and then translated their words into English.

In closing, we were asked to share one word that summed up our experience that day. The word ‘thankful’ captures the most commonly expressed sentiment.

Several of the Mohawk people made final comments. Kenny Perkins said he appreciated the camaraderie and laughter that comes from working together in community.

Levi Herne, a young man from Akwesasne, expressed gratitude to the Seed Sanctuary for “keeping the seeds strong.” He said, “It’s good to have a backup plan,” in case the crop in Akwesasne fails.

Ionawiienhawi Sargent is a young woman who completed the Rites of Passage program two years earlier. She said that, while fasting for her rite of passage, she had dreamt that the seeds were slipping away. Since then, she has been having more hopeful dreams of unity, love and trust — which are needed to sustain the food system.

Decolonizing the Diet 

“A good part of the seed and food that we receive goes back to the Akwesasne Freedom School,” where “students give thanks before they say hello,” Tina Square explained at a presentation about the Seed Sanctuary at a winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York. Square was formerly a cultural educator for the Native North American Travelling College.

Founded in 1979, the Akwesasne Freedom School has played a central role in Mohawk cultural resurgence, including the revitalization of the Mohawk language. Only the indigenous language is spoken at the school, and the curriculum follows the cycle of ceremonies. Students are taught mindfulness and reciprocity.

The school strives to provide traditional foods of the Mohawk culture to nourish the students. They are taught how to plant and grow traditional crops themselves. For fundraisers, parents make traditional foods such as squash pie.

Other initiatives in Akwesasne also promote indigenous culture. The Akwesasne Boys and Girls Club employs a traditional food garden for hands-on education. Elders make seed packets for the club’s children, who write about what seeds mean to them.

But Akwesasne is still far from self-sufficient in traditional foods, such as indigenous corns, beans and squash, and it has not been able to keep up with its residents’ growing demand for native foods. Without a grocery store on the reservation, almost all of the people’s food dollars get spent off the reservation, often at Walmart and other big box stores. On the other hand, there are a number of traditional food initiatives on this and other reservations, from growing native foods to cooking them.

Kenny Perkins, one of the indigenous co-leaders at the Native Seed Sanctuary, has the job of getting families back into gardening again at home at Akwesasne.

For many years the chemical contamination of the land at Akwesasne and waterways from industrial pollution discharged into the nearby St. Lawrence Seaway discouraged the Mohawk people in Akwesasne from growing their own food, and from hunting and fishing. It was so bad that turtles, a ceremonial food, met the criteria for hazardous waste due to high levels of PCBs.

For Perkins, the fact that the Native Seed Sanctuary is located on uncontaminated land in the Hudson Valley heightens its importance to the Mohawk nation. Fortunately, Akwesasne’s toxic load has been declining.

“Alcoa did their cleanup and in the last five or ten years, there has been a resurgence of families growing,” he explained. “My goal as a grower in the last 10 years has been showing people how we plant, how to save seed, when we plant, and about the moon cycle.”

Perkins was formerly the lead uncle for the “Under the husk” rite of passage program that’s offered to Akwesasne young people ages 14 to 18. They mentor the initiates and try to introduce the young people to traditional foods in place of highly processed foods and Dunkin Donuts.

There has been widespread confusion about what foods are indigenous. “Fry bread and lard are celebrated as native foods, but that was never part of our culture. It makes me mad when I see t-shirts with ‘Fry Bread Power’ written on them. We have broomcorn, calico corn, white corn,” Perkins said.

Canada Crookneck Squash.
Canada Crookneck Squash.

“Once a week we eat lunch together,” Perkins said. Every family brings some food, but with the amount of good that they’re able to grow at the Seed Sanctuary he said, “We are able to use the food as a teaching tool. We make corn mush, corn soup, and corn bread. We are able to incorporate it into our programming.”

“It’s so hard to change people’s palates away from processed food,” he said. They target people that are involved in sports, from runners to lacrosse players. They start eating corn and beans and squash and venison. Then they start to garden. They can tomatoes and freeze green beans and put aside corn, beans and squash.

Perkins has seen the impact of eating traditional foods on his people. “One of the kids told me that he started eating good food and noticed he felt stronger. Then he went away and stopped eating good food. He said his body started craving all that good fresh food.”

Sacred Seeds

Several of the people in this story spoke of corn and the other seeds in ways that would be alien to mainstream farmers. As Kenny Perkins said, “We’re having a relationship with those seeds. We talk to them and sing to them. That’s a good mind and an enduring body.”

Rowen White values red corn as her “treasured teacher.” She said that she has been growing her relationship with this corn since she was 17 years old. “Sometimes I’m thinking I am growing this corn, but the corn is growing me,” she declared.

Without any rites of passage to take her into adulthood, White said, “the corn and beans became my aunties and uncles, righting my path when I was in school and teaching me to be a generous mother.”

Scientists would agree with White when she asserts that, “all these heirloom seeds came into being because our ancestors were breeders,” and that “selecting corn from teosinte was a breeding achievement of our ancestors.”

But they would probably snicker at her statement that “the plants were asked permission” and again when she invokes the idea of “right relationship” as a prerequisite for success in plant breeding.

Akwesasne seed keepers acknowledge the wisdom and foresight of those who kept seeds alive in past generations, despite the harsh times they experienced. Perkins said that the heirloom seeds that he grows and saves derive some of their power and meaning from having been passed along through so many generations.

 A Temporary Measure

The Native Seed Sanctuary is intended as a temporary intervention for reproducing the Mohawk’s seedstock. “The goal isn’t for us at Seedshed to continue to grow seeds and foods to be sent up to Akwesasne,” Greene said. He believes that it’s important to talk about capacity in Akwesasne, in terms of skills and infrastructure.

At some point, he hopes that the seed sanctuary will be able to offer the same opportunity for another community in need.

Recently, Greene was invited to Japan to teach. “We went to visit the Hiroshima Seed Bank, which is being closed. It’s the last publicly accessible seed bank in Japan. We had discussions about how to get out as many varieties as possible.”

He is currently exploring whether it would make sense for the Seed Sanctuary to grow seed from Hiroshima. “We consider the U.S. impact on Hiroshima, which includes health, farming, and growing food. That has some synchronicity.”

The Power of Seed

Readers may be puzzled or confused by the cultural significance that the Haudenosaunee ascribe to the seed of their important food plants. But Rowen White believes that it would be a mistake to dismiss this seed work as only relevant to indigenous people.

She urges us to pay heed. “We all are living in diaspora, flung out to new places for countless reasons. Not one of us is untouched by that. As indigenous people who are closer to a sense of intactness, we can be a catalyst,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine