Sunday, February 3, 2019

On seeds, decolonization and the feminine side of things — a conversation with Rowen White

Picture of Rowen White
Rowen White
You are a Seed Keeper — that’s a pretty cool job title. Can you tell us more about what you do?

I come from a place called Akwesasne, which is an indigenous Mohawk community near the Canadian border. Traditionally, we are an agricultural nation so caring for seeds and for the Earth in general aligns with our cultural values and has been handed down from one generation to the next over millennia. There’s a lineage of people cultivating relationship to their food and to the Mother Earth. We have quite a number of heritage and traditional varieties of corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, tobacco and other plants that have been specifically handed down through many generations over the last several thousand years as a part of our traditional food ways. I have the great honor of being one of the seed keepers of the Mohawk people which means that, together with others, I am making sure that the seeds stay alive and healthy and that they’re given freely within our community, as well as passed down to the next generations.

Sounds like a true passion.

It is a real passion. Due to the impacts of colonization and acculturation many of native North American food systems have been dismantled and unfortunately, they are not a part of our everyday life anymore. As a teenager I didn’t really have access to a lot of the traditional foods and to the cultural memory that goes with them. As a young woman I became interested in traditional farming and wanted to learn more about where our food comes from and to create more sovereignty and freedom through cultivation. That’s how I opened this Pandora’s box of the world of heirloom seeds… and wow!

It turns out that not only do seeds have this incredible diversity — a prism of different colors and shapes and sizes and places where they grow best and communities that they come from — but that they also carry stories and beautiful lineages of relationships.

For Mohawk people agriculture was historically at the center of our culture and I was very curious why it no longer was a significant part of my life and how I could reengage and restore that relationship and connection to the land. So I began to ask people, gather seeds and learn more and more about my responsibility to care for them. It led me on a 20-year-long path to being a seed keeper. Being an educator and a mentor constitutes a central part of this role. I am helping people who are in a similar situation I was 20 years ago — curious but not having access to knowledge or seeds. I am passing this knowledge I received from the elders and mentors of mine within the community because I honor the importance of keeping these traditional seeds alive together with the cultural memory that is attached to them.

Busy life!

It is. I run a seed co-operative. We have a 10-acre farm that focuses on stewardship of seeds and education of people about seed care and growing food in holistic ways. I am also the national program coordinator for the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network — a program of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which works with a number of different tribal communities to create seed libraries and banks and also to build mentorship networks to leverage resources around policy for protecting our seeds against biopiracy, biocolonialism and patenting. I travel all over North America to see tribal communities and facilitate workshops and conversations around how communities are creating these resources in their lives. So that’s my work in a nutshell. It’s complex and multilayered but it’s also a beautiful path to follow. The seeds have guided me well along my path.

So would you say that seed keeping could be seen as a decolonization


​To me decolonization is the foundation of the seed sovereignty movement. But I also like to put a positive spin on it: it’s re-indigenising.

​We are claiming back our traditions and rehydrating those original agreements that we had with the plants and with our ancestors but also with our descendants. It doesn’t happen only in Native American nations. Across the globe communities start to recognize the importance of durable, resilient, local food systems. Local engagement has been growing the incredible momentum in the last several decades. The Seed Freedom Movement is a part of it because we recognize that we cannot have a durable and resilient local food system if we don’t have locally adapted seeds that are a part of it. Seeds are the foundation of agriculture but they also encode a memory of the land, the climate, the weather, as well as people’s cultural values, aesthetics and stories. And now people of all generations are coming together to recognize the importance of seed heritage, to create new ways to counteract the globalization and industrialization of our food systems, to resist monocultures. At the heart of what I do is the creation of the seed literacy. Even if you’re not a farmer or a gardener, seed is a vitally important thing in your life because we all eat.
Picture of seeds in a bowl
Photo: Rowen White
Among Mohawk people the women were traditionally responsible for seed keeping. Is it still the case within this modern growing movement?

Historically in most cultures — although I can confidently talk only about the Mohawks — seeds were considered feminine. It relates to our own reproductive system — it’s the woman who carries the seed. If you look botanically, it’s the female part of the plant that is creating the seed, so this is a feminine expression of the plant’s life cycle. In our tradition and in many cultures and traditions across the globe seeds have traditionally been considered a feminine aspect of the agricultural system and largely it’s been the responsibility of women to care for them.

In your writing you are using this beautiful word — rematriation.

We’ve been using it in a lot of different contexts. Primarily it’s about restoring the feminine back into our lives through our food systems and recognizing that many of the industrial global food systems are very patriarchal, so it’s about creating that balance. Our traditional knowledge wasn’t about women being more powerful than men or the other way round. The point was to maintain that egalitarian balance between the masculine and the feminine.

Rematriation in relation to seeds is about bringing the seeds back home into their original context and into their communities of origin. Speaking more broadly, rematriation is about restoring that feminine energy back into our lives and our communities.

I learned of the word through a man named Martin Prechtel. In my latest blog post I quote a piece from his book “The Unlikely Peace of Cuchamaquic” — he speaks very eloquently about the idea of rematriation, about that holy feminine being restored back into our lives. Among native peoples we talk a lot about repatriation of things back into our communities. So in this case we decided to use a more feminine word. It’s inspired by the work of Martin Prechtel but also by the legacy and lineage within indigenous communities.

Is it relatively easy to engage young people in such work?

For many years there had been this generation gap. Older people were keeping traditions and seeds alive but younger ones didn’t engage, didn’t see it as relevant. But now I’m witnessing a resurgence of the movement among the younger folks in tribal and farming communities but also in a more mainstream culture. People are waking up to the fact that the monocropped way of life and industrialization of everything is damaging not only to the nature but also to our relationship with the world. Young people these days are inheriting a world that is deeply troubled. In a way they know they have to do something and they are enraged. Stewarding seeds is such a powerful, beautiful and inspiring path to follow. It’s a hopeful form of activism. It’s very tangible and it creates something positive to work for instead of working against something else.

We have to be good future ancestors and responsible descendants, so it’s our responsibility to care for the seeds to make sure that younger generations and future generations that we might not know yet have them.

I have a teenage daughter who’s been growing up on a seed farm so this way of eating is her life from day one. She has a great passion for the culinary arts. She wants to be a chef. There’s a spectrum of ways in which young people can engage in this kind of work. If you’re interested in farming or gardening, that’s great but you might as well be a chef, an artist, an activist, a public speaker. There are many different ways to contribute. A lot of our work in the seed sovereignty movement evolves around inclusivity — how we can acknowledge the gifts that different people can bring to the table and how to make sure that a well-rounded resilient food system has many people contributing in various creative ways so it’s not only about growing food.

You also say that seeds are living beings and our relatives. Can you unpack it a bit for people who haven’t grown up within a Native American community and may have a problem with relating to it?

Sure. All of us — and that includes everyone who is reading it now — descend from a lineage of people who had a very intimate relationship with plants. It’s just in the last couple of hundred years of human history we’ve been looking at seeds and food in general as a commodity as opposed to something that was an integral part of our life that we shared. It used to be a commons, a collective inheritance. A long time ago our ancestors — mine, yours, everyone else’s — made agreements with plants that they would take care of each other. There is this intimacy, there are familial relationships that are encoded in creation stories that are held within many different ancestries and bloodlines.

So when I say that seeds are sacred because they are living relatives, I mean it wholeheartedly. That’s how I view seeds and that’s how pretty much all of humanity saw seeds up to a certain point.

Then it started to get industrialized and commodified and our collective view of what seeds represented has changed. I like to remind people that 200 years ago in the United States and in Europe there were no seed companies. People shared and traded seeds instead. I like to tell people to think deeply about their relationship with their food and with the seeds that make this food. If you trace back different cultural lineages, you’ll see that plants and seeds played significant roles in cosmologies and worldviews. In the Mohawk creation story such foods as corn, beans, squash, sunflowers and strawberries figure prominently. They grew from the body of the daughter of the original woman as a gift to her sons. These foods would then sustain them for the rest of their time here on Earth and they literally grew from her flesh and bones. So in our cosmology we see them as our relatives. We have an agreement with them that they would nourish us every day but we have to give back. That’s a reciprocal relationship.

​So now, in North America but also globally, we need to rethink and rewrite the narrative of our relationship with food and seed. At the moment there is a dominant narrative in the Western world that sees plants as dead inanimate objects that we just grow, harvest, mechanize and exploit. But that dominant narrative is really just a shallow facade around a much deeper relationship that humans have had with plants for a lot longer. So in our educational seed co-operative Sierra Seeds we challenge that dominant narrative.

This is a radically different view to the one held by mainstream agricultural companies. You are promoting it now not only through Sierra Seeds in the US — recently you joined the faculty of over 40 women who teach the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Course where you run a module on seed keeping. It is not a regular part of the PDC curriculum, is it?

