Seed Policy Update 2021

Skeg taṣ,

The past year has been one of many trials and tribulations. We collectively have lost family, friends and co-workers, from the youth to the elders of our communities. Storefronts have closed and access to things we take for granted has been limited. Our water supply is also a growing concern as the words and warnings of our elders are coming to fruition. I want to first relay my personal condolences to those of you whom have lost someone -- my heart is with you.

I must also thank you all, for your continued support during these times and congratulate you on your perseverance.  Our resiliency as a whole, has enabled us to pivot and redesign common practices and ways of interaction to adapt to the trials we have all faced; the Native Seeds/SEARCH Board and staff are doing the same. Thank you to my colleagues on the board and Staff of Native Seeds/SEARCH, you all are vital to our success in service to our stakeholders. Thank you!

Since the publishing of the last Seedlisting, we focused on our stewardship and obligation to the seeds we care for.  Are we doing enough? Are we listening to our stakeholders, more specifically, are we incorporating the views and perspectives of the original seed bearers, our Tribal communities? We formed a Seed Policy Committee to review and discuss these questions.

It was important to me that we created a seed policy that was inclusive of diverse opinions and concerns. Board and staff members that represented Tribal communities of the Southwest played a big role on the Policy Committee. We also reached out to our Tribal partners to get advice and listen to their concerns individually and brought back those perspectives to the conversations we were having. Once the Policy was completed, we asked more Tribal representatives, as well as other stakeholder representatives, to review the policy. We wanted to ensure it was fully vetted before acknowledging it as complete.

We want to be more transparent and accountable for our actions. This Policy is one way to ensure these practices don’t end with new staff or board members. Having a clearly defined seed policy will help with that, while helping to avoid any misunderstandings or misinformation about what we do. Native Seeds/SEARCH was formed out of a concern and need to safeguard these seed relatives, with input and the urging of farmers from Tribal communities in the Southwest. We want to restore old relationships and foster new ones. Sharing our Seed Policy openly and clearly is an important way to build trust, support transparency and build a foundation for lasting reconnections.

One of my biggest concerns in the process of defining a new policy were the potential long-term effects our actions and decisions might create. Often times we are quick to respond out of emotion and the desire to right unreconciled injustices. Sometimes quick decisions that are celebrated initially, have unforeseen negative impacts in the long run. When we looked at what Rematriation would look like for Native Seeds/SEARCH, we wanted to do the right thing. The challenge was discovering there is no clear path. What I mean by that is one decision made for the benefit of a single entity, may have an adverse impact on another or many. Seeds are very different from artifacts on a shelf. They are alive and have formed relationships with many people and communities. The farmers of the Southwest were sedentary, primarily due to their their ability to grow crops. Trade was a major part of sedentary life, an aspect that was vital to their longevity. Through these trade systems our seed relatives traveled and formed relationships with many people. Some of those people still grow these very seeds today, sadly, many do not. 

As I have stated earlier, the seeds are our relatives, they are not artifacts that can be attributed to a single site and culture. If we were to create a policy that only recognized the relationships of the seeds by the information Native Seeds/SEARCH wrote in the original collection, we would not be acknowledging the true history and kinship the seeds hold. We would only be validating what we have attributed to the seed, at the time it was obtained.  At the heart of Rematriation is the concept of rekindling a lost relationship once held between a people and seeds and by this definition, Native Seeds/SEARCH has practiced a form of Rematriation since its inception. However, if we were to give all the seeds back to a single group based on collection information, we would essentially be denying the same opportunity for many others. This sort of Rematriation would only be possible that one time and if those seed varieties were impacted by crop failure or other forms of seed loss, we would not have any left to give to future generations of farmers. This scenario weighed heavily on my mind as we developed our policy, both as a board member and as a seed steward of my community in Salt River. The hurt and sorrow I would feel for playing a role in the loss of these seeds would not diminish with time.

The Policy Committee quickly identified that although Native Seeds/SEARCH has Tribal representation, it is not a Tribal entity and therefore we felt it was not our right or place to acknowledge one communities’ claim of ownership over another. Instead, we have developed a consultation process inclusive of all tribes claiming affiliation to the seeds in the seed collection, which would be initiated if a request were to be made. This would allow all parties to voice concerns before a single entity is afforded what was once available for all.

The process we engaged in to develop this Seed Policy was not an easy one. I wholeheartedly believe our intentions were good and in the best interest of the seeds. We just had different perspectives and ways we felt they should be protected.  Although the meetings were long with much debate, and at times we even ended the meeting angry, I am thankful we kept going and didn’t avoid those hard topics. Individually, we may not have gotten everything we wanted included in the Policy and that is okay because it is based on consensus and the impact to all. I hope that our stakeholders understand why the Policy was written and even if it isn’t perfect for you, I hope you are able to respect it as a policy that is inclusive of all of our stakeholders and ultimately developed with the seeds themselves at the center of our decisions. I am reminded of a quote of Joseph Joubert “it is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” This Policy was definitely one that was debated. 

Hopefully I have provided some insight as to why the Policy was created and what it entails. I ask that you sit with it and ponder how this Policy will impact you and your people. I also ask you to try to imagine how you would you feel if this Policy was written in a manner that inhibited your ability to bring seeds relatives back to your community.

Thank you for your time reading this. I look forward with hope and appreciation.

Jacob Butler 
Onk Akimel O'odham 
SRP-MIC Community Garden Coordinator 
NS/S Board Chair