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Seeds of Resilience: The Power of Native Seed Banks

Updated: Jun 11

In a landscape dominated by industrial agriculture and the erosion of cultural traditions, Native seed banks are powerful catalysts for change. More than mere preservationists of heirloom crop varieties, these indigenous-led initiatives actively cultivate resilience, food sovereignty, and cultural revival in communities across the United States. The roots of this movement can be traced back to the late 1970s when, alongside the Civil Rights movement, Indigenous communities began organizing to address land rights and other cultural and social issues [1].


Image of hands holding blue corn.
Blue corn varieties were developed by Indigenous tribes of the Southwestern United States and Mexico over centuries of cultivation.

Native seed banks are living repositories of traditional crop varieties, carefully cultivated by Indigenous peoples for generations. These seeds carry not only cultural significance but also unique adaptations to local environmental conditions. "To us, seeds are our relatives," emphasizes Rowen White, chair of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network (ISKN) [1].


However, colonialism, forced relocation, and the rise of industrial agriculture have gravely threatened these traditional seed varieties. The Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy or the Six Nations, have witnessed this firsthand. In 1779, George Washington ordered the Sullivan Campaign, a military expedition that laid waste to over 40 Haudenosaunee villages and croplands, shattering their food supply and way of life.


In response, Indigenous communities and organizations like ISKN are actively working to rematriate seeds—to bring them back home to their native land. This process involves painstakingly locating seeds in museums, university vaults, and government seed banks, and then returning them to the tribes to be grown and shared once more.


The Cherokee Nation Seed Bank, for instance, distributes traditional varieties of corn, beans, and other crops to tribal members across the country. In 2023 alone, they disseminated over 9,500 seed packages, with demand so high that seeds run out within hours [2].


Seed rematriation is not only about preserving culture but also about actively promoting food sovereignty and security. By growing traditional crops, communities can reduce their reliance on industrial agriculture and ensure access to healthy, culturally-appropriate foods.


Moreover, Native seed banks play a crucial role in actively protecting biodiversity. Indigenous farmers have developed countless unique crop varieties adapted to different climates, soils, and growing conditions. This diverse genetic heritage may hold the key to developing resilient food systems in the face of climate change.


Recognizing this, the USDA is partnering with tribes and organizations like ISKN to actively support seed saving efforts. In 2024 alone, they invested in new seed cleaning equipment, funded native seed propagation projects, and launched a new seed saving series [3].


By actively restoring traditional seeds to their rightful stewards and supporting Indigenous-led agriculture, Native seed banks are planting the seeds of a more sustainable and just food system for all.


Sources:

1. Rubiano A., María Paula. "Centuries After Their Loss and Theft, Native American Seeds Are Reuniting With Their Tribes." Atlas Obscura, 8 Sept. 2020, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/native-seed-rematriation.

2. Fletcher, Micah. "Cherokee Nation Seed Bank popularity at all time high." Cherokee Phoenix, 7 Feb. 2024, https://www.cherokeephoenix.org/services/cherokee-nation-seed-bank-popularity-at-all-time-high/article_af615dbc-c5e2-11ee-9cd0-d3b07223467f.html.

3. "USDA Tribal Food Sovereignty Progress Update Spring 2024." U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Tribal Relations, Spring 2024.

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