In April 2015, Deep Roots graduate Zachary Paige spoke with SFA Communications & Membership Coordinator Jason Walker. The entire interview is as follows.
To read a condensed article about Zach, click here.
Q: Describe your seed-sovereignty project with the White Earth Land Recovery Project. How did it get started, and how is it benefiting the tribe?
Many tribes of native peoples who lived on what is now called North America have been seed keeping for thousands of years. They stewarded corn, sunflowers, squash, strawberries, blueberries, jerusalem artichokes and many other foods including wild food and game. Winona LaDuke, world-renowned Native American environmental activist founded the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP) in 1989 to restore ancestral practices of land stewardship amongst other focuses. Winona has been working on creating a regional seed network for the upper Midwest as well as easy access for white earth gardeners to attain seeds. Most of the money spent on food in the White Earth reservation (and many rural reservations) goes off-reservation. Seed saving is not just an economical activity; it also provides cultural, nutritional and biological benefits. The White Earth Reservation is a sovereign nation and there are tribal laws to protect the Anishinaabe culture and natural resources. There is an ancestral knowledge and history of growing food and saving seeds in White Earth and other native communities. By pooling resources and working together with other tribes in our region, this information becomes more accessible. WELRP hosts an Indigenous Farming Conference every year where native speakers from across the region and country bring people together and discuss issues of food and seed sovereignty.
Mainly because of Winona LaDuke’s many contacts and the seed keeping discussions held at the Indigenous Farming Conference for the last two years, the White Earth Land Recovery Project wrote and was awarded a grant from the Administration of Native Americans on Oct, 1st 2014 titled the “Upper Midwest Indigenous Seed Keeping Network.” A large part of the grant project is a traveling two-day “Train the Trainers” seed-keeping workshop led by native seed keepers in over 12 tribes, tribal colleges and communities in the Upper Midwest region. They are sharing resources on seed keeping techniques, creating a protection for seeds with indigenous origins through ancestral agricultural knowledge and treating them with respect as living, breathing relatives.
Q: What have you learned about seed sovereignty and why is it important? How can others benefit from this concept?
I’ve learned that seed sovereignty constitutes the act of tribal nations using the sovereignty they exercise and are and recognized by treaty rights to protect their traditional food systems. Upon their arrival to Turtle Island, white settler colonialists took native seed varieties, and used them for their own breeding projects. Many of these seed varieties eventually ended up being locked away in research facilities and museums or going entirely extinct. The USDA currently makes some of these native seeds available, yet we ultimately need a different solution. Through a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, we’re aiming to put these seeds back into the hands of Native people.
Even though we have funding, we still face significant obstacles. Let’s take corn as an example. We know that Big Ag routinely breeds corn using bioengineering techniques. This transgenic corn results from splicing genes from different organisms (other than corn) in order to create resistance to poisonous weed-killing chemicals. Unfortunately, corporate farmers grow transgenic corn within the boundaries of the White Earth Indian Reservation and many other reservations. The pollen from this Franken-corn can contaminate other corn varieties (including traditional native varieties) in fields up to two miles away, which ultimately compromises seed quality. Under current seed patent laws, this constitutes a legal issue. Research on native corn varieties has proven fruitful and has revealed that these varieties have a significantly higher nutritional content than conventional corn. Yet, a huge disparity exits between the research funding directed toward conventional varieties and native varieties: For every $70 of research funding allocated toward conventional breeding, organic systems receive just $1. Enrolled members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe own a mere 10 percent of reservation land due to the U.S. government’s long history of land theft. Private entities (including big agricultural companies) and the government own the other 90 percent. However, tribal councils control many of the laws governing the land within reservation boundaries, and several tribes have begun creating laws to protect their traditional seeds from contamination.
This issue also has relevance outside of Indian Country: it highlights one of the core problems inherent to our current food system. Large seed companies and their associated seed patent laws affect all of us. If we don’t have control of our seeds, do we really have control of our food system? Saving seeds empowers us to take charge of closing another loop in our food system; in order to do this, we need to create a stronger “public commons” to protect small-scale and organic farmers from lawsuits and to safeguard the integrity of our seeds.
Q: What is your personal background? Did you grow up on a farm or had you done farm/seed saving work previously?
I had no experience farming until after graduating college. I taught music and worked on farms for two summers in the off-season teaching music. I had all sorts of questions brewing in my mind regarding plant cultivation, breeding and why many “sustainable” farms didn’t save their seeds. I really thought that this was something important that would close the gap in the cyclical nature of sustainable food systems.
In 2012 I joined the White Earth Land Recovery Project and attended Seed School in Tuscon, Ariz., taught by Native Seeds/SEARCH. I gained a lot of resources that were able for me to teach seed saving courses in White Earth and start a seed library, have been saving many varieties of seeds ever since.
Q: How did your education in Sustainable Food Production prepare you for this type of work?
I took the Sustainable Food Production course in 2012-13 (Editor’s Note: Deep Roots was known as Sustainable Food Production at that time). From taking the course, I gained a holistic vision of our sustainable food systems by looking at the many different angles. I cannot say enough about the instructors. Sue Wika, Tom Prieve, Ryan Pesch and Kent Solberg are true living inspirations. They practice what they preach, know the basics, are pushing the envelope and are always questioning. I was able to become an effective farm manager at the White Earth Land Recovery Project farm because of their hands-on training. Experiential training is the best you can get and I would recommend this program to any beginning farmer looking to get started. You will quickly realize that you have entered an extremely supportive group that has dedicated their lives to heal the earth by producing truly sustainable alternatives to our agribusiness system.