AMHERST, Mass. - Ethnobotanist Rowen White, Akwesasne, gathers and grows
out Haudenosaunee heirloom crop varieties for the Akwesasne Seed
Restoration Project, a community-based organization. She also has a
personal project under way: Recording the stories of her grandmother, who
was brought up on an isolated island in the St. Lawrence River. Nowadays,
White is not in Upstate New York, where her reservation straddles the
U.S./Canadian border, but in the hills of northern Massachusetts, where
she's on the faculty of her alma mater, Hampshire College. White, who got
her degree in 1999, is expecting her first child.
Indian Country Today: Tell me about your project.
Rowen White: Our goal is to create a network of Haudenosaunee seed growers.
That involves finding and cataloging our heirloom varieties. There are
approximately 40 different kinds of beans, two dozen varieties of corn, and
half a dozen squashes that are considered Haudenosaunee. I go into our
communities and look for old crops. I talk to elders about foods they
remember, and I also ask people to be on the lookout for certain plants.
One of their neighbors might be growing something very old and not realize
it. In some cases, there are only a handful of seeds of a certain variety
left on the planet. So, we see this as a race against time. We want to
collect the seeds and get them grown out to the point where we have enough
ICT: What's the mechanism for doing that?
White: Among other things, we have an e-mail listing to get seed swaps
going among community members.
ICT: What's the community's role in all this?
White: We especially want to give people our Haudenosaunee corn, so a lot
of it can be grown at once. To keep a population of corn plants healthy,
you need many of them, so they can diversify. A biologically-diverse
population is a strong one; each plant has a unique combination of
strengths, so if there is a drought, let's say, or an early frost, some
plants will always survive. But, nowadays, because there are so few seeds
left of some corn types, they've lost that flexibility. Certain varieties
are not as robust as they once were. Our corn needs our people to grow it
and live with it and select it for certain characteristics - to
re-diversify it, as we Haudenosaunee people have been doing for millennia.
ICT: You don't sound like a mainstream seedbank.
White: Not at all. Non-indigenous seedbanks see seeds as static.
ICT: You mean, a Paiute bean is a Paiute bean, and that's that? They
wouldn't want it to change?
White: Exactly, but for indigenous people, our seeds are the witnesses to
our past. Now, because of climate change, environmental degradation, and
land loss, the seeds are suffering. We have to bring them back to health,
and they, in turn, will heal us.