Seed Sovereignty

By D. W. (Bill) Robinson

The term “seed sovereignty” is virtually unknown in North America. Yet the term is very well-known and, in fact, has become a political rallying cry among Hispanic farming communities and Native American peoples of the Rocky Mountain West, on a par with the term “social justice.”

The First Nations Development Institute defines Seed Sovereignty as “the right of a farmer to save, use, exchange and sell his own seeds. Seed Sovereignty is the ownership of ancient indigenous seeds.” Hispanic and small-scale Anglo farmers focus on the ownership and property rights aspect of this issue. Native Americans, however, view this subject more holistically. They are not nearly as concerned about property rights.

According to Tyrone Thompson, a Diné who manages Chi’shie Farms on the Navajo Nation, ”Most tribes regard their heritage seeds as being the source of their lives and their spirituality.” In both cases, this ownership or relationship is now under attack, as a large majority of seeds are becoming the legal property of several major multi-national agriculture, seed, or chemical corporations. As large commercial agricultural interests begin to claim ownership over seeds, many farmers and Native communities are experiencing difficulties in saving and replanting local seeds that have existed as part of their diet, religion, and cultural fabric for millennia. 

I first became aware of seed piracy while working among the small Hispanic and Native American Pueblos on either side of the Rio Grande between Española and Taos. For all of them, a large portion of their income relied on sales of chile peppers grown from landrace varieties. These chiles were descendants and iterations of a single indigenous Mesoamerican variety brought to northern Nuevo Mexico by the Spanish colonial expedition of 1598, under Juan de Oñate.

Over the centuries, those chiles, known by various names (Chimayó, Jemez, Okey Owingeh, Valarde, Española Improved, etc.), became the economic lifeblood of the entire region. In the 1970s, several large chemical and seed companies were exploring the process of Genetic Modification.  Small farmers, many of whom spoke only an archaic dialect of 15th Century European Spanish or the Pueblo languages of Tewa or Tiwi, and who were growing these delicious landrace chiles, were experiencing phenomenal growth in the burgeoning Southwestern food market. Corporate America believed they represented an easy mark. One of those chemical companies came up with an innocent-looking, yet totally vicious, plan to acquire legal ownership of the landrace chiles of the entire region.

Each fall, for several years, locals hired by the chemical and seed companies, would visit the various small farms in the Pueblos and Hispanic farming communities and purchase large quantities of ripe chiles. Each batch then underwent genetic analysis. When genes were identified that appeared to be the key contributors to the chile’s unique flavor, those genes were patented in the name of the commercial companies. Company reps then went back to the farmers and told them that they could no longer grow their own seed unless they paid a steep royalty to the commercial companies who now owned the patents.

The farmers fought back in the courts, arguing from a colonial perspective that the theft of genes was a violation of property rights. The farmers believed the seeds to be owned by the individual growers and the numerous cases dragged on in the courts until the mid-80s. Finally, in an act of extraordinary mercy and awareness, the legislature of the State of New Mexico declared the landrace chiles to be a heritage crop and designated them to be the “State Vegetable.” Thereafter, commercial corporate activities were limited to buying chiles at the current market price. In other words, “keep your hands off our chiles, corporate America.” This event is significant for another reason; it was the first legislative act in the United States where “Seed Sovereignty “ was cited as a legal principal.

This said it should be noted that the New Mexico experience was handled from a strictly Western colonial perspective. The key legal issue was ownership, and that seeds and food were no different than nuts, bolts, and televisions. They could be bought and sold like any other commodity, and they could be owned. I am told, in no uncertain terms,  by my Native American friends that traditional seeds and the food grown from them are not merely commodities. When asked to explain, I have more than once been told the story of “The Three Sisters,” and that seeds and traditional foods have an overriding spiritual dimension.  

The Three Sisters are a triumvirate of indigenous comestibles that have long played a central role in the diets, legends, and spirituality of most tribal cultures in North America. Just this past year, Kristin Piestewa, one of our volunteers at the Crazy Chile Farm in Mesa Arizona, told me her version of the story that was told to her by her Hopi father. 

“Maize, beans, and squash, the Three Sisters, were planted together. Mother Maize, the mother and sustainer of us all, was planted first. Then, when the maize had sprouted, Sister Bean was planted at the base of the sprouting maize. As they both grew, Mother Maize supported her sister. Sister Bean embraced her with her vines and fed her with the life force that dwelt in her roots. Next, Sister Squash was planted and quickly spread her large multi-lobed leaves around the base of the expanding hill, thus protecting everyone’s tender roots from the harsh summer sun. At the end of the summer, the Three Sisters died in each other’s loving arms, leaving their fruits and seeds to become the substance of the bodies and spirits of The People who planted and sustained them.” 

Human life is bought with sacrifice and sealed by the lives of the Three Sisters. Garden and food researcher, Carol Buchanan, summarized it this way in her book, Brother Crow, Sister Corn:

“When people eat the vegetables that grow in their gardens, the substance of the plants joins with the substance of the person in a way that is more than physical—more than the survival of the body. It is the survival of the spirit, also. The people’s spirits also meet the spirits of Mother Maiz, or the Three Sisters, who give their flesh to ensure the survival of the people.” (Buchanan 1997: 7).

Native American people believe in seed sovereignty too, but in a very different sort of way. According to the Rev. Canon Debbie Royals, a Pascua Yaqui from the Old Pascua Village near Tucson, and an Episcopal Priest, 

“When my people talk about Seed Sovereignty we are talking about the preservation of our language, culture, traditions, and spirituality, all of which are at the heart of our identity as a Sovereign Nation. We do not relate the preservation of seeds as preserving seeds that were brought to us by a colonizer, or for food that is not traditional to us.”

For Native Americans, protecting the health and genetic integrity of their traditional seeds is a matter of community responsibility. The seeds produce the plants that sustain their bodies and their spirits, and The People care for and sustain the plants. 

For over 50 years, I have heard the story of the Three Sisters from Native friends representing many different Tribes and Pueblos all over the Southwest. Yet for most of those years, I never connected the story with my own Western beliefs and values. Those beliefs and values have been undeniably conditioned by various branches of the Anglican Communion. I was born into the Anglican Church of India at the end of WWII and was later confirmed in the Episcopal Church of the United States. The farm I manage operates under the 501(c)3 of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. One Sunday morning, near the end of a Eucharist, I was distractedly thinking about a recent conversation with an O’odham friend about the Three Sisters. Right at that moment, the Priest said these words that are always said during the Prayer of Consecration:

“He took the bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his friends and said, “Take, eat this is my body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me. After supper, he took the cup of wine, gave thanks, and said, “Drink this all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant which is shed for you and for many Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the  Body and Blood of your Son the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.

The Book of Common Prayer 1979: 363

For the first time, I heard the words and lifegiving message of  Mother Maize, Sister Bean, and Sister Squash in the words and message of my own Eucharist. I became aware that the connection between food and humans was more than just nutritional sustenance, and that our food also nourishes our spirits…a concept that is probably at the core of humanity, worldwide. 

3 comments on “Seed Sovereignty”

  1. Bill, this is excellent! Hopefully your article will open collective eyes to the relationship between seeds and plants and the Native Americans. One can glean much information and lessons from your piece. Thank you.

  2. Great article Bill. I grew up in Santa Fe, NM and in the fall my family often made trips to Chimayo to get Chilie ristras and partake of great food in northern NM villages. Nice to know more about these heritage seeds and their importance to farmers, indigenous folks and their place in history.
    Deacon Sally Durand

  3. A wonderful story of the power of people protecting their heritage and culture. A great example of being diligent and persevering in the face of corporate greed.