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Rowen White, Mohawk Seed Keeper: Decolonizing Taste Buds

Rowen White, Mohawk Seed Keeper: Decolonizing Taste Buds

Rowen White is from the Mohawk Nation of Akwasasy and is the director of the Sierra Seed Cooperative.

Following is an edited transcript of an oral interview Rowen graciously conducted for Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds. Unfortunately we couldn’t include the full interviews in the film so we’re making them available online. Any errors in the text are the fault of the transcription, not of Rowen White.

SEEDS MOVIE: What does it mean to be a Seed Keeper?

Rowen White: A Seed Keeper is someone who stewards seed with integrity. A person who not only carries the seed from one generation to the next, but is also aware of the responsibility of carrying the stories alongside the seed and carrying the longstanding traditions that people have kept since the beginning of agriculture.

SEED MOVIE: You also teach people about seeds and seed saving. How does the idea of the Seed Keeper influence your teaching?

Rowen White: My teaching style comes from my heart, you know I try and speak to these, concepts in a way that people can understand where I come from as a grounded human being planting food on the earth. I really try and infuse into the classroom, my own personal experience and my own personal interaction with seeds on my farm. Seeds have really influenced my life so I try and imbue that sense of reverence, that sense of spirit, that sense of heart, that sense of hope, that sense of respect into the classroom. I always love, really love to teach about seeds within the farm setting but that’s not always possible. It’s not possible for everyone to come to my farm. So I always try and find that balance of trying to infuse what I’m teaching about into the real world and trying to get them to conjure up images and ideas of how this fits into a working farm or garden.

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SEED MOVIE: How did you become so passionate about seed?

Rowen White: My journey with seed started when I was around 19 or 20. My mother always had a garden but it was never really a huge part of our lives it was kind of always in the background. And it wasn’t until I was 19 or 20 heading to college that I really started to take notice of the food system and agriculture. I got really excited to learn more about where my food came from. I became excited to learn more about healthier ways of living and being.

I grew up in a very mainstream type culture. The foods that we were eating while growing up were very processed and very removed from the earth. When I went to college I learned about organic agriculture and new ways of living, immediately it took me back to my roots which was in the Mohawk tradition. We have a really longstanding agricultural tradition, and I never learned any of that growing up. I learned a lot of other cultural traditions and soon recognized that our cultural traditions are very intertwined with our agrarian traditions. And so our ceremonies and songs and much of our words were all intertwined into this agricultural tradition. But we weren’t planting any more. So of course being the curious person I am, and really drawn into the story and the tradition behind the agriculture, I started asking some of my elders and people in my Mohawk community about the seeds and about the stories and where did all that go? What are the 3 sisters? What is that story?

The story of corn plays really prominently into our creation story. I know the corn came to us in the beginning in our creation story. Corn is a huge part of who we are as Mohawk people and our identity. So naturally I was like ‘what happened’? This used to be such a huge part of who we were. Why are we not doing this any more? And fortunately I had the great pleasure to sit with many elders and hear incredible stories and was gifted these little jars of seed. And that was the beginning of my journey with seeds and it really did begin with the story. That was really the draw in for me, like wow these are living breathing relatives. They have stories. They have seen places that we haven’t, you know? They bear witness to the past, the place that we’ve never gone and they kind of act as sort of a bridge between generations as they get passed down.

So I began to curate a fairly diverse collection of Mohawk seeds and was learning more about the traditional ways of planting them and that was what I ended up doing for my thesis – learning about how seed conservation was seated in a cultural context. Reclaiming our agricultural heritage and our seed heritage really goes hand in hand with the cultural restoration that’s happening within our Mohawk community and within many other indigenous and tribal communities. Those two efforts really cannot be separated. So that was my beginning into that Seed Keeper journey and I have been really blessed to have that become my life’s work and I treat it with the utmost respect and I carry that responsibly that responsibility very seriously, you know the responsibility to my ancestors to carry the seeds and the stories so that they’re not forgotten. It’s a very important part in our culture.

SEED MOVIE: What is the story of the three sisters?

Rowen White: In the Mohawk tradition the 3 sisters are we call it Deohako which means ‘our sustenance’ so it’s basically this interrelationship between 3 plants, you know the corn growing in the middle, the beans planted around supporting the corn and then the squash growing all around. And it’s really a story of interdependence. It’s the story of understanding how we cannot as humans, plants and animals be separated from one another. That that we’re all reliant upon one another and when we are removed from each other then we’re not as strong as if we’re all together. So that’s kind of the essence of the three sister’s story is that we’re meant to work together.

SEED MOVIE: In your teachings you sometimes talk about “decolonizing minds”, can you explain that further?

Rowen White: I think within tribal communities the way that our relationship has been severed from the land and from our food ways has been one of force. It’s not been by choice. You know in the American mainstream culture it’s been often times a choice to leave the farm and go to the city and to remove ourselves from the agrarian lifestyle.

Within First Nations and indigenous communities, our food ways have been taken from us by force. And through a colonizing force and so the foods that were given to us to replace our traditional foods, were once from were once of the colonizing peoples which were wheat and lard and different salt and different types of meat and these foods have been serious health hazard within our community.

And so when we talk about decolonizing our minds or what I like to talk about is how we can decolonize our taste buds, okay? So we have to begin to teach our children First Nations children and all children to begin to eat things that are whole, that were traditional. And to begin to eat things that are nourishing to our bodies. When we talk about decolonizing our lives or decolonizing our minds it’s that process of reclaiming these old traditional food ways and these old traditional seed ways.