It isn’t indeed. Permaculture is a fantastic curriculum and a beautiful pedagogy — a wonderful system of knowledge that has been distilled down from a much larger traditional ecological body of knowledge originating all around the world and I think many of us within the movement acknowledge that. There is a very particular curriculum of 72 hours of teaching that accompanies the PDC and seed stewardship isn’t a part of it but then… how can it not be a part of it? Seed stewardship should be an integral part of every farmer’s garden and it was — until a hundred or two hundred years ago. So when we’re talking about permaculture and creating holistic food systems, the seed has an inherent place within it. People need to know how to steward seed and how to cultivate seed that’s regionally adapted to a very specific place and to their own unique low input permaculture system. So I approached the creators of this course and said: “Hey, what if we include a module on holistic seed stewardship?”.

The seed is the beginning. It’s so vitally important to the foundation of all food systems but at the same time most seeds available now aren’t adapted to low input polyculture or permaculture systems.

​They have been bred and selected for monoculture in a very different farming system. That’s why I think that for people who are meant to obtain a certificate in permaculture design it’s important not to forget about saving seeds. I feel super thrilled to contribute to this course and hold a little corner of that space to really honor the seeds and all that they give us.
Picture of a woman in a cornfield.
Photo: Christine Peterson, Sacred Ecology
One more thing… I’m sure that everyone who got to this point of our conversation feels like me. I buy the majority of my vegetables from a local farming co-operative so the veggies I eat are local, culturally appropriate and organic. But as a city dweller with a small garden I throw away most of these really good seeds and now I feel super-bad. Any advice for folks like me?

The beautiful thing about this growing seed sovereignty movement is that there are many different community projects and initiatives that are springing up wherever people come together to think creatively about how we can develop more access to good seeds within our communities. So in a lot of places, especially in urban environments, there are seed libraries and seed exchange — places where people help to facilitate the distribution and collection of these seeds. So I would recommend that folks, who don’t have a lot of capacity in their life to do a lot of seed stewardship in their own garden or allotment, connect with the wider community. Seed libraries are popping up — it’s worth to look for a local one and share your surplus of seeds there.

​The beauty of a seed is that it multiplies exponentially. It is a wonderful example of the natural abundance of the Earth and I think it is also a beautiful expression of the gift economy. Even keepers like myself always have more seeds than we need. It inspires me to be generous and to give seeds outside of my own home farm. The seeds teach us to be generous and to share our abundance with other people and this is really the true nature of things. We live in a society where the dominant narrative is based on scarcity and austerity, so we need to start paying attention to seeds because they remind us of the inherent generosity of the Earth and of our own inherently generous nature.

#seedstewardship #permaculturewomen #seedsaving #decolonization 

To find out more about Rowen and the projects she’s involved in, have a look at the Sierra Seeds website. Rowen is also one of the tutors in the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Certificate course.
Via Permaculture Women's Guild - free permaculture

On placemaking, true diversity and intercontinental cross-pollination: a conversation with Ridhi D’Cruz

Picture of Ridhi D'Cruz sitting by the side of the road.
Photo: Kiran Jonnalagadda
You call yourself an “intercontinental cross-pollinator”— could you unpack it a bit?

I’m originally from India and have been living in the United States for almost eight years now. In 2010, I moved to a continent that I’d never been to before. At the same time I feel like American culture and Western European culture are pervasive and set aspirations in the “global South”. And as a result, there is a familiarity but also a dynamic I wanted to investigate . Knowing that I had taken on aspirations that weren’t really my own, coming to the US was also partially a journey of decolonization. I also wanted to give perspectives from other places some kind of a parity.

For example during sustainability conferences or university gatherings at Portland State University — where I studied in America — some folks would say: “So you’ve come to Portland to learn about sustainability” — insinuating in a way that people in India have nothing to contribute to the sustainability movement. And that really pissed me off. I’ve definitely come here to learn but also to share because a lot of what happens in other parts of the world is of an absolute and imperative importance to be honored and integrated.

And did you manage to get your message across to your peers?

I think so. These are small and slow solutions, right? When I first came to the US, I had a lot more anger and fire in me. I may have scared off some people. I came across as this angry Indian woman. But my discipline — and I trained as an anthropologist — is in a way built on a foundation of different ways of knowing and understanding. Especially social and cultural anthropology. But this knowledge is not on a level playing field.

There are geopolitical forces at play that make different types of knowledge weighted unequally. I would say that the established order in the sustainability movement feels very white-centric, middle class, academic.

I know this may not be true around the world, perhaps, but I still don’t feel that enough support, resources and listening are given to some of the stories and case studies that are coming from other parts of the world. And I don’t mean to over-romanticise because there is a fine balance here. But goals, aspirations, and credit typically go to a certain group of people and I’ve been actively working to dismantle this white supremacy within the movement.

