Elizabeth Hoover, “Seed Sovereignty and ‘Our Living Relatives’ in Native American Community Farming and Gardening”

Bean pod being opened by two hands

Native heirloom seed varieties, many of which have been passed down through generations of Indigenous gardeners or re-acquired from seed banks or ally seed savers, are often discussed by Indigenous farmers as the foundation of the food sovereignty movement, and as helpful tools for education and reclaiming health. This presentation explores how Native American community-based farming and gardening projects are defining heirloom or heritage seeds; why maintaining and growing out these seeds is seen as so important, and how terms like seed sovereignty should be defined and enacted. Many of the definitions seed keepers provided highlight the importance of heritage seeds for connecting them to previous generations of seed keepers; as a symbol of how tribal governments and citizens needed to better protect their cultural property; and as a token of the “relationality” that many Indigenous people feel towards aspects of their food systems. Seeds are described almost as intergenerational relatives– both as children that need nurturing and protecting, and as grandparents who contain cultural wisdom that needs guarding.  For these reasons, a growing network of Indigenous seed keepers is coalescing to not only provide education to tribal people around seed planting and saving, but also to push for the “rematriation” of Indigenous seeds from institutions who have collected or inherited them, back to their communities of origin. 


Elizabeth Hoover is Associate Professor of American Studies at Brown University where she also serves as the Faculty Chair of Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative steering committee. Her first book The River is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community, (University of Minnesota Press, 2107) is an ethnographic exploration of Akwesasne Mohawks’ response to Superfund contamination and environmental health research.  Her second book project-in-progress From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds; Indigenizing the Local Food Movement explores Native American community based farming and gardening projects; the ways in which people are defining and enacting concepts like food sovereignty and seed sovereignty; the role of Native chefs in the food movement; and the fight against the fossil fuel industry to protect heritage foods. She also recently co-edited a book Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States with Devon Mihesuah (2019 University of Oklahoma Press). Elizabeth has published articles about Native American food sovereignty and seed rematriation; environmental reproductive justice in Native American communities; the cultural impact of fish advisories on Native communities; and tribal citizen science.  Outside of academia, Elizabeth serves on the executive committee of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) and the board of North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NATIFS).

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