When North America was colonised, the relationship of indigenous people with food was also colonised. But a group of women acting as seed keepers for their communities are fighting back, practicing decolonisation in their daily work and addressing the legacy of food colonisation through the reclamation of seeds and the traditions, practices, and affective relations that nurture human-plant-environment relationships and keep Native communities thriving, healthy, and connected.
Understanding the colonisation of North America begins with understanding food. Europeans thought that Natives could be ‘civilized’ through their stomachs. Targeting Native diets and methods of food provisioning was a way to control and disempower. Native populations of humans, non-human animals, and plants were decimated due to disease and violence. In what is now called the United States, native groups were forced onto individual allotments, often marginal land away from ancestral homes. Sedentary farming was viewed as the rational form of land use, shaping the native in the white yeoman farmer’s image.
And in residential schools, Native languages, dress and diets were forcefully repressed and replaced with English, European clothing and foods like wheat and dairy, which were largely absent from Native diets previously (Vernon 2015).
The legacy of this physical and cultural violence is clear: today, at least 60 Native reservations struggle with food insecurity, and Native families are four times as likely as other US families to report having not enough to eat (PWNA 2017). This places many Native communities in a relationship of dependence with the US Government: the USDA provides canned goods, powdered milk, processed cheese and white sugar, contributing directly to high rates of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity (Vernon 2015).
Native women are addressing the legacy of food colonisation by asserting their communities’ right to grow food for themselves—food that nourishes human bodies, cultural tradition, and the wider web of non-human species and environments. These women and the groups they work with not only promote food sovereignty but practice it: Winona La Duke of the Anishinnaabe founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project, which bought back 1,200 acres of tribal land that had been appropriated by the US government and began a project to revive the collection of wild rice, an important traditional food.
Rowen White of the Mohawk Nation founded Sierra Seeds, a company selling locally adapted and heritage varieties, and directs the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN). In the winter of 2018, the ISKN came to an agreement with Seed Savers Exchange, a public access seedbank of rare and heritage varieties, to identify and rematriate varieties of corn, beans and squash that originated in Native communities (White, n.d.).
Rufina Juarez, a Chicana Indigenous woman, helped organise the 14-acere South Central Farm, maintained by 350 primarily Central American families as a space to grow culturally appropriate, nourishing food in 20-by-30-foot plots. The farm was a haven for immigrants to grow food that connected them to the places they left behind: nopales, corn, squash, tlapanche and papalo greens, lettuces, strawberries, cabbages (Mark 2006). The farm was bulldozed in 2006 even after farm advocates were able to raise money to meet the $16 million asking price. (Juarez 2010, Gordon 2006).
And still, new challenges constantly arise: climate change alters traditional migratory routes of important game animals like caribou, land grabbing for industrial monocropping or extraction removes land from indigenous stewardship, and biopiracy and corporate consolidation of the seed industry deteriorates crop biodiversity (Cultural Survival 2013). Native women continue to organise in the face of these challenges, recognising that colonisation is an ongoing, evolving process, deeply tied to the machinations of globalised capital.
The work of seed keeping and the maintenance of community tradition it entails is often, but not exclusively, spearheaded by women. Collaboration between many stakeholders, Native or not, young and old, male, female, or otherwise, is key. I chose to highlight these initiatives because women are central and powerful, but are not burdened with speaking for ‘nature’, from an essentialised, gender-based position. Rather, their work builds on traditions of care, affectivity, and community network building that women and others have performed for generations, throughout the trauma of colonisation and the attempted, but unsuccessful, erasure of native foodways.
 “Rematriate” means returning the seeds to their place of origin. “Repatriate” is more commonly used, but here I chose to retain the word used in White’s article, which consciously imputes a feminine quality to the seed and the land to which it is returning.
 Biopiracy describes the process by which biological or genetic material (commonly from medicinal or crop plant or animal species) is obtained and exploited for commercial use without the knowledge or consent of the original ‘owners’ or stewards of the material. The most common situation is multinational pharmaceutical or agrochemical/seed companies using indigenous plant knowledge to locate commercially valuable species, stela them, and then patent them so they become exclusive property of the corporation. The term was originally coined by Pat Mooney of the ETC Group and popularized by Vandana Shiva of Navdanya.
‘Combating Food Insecurity on Native American Reservations'(2017) , pp. 1-4Partnership with Native Americans and Northern Plains Reservation Aid.
Alvarez, L. (Last updated 2019) ‘Colonization, Food, and the Practice of Eating’ (a webpage of The Food Empowerment Project). Accessed 13 February 2019 <http://www.foodispower.org/colonization-food-and-the-practice-of-eating/>.
Mark (9 June 2006) ‘Could the battle for South Central Farm be coming to a close?’ Grist. Accessed 25 February 2019 <https://grist.org/article/mark2/>.
Juarez, R. (2010) ‘Indigenous Women in the Food Justice and Sovereignty Movement: Lessons from the South Central Farm’, NACCS Annual Conference: Chicana/o Environmental Justice Struggles for a Post-Neoliberal Age, 1 April 2010. San Jose State University pp1-10.
Vernon, R.V. (2015) ‘A Native Perspective: Food is More than Consumption’, Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development 5(4): 137-142.
White, R. ‘Indigenous Seed Keepers Network: The Long Way Home; Seed Rematriation at Taos Pueblo’ (a webpage of Native Food Alliance). Accessed 13 February 2019 <https://nativefoodalliance.org/indigenous-seedkeepers-network/>.
This article is part of the series `Women´s Month 2019´, in which members of the ISS gender committee reflect on women´s issues on Bliss.
Image Credit: https://www.stopthewall.org/apartheid-wrong
About the author:
Leila Rezvani is a Master’s student in the AFES major. She comes from Southern Vermont, USA, and is interested in the politics of scientific knowledge production, seed systems, plant breeding and thinking about how the agro-food system could be more just for plants, people and non-human animals. She misses the mountains and hopes to work for a small seed company or farm someday (soon).