Appetites: These Minnesotans collect, cultivate ancestral seeds as climate changes

Indigenous group tracks down lost, ancient varieties of corn, beans, squash

Squash and pumpkins sit on a table
Indigenous varieties of squash grown from seeds rematriated by Dream of Wild Health.
Courtesy of Dream of Wild Health

In the last decades, Indigenous communities have stopped growing the varieties of corn, beans, squash, and various plants they had cultivated for years. Now, a group in Minnesota wants to track down and return these lost seeds to the Indigenous communities who once cared for them.

Jessika Greendeer, farm director and seed keeper at Dream of Wild Health, joined Appetites to share more about their seed rematriation efforts.

Check out the full conversation by using the audio player above or by reading the transcript below. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Can you give a brief explanation of seed rematriation?

Many people are familiar with the term repatriation when we think about wars and the return of prisoners of war, bodies and objects.

Rematriation is focused on the living. The women throughout time were the ones who tended to the gardens. Rematriation is not only caring for the seeds and bringing them back to the gardens where they need to grow but it's also about finding those seeds.

Many of our Indigenous varieties of seeds have lost their names or their ties to the community that they originated from. So, a lot of it is trying to solve mysteries for so many of the seeds that we work with.

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How do you find these seeds?

[It’s] working with other tribes, other Indigenous beekeepers to reconnect to those seeds and then get them back to where they need to be.

Part of that is also looking within the not-so-distant history of where our tribes were located before they were possibly removed from their ancestral lands, but also finding the tribes that they would have traded with or maybe had shared seeds with in the past.

Give us an example of a seed that was thought to be lost and the journey of discovering it, rematriating it, and then planting it.

The seed that comes to mind is the Hopi black turtle bean. I was trying to find more information about this particular seed.

Later that fall, I actually found myself working on a rematriation event with the University of Michigan. One of the other participants in that was a Hopi woman [but] it’s not one of the seeds that she had.

It wasn't until we looked within the museum collection that we found the black turtle bean within their collection and that was something that was gathered from her ancestors back in the early 1900s.

What does it look and taste like?

Oh my god, it's amazing. For people who have a garden, they can go out and eat something within their garden and say, "This is the best carrot I've ever had or this is the best tomato I've ever had in my life.”

And it's because we've formed that relationship with them. It wasn't just going to the grocery store or the farmers' market to buy that particular piece of produce.

That's something that we put our love and our hope into that particular plant. It's something that you can eat that also feels like it fills your spirit.

I imagine for you and for others that it really has a deeper resonance.

I'm caring for those seeds not to expect to be able to consume them during the harvest. We're taking care of them, especially within climate chaos, to make those seeds more resilient — to continue to adapt to the changing climate.

But it's also knowing that all the work that we're doing now is in the hopes that these seeds will outlive us.