How preserving seeds and crops from centuries past helps keep Native American culture alive.
Did you know an Onondaga Nation member is keeping track of – and trying to preserve – more than 1200 varieties of corn and some 500 types of beans?
In 2015, Onondaga Eel Clan member Angela Ferguson founded the Onondaga Nation Farm, a place responsible for what she calls food sovereignty for the nation. The workers, called the Onondaga Nation Farm Crew, engage in communal planting, harvesting, butchering, and anything else required for their self-sustaining ecosystem.
Ferguson is the official Seed Keeper of the Onondaga Nation and believes that the cultivation of traditional foods is a sacred ritual that should be honored and passed along through generations. In addition to preserving the past through foods their ancestors cultivated, she intends to reduce the indigenous community’s reliance on outside sources of food in any way possible.
“A lot of people are looking at food as a commodity, we’re trying to bring the thinking back to that it’s a relative, it’s sacred to us,” said Ferguson
The Onondaga Farm Crew, which started as a small group of Ferguson’s acquaintances, quickly expanded to the point where its members began traveling the country to share knowledge and experience with other indigenous tribes. As a result, Ferguson and others created, “Braiding the Sacred”, a network of indigenous growers dedicated to preserving traditional varieties of corn.
Ethan Tyo, an Akwesasne Mohawk, has been growing some of the seeds, in support of Ferguson’s work and to help connect with Native American roots.
“…revitalize our foods and revitalize our seeds, because for a lot of people that is the only thing we have left in our culture besides our language. The seeds go far beyond our culture, it’s also life, species and organisms and beings that are slowly being killed off and the world doesn’t really care,” said Tyo.
Carl Barnes and the Rainbow Corn
In 2012, Ferguson became aware of an Oklahoman grower named Carl Barnes, when a photograph of his rainbow-colored corn went viral on the internet. Barnes, a Cherokee, had been growing corn for over 50 years, and his collection included thousands of varieties of corn.
“He spent fifty years or more of his live just dedicated to keeping the corn alive, he said he spoke it’s language, he said he could communicate with it,” said Ferguson.
When Barnes passed away in 2016, his family entrusted the seed collection to Barnes’ apprentice. The apprentice was familiar with Ferguson through the Braiding the Sacred network, so he invited Ferguson and her colleagues to see the collection and help out. They were overcome with emotion when they saw Barnes’ seeds, amazed by the legacy, tradition, and care that went into preserving them.
Ferguson ended up with half of the entire stockpile of seeds, the apprentice knowing they were in good hands. A few years later, Ferguson was given the rest of the collection, which she and the Braiding the Sacred network continue to grow, distribute, and care for to this day.
“Now that we have sorted, there’s 1,272 varieties of corn, there’s over 500 varieties of beans, and…that doesn’t include whatever’s in this second half,” noted Ferguson
Podcast Episode Explores Indigenous Growing Traditions
The fourth episode of “The Land You’re On: Acknowledging the Haudenosaunee'' looks in depth at Ferguson’s work, the Onondaga Farm Crew and the history of indigenous agriculture. Through firsthand accounts from Ferguson and young people she’s taught, we learn about the indigenous community’s deep connection with traditional food and the independence it represents. We also hear the heartwarming story of the Onondaga Farm Crew and Braiding the Sacred, from its humble beginning in Onondaga to becoming a nationally recognized group with members across the country.
The Land You’re On is presented by Access Audio, and the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. The podcast is a limited edition, twelve-part series that will air on WAER’s website and all major streaming platforms. The series continues to reflect on the complicated history of our land, while also celebrating Haudenosaunee culture and traditions.