As a teenager, Rowen White accidentally stumbled onto a job that would light a fire in her powerful enough to brighten any room she stepped into. On an organic farm at 17, she was shocked to learn that heirloom tomatoes came in multiple varieties; she found it even more profound that each variety could be traced to a particular tribe of people, a lineage of caretakers, and the stories of deep relationships between these seed keepers and the Earth over generations. Today, Rowen is the Director and Founder of Sierra Seeds where she focuses on reviving indigenous agricultural practices among communities affected by long histories of displacement, colonization, and forced acculturation. “Every bite we eat traces back to a seed.” You might be familiar with the term ‘farm to table’, but Rowen is dedicating her life’s work to rediscovering the journeys of seed(s) to table.
Cultivating seeds requires able bodied hands, a deep knowledge of what conditions are needed to optimally grow the plant, and then a tender tilling and gathering process before the food is ready for preparation and consumption. Cultivating foods is not easy even with the industrial agricultural methods of our time. For Rowen, to know the ways her food comes to be is to know her people. “People from all over descended from people who were seed keepers at some point. Seeds are an intimate part of everyday life.” Growing up, her parents bought food from the grocery store like everyone else on the reservation where she grew up. With no awareness about where food came from, nor an understanding of the ways in which food and agricultural traditions embodied the wisdom of her people, Rowen was aggrieved to find she was a Mohawk woman without a connection to this “cultural bundle of knowledge” as she called it.
Discovering these foodways for herself and then creating immersive educational programming for others to do the same is one way that Sierra Seeds is helping to accelerate the movement for food sovereignty across Indian country. By reclaiming ancestral ways of connecting with food, Mother Earth, and community, Rowen’s work is a kind of radical protest against generations of whitewashing that have separated many Native American communities from the ways of their ancestors. “When you consider what’s happening across the globe with multi-national corporations and patenting, planting and growing your own seed is a form of activism.” She’s referring to the industrialization of our entire food system, including the patenting of genetically modified seed varieties that farmers all over the world have taken to cultivating and subsequently abandoning organic and naturally occurring varieties.
Some of these varieties have cultural and spiritual significance to indigenous people like Rowen’s who utilize several types of corn for different ceremonies and rituals for example. “To many indigenous communities, seeds are a relative. Certain corn for certain ceremonies. If we lose them and the ability to steward and care for them, we lose part of ourselves.” By conserving various seed varieties and continuing to harvest them outside of the industrial food system, tribal communities can ensure the survival of crops that play a central role in their lives. “Every seed you plant is a tiny prayer of love, action, and hope for the future.” Rowen speaks about the relationship between humans and the places we inhabit with such compelling depth and seriousness that you are likely to ponder about your own ancestors’ ways of relating to food and the life-source that is Earth.
Rowen is assertive in her conviction that today’s seeds hold the wisdom of the past, of the struggle for growth, and the gift of life. To her, seeds represent a profound and resilient hope. In a world of war, oppression, and Trump, gardening is both a coping mechanism and an act of resilience. “It is a way to connect with the benevolence of Mother Earth who is always giving to us time and time again.” It is indeed remarkable that indigenous communities all over the world have been cultivating food on the same lands as their ancestors utilizing methods passed down for generations. This sustained stewardship of natural resources over time requires resilience in the face of shifting weather and climate conditions. “The wisdom those traditional communities have to offer us about cultivating in climate change is a gift to the planet in the face of extreme weather shift. We’re going to need to look to the indigenous communities of the world.”
Rowen is currently writing a book about her journey to discover the seed songs of her people. Her story is not unlike many others who have ever wondered about the ways and traditions of our ancestors. For many Americans of color, we would not know where to begin the journey of finding answers. To that she would advise that you begin with thinking about the foods your ancestors would have eaten. Think about the pervasive health problems we have in this country and reflect on how your diet is a departure from what was normal to eat hundreds of years ago.
Think about where you live and the access you have or lack to staple ancestral foods. Find opportunities to connect with the source of your food as it will undoubtedly give you a deeper appreciation for what it took for that food to arrive on your plate. And finally, when you’re short on hope and inspiration, find time to plant and be among the abundant gifts of life sprouting from the ground all around you.