I would think that the permaculture movement shouldn’t be a place where white supremacy prevails — on one hand this is quite surprising, on the other — I spoke to Rowen White who is an Indigenous American woman and she expressed her feelings very strongly as well.

I feel like here there is much clearer ethnic boundary between Indigenous and non-indigenous. Being Indigenous in India is a very different thing to being Indigenous in America. People often ask me: are you Indigenous to India? Well, as far as I know, all my ancestors are from there but I don’t see myself as Indigenous in the same way as they do here. I feel that in the United States there is a deep rift between native or Indigenous permaculture and the Western-centric, Euro-centric permaculture. In my experience, most times, Native communities don’t even want to use the term “permaculture”. They have their own words for it including Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Sometimes I see it being bridged but I think there is a lot of unpacking that we have to do on this continent in terms of whiteness and patriarchy. The longer I stay here, the more apparent it becomes.

You said you wouldn’t expect it from the permaculture movement. But how can it be any different? Despite our efforts to dismantle these systems of oppression, we must not forget that we are embedded within them.

​It’s more important to me to see how we respond to it. If we really dig into the teachings of permaculture and put the overarching goals first instead of our egos, we’ve got everything we need, even if it’s Eurocentric. But instead of concentrating on social justice we find ourselves divided, defensive, unwilling to grow. For me the biggest point of transformation is the need to set up robust mechanisms for giving each other feedback. We don’t have a culture of accountability and we don’t have a real commitment to growth.
Picture of a person getting food out of a pot.
Photo from Ridhi’s archive.
That’s a good point. And it’s a difficult thing to build, there is a lot of resistance towards it.

Yeah. To use a permaculture metaphor: we know that we need to capture rainwater but we’re arguing how to do that. And in the meantime… Dude, the water is just dripping! All we do is talk about divisions: people of color versus white people, feminists versus patriarchy. I’m thinking a lot about metaphors. One of them is a cell membrane which is semipermeable. It keeps the cell intact but it also has means of exchange.

I feel like there’s sometimes too many functions are being stacked and that over-integration is a real thing: we are diluting and homogenizing and therefore replicating the dominant paradigm in a way. And I’m more interested in understanding how to keep things distinct to retain the diversity but at the same time make the relationships between them beneficial — to keep them intact inside but able to exchange value.

It’s a very nice metaphor. But let’s talk practical — your work revolves around regenerating public places in Portland. Was it something you were doing as well in India, or did you get involved in it when you moved to America?

It’s something I was actually dabbling in when I was living in India. A friend of mine started something called “The Wall Project” in Mumbai. Mumbai is a crazy, scary city. I don’t know how I survived there for two years. She started painting public walls in collaboration with other people. When asked why she was doing it she said: “We barely have any greenery and everything is so densely packed. But we have a lot of walls so rather than looking at walls as a separation maybe we should look at them as points of connection.” It all started very informally and I loved that. I took part in one painting action and it felt so wonderful. I got to meet neighbours. There were many people walking by as we still have a lot of walking culture in India. I felt really inspired. And as a young twenty-something really apathetic, middle class, privileged person I didn’t know how to respond. Together with a couple of friends — one of them was an artist, the other was studying journalism with me — we decided to paint some walls in our own city, Bangalore.

I talk a bunch about Bangalore during the module I teach within the Permaculture Women’s Guild Permaculture Design Course because I feel it’s so essential — this is where I came from and this is why I do what I do. So in Bangalore all our hang out places, non-commercial public spaces were eroding so quickly and were driving us into such isolation — at least I felt that. I didn’t want to go to the mall, to just keep buying things to be able to inhabit space. So we started painting walls in Bangalore and that was really meaningful to me.

Sounds like a great project — a combination of art and saving the public space. It is also a part of what you are doing now in Portland with City Repair. Is the local community responsive? Who is getting involved in it?

At this point there are over 65 intersection paintings in Portland. The organization has been around for 20 years and has been growing steadily. We’ve got probably over 20 different communities who are painting and it’s a mixture of repainting the old ones to renew them every couple of years and creating new ones. I feel like the predominant workforce are the usual suspects in the permaculture movement — folks who have a strong critique of capitalism and modern development. I say it carefully because I don’t want to overly homogenize but it feels like they’re mostly white middle class folks who’ve chosen to live in voluntary simplicity.

The more I meet people within the permaculture movement, the more I have a feeling that it’s exactly as you are describing — people choosing to live that way because they are privileged enough to do so. And the communities everyone seems to want to include… don’t get included as much in the end.