We have to remember that even though the fast food and the junk food is something that tastes good in the moment that really we’re doing ourselves such a disservice when we partake in those foods. If we can retrain and reawaken and remember our affinity to these old ancient food ways that we’re really going to be in a much more resilient people as a result.

SEED MOVIE: What has the story of seeds been in the past 100 years and how have you seen it changing recently?

Rowen White: A lot has changed in the past 100 years with the story of seeds. We’ve gone in the last hundred to two hundred years of being a culture of people who’ve been completely in control of saving our seeds – really no industry at all – to a place where we have extreme corporate consolidation of seeds. In just 100 to 200 years. Really since WW2 there has been an amazing consolidation of seed resources. And obviously the reason why we’re all doing this seed work, this grassroots, organic, sustainable, regional seed work, is because we see that there’s a problem. That we are being stripped of our rights to be able to save seed by these corporations who increasingly want more control and power. In some ways that consolidation cannot live forever. Because it’s so precarious where we sit. And I think that what it’s doing is inspiring a whole new generation of young farmers and seed stewards and seed keepers to reclaim the seed. And in a really beautiful way it’s engaging people who would have never been called to save seed or to engage within the seed saving cycles. I mean I’m seeing people at Seed School who are political activists who are anarchists who are artists who are musicians and singers and an incredible range of people being called because of the political nature of what’s happening with our seed resources. And I think it’s a wonderful collection of people who are going to slowly reclaim our rights and rebuild truly sustainable seed system and network that’s based on abundance and cooperation and collaboration. I have so much hope and I have so much anticipation to see this new seed movement emerge.

SEED MOVIE: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?

Rowen White: Whenever we go to a Seed School or a seed workshop or I have people come to our farm – when I’m teaching these fundamental seed saving skills, it’s not teaching anything new. When I begin to show them these simple acts of winnowing or threshing or extracting seeds from a tomato, there’s a reawakening that’s happening. There’s sort of a rekindling of something that they already knew. Each one of us is only one or two generation removed from the act of seed saving as an act of survival, you know we all have that within ourselves and so when I have the opportunity to teach this, I see almost across the board, every time this sort of spark or sort of reawakening with the students. It just takes the right fertile ground for us to reawaken that part of ourselves to say ‘hey i can do this and I can be empowered to plant a seed in the ground and to watch it grow and then to save that seed and replant it’ and that’s the most exciting part to me, is to see the healing the healing nature of seed saving.

The healing that can occur is incredible across multi generations, people who are descendants of slaves or people who are descendants of Native Americans or people who are descendants of immigrants who disrupted for their own traditional life ways and food ways get to reengage in that cycle. And I’m so honored to be a part of that and every time that that happens, that that spark or that rekindling happens is a recharge for me as a seed keeper and as a seed steward, it keeps it fresh for me.

You know I remember each time that it is special and sacred and wonderful and it’s a beautiful dance that we do with these seeds and you know it’s just like when I go into my greenhouse on the farm. And I see the new sprouts coming up out of the soil. That never wears off for me. Every time I get this sort of ‘aha!’ moment ‘oh it worked again’. It happened. The magic is still happening and so I I like to be able to impart that same sort of ‘aha’ moment with my students and that’s what keeps it going for me.

SEED MOVIE: What makes a seed grow?

Rowen White: I think a seed grows because it wants to experience more of itself. I think it really is this yearning to engage with a part of itself that it never has been. It’s like we’re all sort of as a human we’re all sort of reaching for something better or for something new or for something that inspires us or inspires creativity. And I think the seed also is yearning for that next expression for that next beautiful incarnation and step in life. And it’s also has this beautiful life force that it’s carrying the responsibility from those who’ve come before it and it also has a responsibility for those yet to come. And so it’s just got that life force that keeps things going.

SEED MOVIE: Tell me a little bit about Sierra Seed Cooperative.

Rowen White: Sierra Seed Coop is a network of growers. We’re a growers cooperative and we work together to pull together all of our own seed resources that are being grown on individual farms and gardens. We pull them together and are able to repackage them under a common label and distribute them within our watershed. To get locally adapted seeds out to farmers and gardeners in our area.

Corn on burlap

SEED MOVIE: How does the coop element affect the diversity of seeds?

Rowen White: Having a coop of seed growers is really important because each one of us doesn’t have to be responsible for minting all of the diversity. I can take a few crops and my neighbor can take a few crops. And another person can take a few crops and then we can pull them together as one common resource. I mean really it’s not anything new; it’s what people have been doing for a long time. It really is a beautiful function of social fabric or you know rural social fabric to be able to save and swap seeds.

I think that’s what sets the our coop apart from other seed companies for one is that we rely strictly on seeds that are grow with our specific bioregion. We’re not importing seeds from other regions into our seed catalogs. So what we offer in our seed catalog has been grown within a 40-mile radius so we’re really emphasizing local seeds. And when we want to talk about a truly sustainable local food system we have to remember to include the seeds. Because if we don’t have local seeds, we don’t have a truly local food system. What happens if the growers can’t order seeds from mail order seed companies? What’s going to happen then?

Seed saving used to be a part of every farm. And we’ve lost that skill. It’s really exciting to see young farmers and gardeners within the organic local seed movement bring seed back into the farmscape. It’s a foundational element to farming. And a fundamental input of agriculture is seed. That’s where it all starts.

Seeds Movie: Thank you Rowen. Keep doing what you do. You are amazing! Visit her at: http://sierraseeds.org/

You can learn more about Seed School here.