American Indians are rediscovering heirloom seeds to preserve the past and promote a healthier future
by Judy Keen
HUGO, Minn. — Clothespins clasp delicate squash blossoms in a garden at the Dream of Wild Health farm. White envelopes are fastened around corn shoots that will mature into cobs.
Care is needed to prevent these special plants from cross-pollinating with others. Their seeds, passed like treasure through generations of American Indian tribes, are pure heirloom strains, unaltered by modern agricultural techniques.
They represent the past, when seed savers were charged with protecting the plants that provided food and medicine to their tribes. They symbolize a future that could reconnect American Indians to their culture and renew interest in healthy foods that might help offset high rates of obesity and diabetes.
“We lost our traditional ways of raising our food and we became dependent upon a totally foreign food that is killing us to this day,” says Ernie Whiteman, an Arapaho who is the project’s cultural director. “We’re doing a recovery process.”
Dream of Wild Health is part of Peta Wakan Tipi, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit group that provides housing and support services for American Indians recovering from drug and alcohol abuse.
The 10-acre organic farm also raises vegetables that are sold at farmers’ markets and are planted, prepared and consumed by urban American Indian youngsters enrolled in a four-week summer program.
The saved seed initiative here began in 2000, when Cora Baker, a Potawatomi “Keeper of the Seeds” from Wisconsin, donated her collection of indigenous seeds to Dream of Wild Health.
Since then, seeds have been sent here by tribes from across the country. Among them: 100-year-old Arikara corn from North Dakota and squash seeds found in an archaeological dig on a Wisconsin reservation that were carbon-dated to 800 years ago.
Seed saving is a priority for many tribes. The White Earth Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota grows saved seeds. Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit group in Tucson, Ariz., has a seed bank with almost 2,000 varieties. The Traditional Native American Farmers’ Association, based in New Mexico, distributes indigenous seeds in its community.
“Preserving indigenous foods is very close to Native American culture,” says Frank Haney, an Ojibwa who manages the Dream of Wild Health farm. “Whenever they moved from one place to the next, the seed saver was responsible for moving the seeds.”
High Diabetes, Obesity Rates
Craig Hassel, an associate professor and extension nutritionist at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Food Science and Nutrition, says tribes were separated from their food traditions generations ago when they were confined to reservations.
“They became wards of the state and the federal government assumed responsibility for what they needed to survive. They dropped off sugar, lard, canned foods and flour — food the people really didn’t know what to do with.”
Migratory patterns were disrupted and the European food system imposed on Native Americans. “The end result,” Hassel says, “is that the rates of diabetes and heart disease are three- to eightfold higher in American Indian communities.”
In the last two decades, he says, tribes across the country are returning to traditional ways, including their relationship with food. Indigenous seeds are part of that trend.
“Agricultural scientists believe that whatever we find in nature is imperfect and needs to be improved,” Hassel says. “From a native perspective, what we’re doing is tampering with what’s already perfect.”
Laboratory testing of heirloom corn, bean and squash seeds from Dream of Wild Health found greater concentrations of copper, calcium, magnesium and amino acids than in store-bought seeds, Hassel says. The most pronounced difference was in bean seeds; the indigenous seeds contained increased levels of antioxidants.
Ideally, Haney says, the saved seeds should be planted every year to keep them viable. The farm has too many seeds to make that possible now, though. How they’re stored is key: They must be kept away from light and their moisture levels maintained.
He keeps jars of some saved seeds in a refrigerator in his office, and others are stored in a closet.
“The older the seeds are, the less success you’re going to have with germination,” he says.
The seeds are fragile. Last year Haney planted 100 saved sweet corn seeds; 12 germinated and five plants made it to maturity. This summer he planted 100 seeds and 30 to 40 of them are growing. He says he can’t wait to taste the corn.
Diane Wilson, executive director of Dream of Wild Health, is a master gardener and a Sioux. Saved seeds “are a beautiful legacy that so many people were involved in protecting,” she says.
Being caretakers of the seeds, she says, “is a huge responsibility. You have to protect and preserve them, figure out how to maintain their viability, grow them and decide how to distribute them.”
The farm shares its seeds with others when asked for specific varieties, Wilson says, but “our primary focus is to raise these indigenous seeds for native families, not to figure out a way to commercialize them.”
The broad goal of the saved seed project is “cultural recovery,” she says. “Our people became disconnected from the land. Once you lose that, you lose your relationship with the food. It’s central to our culture: Traditions, song, ceremonies, all were connected to food.”
Dream of Wild Health plans to create a seed library to ensure that its seeds endure for future generations. Tribal elders are consulted about every decision.
“Direction has to come from a spiritual foundation,” Wilson says. “We want to bring native foods back to native people.”
Whiteman feels that renewed connection and says it’s rewarding to watch native youngsters feel it, too. Every day, the youth program at the farm begins with a prayer circle using ceremonial tobacco from 800-year-old saved seeds.
“It makes me proud and it makes me feel that I’m part of something that has been here for thousands of years,” he says. “We’re not only planting seeds in the field, we’re planting seeds in these young people.”