The divisions between people run deep. When I was in India I had to make many choices. I grew up middle class so I had a lot of class privilege and I had to fight to go down a route that was not the usual “I’m gonna do an MBA.” There’s a lot of social pressure to keep maintaining the status quo. I have had so many biases because of this, so many prejudices. And one of my favorite ones was involving education. Education was a big deal to me for a variety of reasons. And I’m not saying that education is not important but I don’t think you need to have a degree in anything or to be a high school graduate to be profoundly wise.

I met a shepherd once who just blew my mind. We were talking about metaphysical things, the cosmos, the purpose of life and I was astounded: “Wow, you think about these things?” And he said: “Yep, I’ve got a lot of time, I’m a shepherd.” The fact that he was illiterate didn’t mean that he didn’t think about awesome things. We’ve got a lot of divisions and opinions that we replicate. One of them is that uneducated folks hold problematic beliefs. And I’m not saying it’s never true — really problematic beliefs do exist as a result of a lack of access to education. For example, I worked in a red light area with a non-profit organization and I was told that one of the myths they were trying to debunk was that the cure for HIV was to have sex with a virgin. But at the same time there are different sides.

​Sometimes, we’ve got this romantic notion that in rural India, for example, everything is idyllic and we just need to return to that lifestyle. And that’s not all true in the same way that cities are not all bad. To me permaculture is not only about harvesting rainwater and building physical eco-infrastructures — it’s a design philosophy and approach, right? So we have to define a challenge, its context and the goal and design the process to meet this goal. And it applies to social structures as well.
A series of pictures showing the building of a space.
The City Repair Project in Portland, Oregon. Photo from Ridhi’s archive.
And how do you integrate this approach within the module you’re teaching — the placemaking?

That’s a good question. I think I try to share some things, to come from a personal narrative perspective instead of blanket statements like: “People of color this…”, “Indian women that…” I do not want to be tokenized or be a representative of any of those identities. I wear all of them. I try to own my experience and I also admit that some of these institutionalized ways of oppression do constrain various other people. So I chose a personal narrative approach because I feel like the biggest potency for transformation is in personal growth opportunities. People hear about the effects of capitalism and globalization in other places but many don’t get a chance to meet someone who grew up there.

So I’m talking about Bangalore and how my whole world changed and I dedicated my life to being a part of an empowerment-based approach. I really believe in place-based power. Placemaking is never just about the material stuff, about painting the streets or the cob oven on the corner. All those things are great, they foster the sense of coming together and being in community with one another. But for me it’s also a deeply personal journey: what’s my role within this? What’s my place?

I feel like if we had an ability to root in places deeper and cultivate a meaningful conversation not just with the land but with each other — without being scared to show some vulnerability — I think many problems on the surface would kind of melt away.

Your place started in India, now it’s the United States. How does your middle class, educated, Indian family feel about the life choices you’ve made?

I love my parents. I realized that although as a teenager I thought I was fighting against them, actually I was enacting exactly what they taught me. I’m such a product of them. And I told them that. I said: “You know dad, I’m making these choices because of the values you’ve instilled in me.” And he just smiled and said: “You’re so smart, you know how to get to me!” But I was telling the truth. And I think this is when I started to understand that things don’t exist in duality but in between, in the grey area.

While my parents still don’t fully understand what I’m doing and why, we have conversations. They are surprised that I’m struggling, that I find it expensive to go to India and rarely have time. They say: “You’re working very hard but you’re not rolling in the dough, you’re not comfortable. You’re not even financially stable, forget comfortable! Why are you doing this?” I performed well at school so it’s definitely by choice and they really try to understand it. Over time, they get more snippets.

I’ve been doing this for 10 years so they know it’s not a phase I’m going to grow out of. And it’s really important for me to bring them along because they are true inspirers of this whole path that I’m walking. Recently my dad bought me land in India that I will return to and turn into a permaculture-inspired place. To me is a symbol that although he doesn’t fully understand what I’m doing, we’ve got this understanding and trust. He says: “I don’t know how you’re going to do this, there are wild animals and stuff.” And I say: “You’re right, I’m terrified, I don’t know how to do this but I know I will die trying.”

​He doesn’t need to be a permaculturist and I don’t need to be a business person but we can develop a relationship of mutual respect: although it’s not my path, I see it’s yours and I respect it and in ways that are aligned with my own values I will support you. And I think that such respect fosters so much possibility for collaboration, mutual benefits and a truly diverse community where we are all walking our own paths.

#placemaking #permaculturewomen #socialpermaculture

To find out more about the project Ridhi is involved in Portland, USA, check out The City Repair Project website. Ridhi is also one of the 40+ tutors in the Permaculture Women’s Guild Online Permaculture Design Certificate course.
Via Permaculture Women's Guild - free permaculture

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