Meet NS/S Native American Intern Valerie Martinez

This September, Native Seeds/SEARCH welcomed our first Native American Intern Valerie Martinez to the organization. Supported by a grant from the Christensen Fund, the six-month Native American Internship program offers a unique and hands-on learning experience in crop genetic resources conservation to an individual from a Native community. Originally from Minnesota, Valerie Martinez is Ojibwe, Nakota and Apache, as well as an indigenous food justice activist. She has been an incredible asset to our work and, in turn, has taught us much about Native perspectives on seeds and beyond. We recently sat down with Valerie to discuss her experience here so far.

Seeds, Science and Spirit: An Interview with NS/S Native American Intern Valerie Martinez

What about NS/S made you interested in applying for the Native American Internship program?

I researched Native Seeds/SEARCH a while back when doing some previous diabetes and seed work and it sparked an interest to work here. It’s important to me that NS/S is the second largest holder of North America’s indigenous seeds. These seeds are linked to more than 50 different tribes within the United States and Mexico.

When we first met you, your passion and love of seeds was clear. Where does this passion come from?

My mother was my best friend and the rock in my life, and she died at the early age of 50 due to diabetes. Diabetes is a curable disease, and it is also one of the leading causes of death in Indian country. I like to believe that this is what brought me to food work—and even more so to seed work. Over the last 10 years I have dedicated my life to the understanding of how diabetes came to Native Peoples. I have done a lot of food justice work for the last few years, but I rarely hear discussion of the important role seeds play in restoring food traditions among communities. Now we are hearing about this movement more and more often. It is inspiring!

How are seeds related to food, health and wellness for you?

Seeds are the beginning of our nourishment and should be seen at the center of food, health and wellness. Seeds are living beings, no matter from what perspective you view them. Through both a scientific and spiritual lens, seeds are alive. So I believe and was taught that Life is very sacred, and therefore we need to honor, cherish, and always protect it.

As humans we teach our children that we need to take good care of our bodies and eat good food to be well. However, these days some of us have no clue what is in our food or how and where our food comes from. We have put a lot of trust in other people to provide us with the nutrition our bodies need to be healthy and well. This method of thinking and living has made a lot of people sick. Our bodies need good food that is rich with nutrition and treated with respect so it provides us the nourishment we need. When we try to manipulate our food and center our values around the quantity versus the quality, we end up with illnesses like the one that killed my mother and many other people.

Seeds for traditional foods are the answer and the cure for these tragic and preventable illnesses. They also share a story with the culture and the community that have sustained them for thousands and thousands of years. So, seeds not only bring good food to support our physical health, but they also help nurture a person’s soul by keeping alive the stories and traditions. That is good for our overall wellbeing.

Part of the internship experience has been to expose you to seed conservation methods rooted in scientific understandings of biodiversity. Has this perspective challenged you to think differently about seeds?

Yes, I think my knowledge has expanded tremendously. One of the things I’ve learned is the importance of understanding seeds through both science and spirit. Native Seeds/SEARCH has a heavy emphasis on the scientific and academic understanding of seeds. When learning about conservation methods like in situ, ex situ and Neglected and Underutilized species (NUS) I notice that these are often rooted in Indigenous Communities across the world. These methods often talk about how crucial the role of traditional knowledge is, and many times the people are a key factor in revitalizing the biodiversity of a land base. This is not a new theory for me; it’s just presented in a different fashion. Often elders in my community have talked about the importance of our traditional knowledge and its role in preserving the land base, or what we call Mother Earth. This internship has allowed me to become familiar with these different ways to describe this work. It has provided insights on the importance of both science and spirit in the journey of rebuilding our seed traditions.

There are over 1,900 different accessions of seeds in the NS/S collection. Do you have some favorite moments to share when working with them?

I love all of the seeds. They all are so beautiful and special. I learn new things every time I work with and touch the seeds. This can be as simple as the patient and delicate process of appreciation for the difference between each variety. Every individual seed is like a person with unique characteristics and its own purpose. This in itself is something very beautiful to me.

Once you complete your internship with NS/S, what future seed related work do you hope to do?

As a mother of three and an organic farmer, I like to say my life is dedicated to seed work in many different capacities. I have begun to plant an urban farm here in Tucson in my back yard that will be filled with all the traditional foods that are good for our health. I hope to share my produce with families and parents that share the same concerns for our next generations. I would love to continue to work with non-profits that are interested in bringing these foods back into our homes and stores in every community. My dream is to see policies put in place to promote, protect, restore and open up access to these seeds, while ensuring that we honor the stories, people and the history of where they came from.

You have had an influence on the staff and volunteers at NS/S. What lessons do you hope to teach us during your time with NSS?

I believe that in any relationship there needs to be a way to learn from one another. When I leave here I hope to have touched people by sharing my story and allowing them to see the importance of how culture, history, spirituality and food are all interwoven. I hope I can shed light on the importance of how these seeds are directly tied to tribal peoples and nations, and that the relationship between Native Seeds/SEARCH and these nations should be the priority. Many tribal nations that have nurtured these seeds for hundreds of years and have knowledge to support the restoration and survival of these seeds without using any chemicals. In today’s world of changing climate, invading species, and new technologies we must come together to share knowledge and build long-lasting, sustainable relationships that honor each other’s views and understanding on the sacredness of these seeds, for all people.