Thousands of historical seeds preserved by the Onondaga Nation Farm

Scarlett Lisjak

'We've already adapted to so many changes since the time of contact, and our foods are there right alongside of us'

Syracuse, N.Y. — A collection of thousands of seeds are kept at the Onondaga Nation Farm, from 500-year-old squash seeds to 4,000 year old corn seeds. This collection contains 1,179 varieties of corn seeds that belong to Indigenous populations all throughout North and South America, and even the Caribbean. A few include:

The caretaker of these seeds, Angela Ferguson, had acquired them through the late Carl Barns who left the seeds to his apprentice who later passed them on to Ferguson. For some of the seeds their people had been displaced, or no longer exist. Curtis Waterman, a worker at the farm, said the seeds are a memorial for all past, and present seed caregivers.

“Let’s say all of a sudden … something happens and we all disappear, what’s left is the corn. And that corn is the story of a legacy of someone else, it’s our legacy, and the people that work here, if we’re not here to tell that story, true, people might not know what the story is, but they’ll know what the corn is, they’ll know what the corn tastes like …” Waterman said.

blue corn - by Scarlett Lisjak
Braids of Haudenosaunee corn, used to preserve the cob. (Photo by Scarlett Lisjak)
grandfather corn - Scarlett Lisjak
Different varieties of ancestral corn including the grandfather corn on the right side that is white/grey. (Photo by Scarlett Lisjak)

The Onondaga Nation Farm grows these heritage seeds to later return them back to their ancestral communities.

"When [the seeds] dug up from some of these archaeological sites … that person who usually is not Indigenous, that’s archaeologist who finds those seeds, for the seeds that’s their first contact, the same way we saw strangers and didn’t know who they were, that’s what happens to the seeds, to know that the seeds make it back to their communities, to their own people, to the comfort of those arms, for me that’s one of the rewarding parts of it, because they hold the potential for life,” Ferguson said.

white corn - Scarlett Lisjak
White corn hangs from the ceiling of the farm. (Photo by Scarlett Lisjak)

Ferguson and the farm crew have also planted and grown the heritage seeds of the Haudenosaunee to provide food for the Onondaga Nation.

“We never have to call other people or other nations when we need something for an event we have all our own things, and that is very powerful, that is very important not only for sustainability and sovereignty but your connection to who you are as a [Native] person ...” Ferguson said.

The Onondaga Nation Farm has enough seeds to provide food for the entire Onondaga Nation for three years, and they are working on expanding it to seven years.

strawberry popcorn - Scarlett Lisjak
Strawberry popcorn used to make popcorn, Haudenosaunee variety. (Photo by Scarlett Lisjak)

This story was first published on NCC News, which is supported by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

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Scarlett Lisjak, Haudenosaunee, member of the Onondaga Nation, Heron Clan, is a broadcast and digital journalism graduate student at Syracuse University's S.I Newhouse School of Public Communications where she produces content as a multimedia journalist. Scarlett obtained her bachelors from Syracuse University in political science and psychology.  

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