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Food comes from our relatives...it has stories, it has relationships that tie us to our food. --Winona LaDuke

Seeds of Our Ancestors, Seeds of Life

--by Winona LaDuke, syndicated from youtube.com, Nov 30, -0001

(Ojibwe language)

I am thanking you very much for the honor of being here. I'm telling you I'm from White Earth, up north, from my reservation. I'm calling you my relatives. I wanted to start like that because I thought about what I'm going to talk to you about tonight which is that food for us comes from our relatives.Whether they have wings, or fins or roots and indeed that is how we consider food.

Food has a culture. It has history. It has stories, it has relationships, that tie us to our food. Food is more than something you just buy at the store. Something that just doesn't have a stamp on it.

In our community, we are told long time ago by our prophets, our Anishinabe people lived on the eastern seaboard.And we're related to those people out there, the Wampanoags and others. And we were instructed by our prophets that we should follow a shell which appeared in the sky. And in following that shell, we would arrive at the place where the food grows upon the water. And that food that grows upon the water is minoman, or wild rice.

So we were instructed by the creator to move here, Oma Aking, to this place. And our wild rice, our minoman, is our most sacred food. It is food that is first food given to a child when they can eat solid and it is last food before you pass in to the spirit world. [Unclear] a lot of our feasts, and a lot of ceremonies and it's very important to us.

And as you know, we've fought hard and long to keep our rice and to keep it good.This is a picture of Nokomis and Nanaboozhoo.That's our spirit beings from who we descend making wild rice.This is my community today.

Doing pretty much the same thing as we did for a thousand years. We got an aluminum canoe now instead of a birch bark. Hard to get trees that size these days, but we still rice. And then the month that is called Manoominike Giizis, Wild rice-making moon, August into September you'll see our people go out on the lakes. We feel a great joy when we go out there with our two sticks and a canoe. Go out there and harvest the rice. Sometimes it's tall or short or fat or skinny or, looks like a bottle brush or looks all punked out.

It's diverse. And that's how we can keep it. Because when a wind comes through it blows off some of the rice. It doesn't blow off all the rice.There's great diversity in that. We still parch it the same way over a fire. You can dance on your rice in your new moccasins,We do pretty much the same thing for all these years and that defines us as Anishinabe people.

Our story of our relationship to food is similar to the relationship that other people have to their foods. This is Jerry Kononue on the big island of Hawaii. This is kalo or taro. There's about 80 varieties of taro that exist in Hawaii. And they refer to it as part of their cosmogeneology.

I never heard that word til I was over there. And what they said is that in their regional stories and their original beings, the sky and the stars had a child and the first child born was a son named Callow. And he was born stillborn and they buried that child. And then the mother cried, and when she cried, from that child and from the ground emerged callow or taro.

As the elder stillborn, the younger child that was born was Kane, or the Hawaiian. And so they consider that the taro is their elder brother. And so it is not surprising that they, like the Ojibwe people, as you may know, we fought the genetic engineering of our wild rice,also the patenting of our wild rice. It will not surprise you that the native Hawaiians also fought against the genetic engineering of their cosmogenealogy.

Of their older relative. And fought the patenting. I like to call this picture, white men can't dance. And it has to do -- these people are doing -- it's like a haka. They're summoning their ancestors in their dance to come forward. And to help them to face off with the enemy.In this case, genetic engineering. In the University of Hawaii. And they're facing a bunch of white guys in suits at the University of Hawaii. Probably a little concerned with the arrival of the Hawaiians here. And in this case, the Hawaiians defeated them, both on the patenting issue, the patents were torn-up at this meeting. On the food itself. And they also, in Hawaii, they have a ban on the genetic engineering of taro.

One of the first and only places in the country that such a ban has been maintained.But our peoples are very concerned about our relatives and our responsibility to keep them. There's a similar story that is told with the Maori people of Aotearoaalso known as New Zealand.

I'm not sure what was new about it, but anyway. So they have this potatoe there called peru peru

which has the highest level of Andean genetics of any potato in the Pacific.

Andean meaning that is from South America.

And thousands of years ago sea-faring Maoris went to South America

and brought this potato back

before any petroleum or Captain Cook or anybody.

And they had this potato. And they grow this potato.

And so as you can imagine when the universities in New Zealand

wanted to genetically engineer these potatoes

they again were faced with the Maoris who said,

"We don't think that's a good idea.

We don't want you to do that and we're going to oppose you."

And they won. There are no genetically engineered potatos there.

And in that, they reestablished a relationship with Aymara people from Peru area.

Who thanked them for protecting their sacred food as well.

So these stories are worldwide issues

on the challenges that our relatives face.

Whether it is genetic engineering or whether it is patenting.

Perhaps the more prominent issue that we are facing is, in fact,

the extinction of species of foods in themselves.

Over the past 100 years, you've seen this,

75% decline in agro-biodiversity.

That is to say, the species of seeds, vegetables, common things

that existed 100 years ago do not exist today.

Many of them extinct, whether in Canada or in the United States,

or on a worldwide scale.

And increasingly, you're seeing that, today, for instance,

the vast majority of corn that is grown here in this country,

has one genetic ancestor.

This is something that is a little bit frightening.

In additon to that, we are seeing that there is a more concentration

of the ownership of these seeds themselves by fewer and fewer.

This has big implications for our peoples.

My community, the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota,

on our reservation, one-third of the population

served by Indian Health Service has diabetes.

The diabetes is caused by the rapid transition

from a traditional food to industrialized foods.

And increasingly that is occurring across this country

where dietary related illnesses are becoming dominant sources

of ill health in this country in themselves.

Has a huge health impact,

this loss of access to our traditional foods

cause today they're saying that,

"We get the vast majority of our calories from less than 30 varieties of foods."

Concentration in fewer and fewer,

and a lot of them, of course, kind of greasy, in themselves.

Then there is [an] economic issue.

You could look at it a couple ways.

One, concentration of ownership of seeds in a few corporations.

Increasingly, farmers who held these seeds

and had the cultural patrimony, rights, relationship,

and the wealth in themselves are being deprived of that

by patenting laws, and increasing ownership.

About seven corporations control almost all the seeds

that are commercially available in the world, yeah.

In our own communities though this is a problem in itself.

My reservation, you know, our Ojibwe people

totally self-sufficient until pretty recently on food.

That is to say before 100 years ago

we were the northernmost corn producers in the world.

We push corn 100 miles north of Winnepeg.

Many varieties, a multitude of sources.

Maple syrup? That was us way before Aunt Jemima, you know?

All those foods, we had in our community, yeah?

But today we don't produce most of those foods.

So, my reservation, which is stricken with a good deal of poverty, you know?

As many other Indian reservations.

We find that we spend about eight million dollars a year on food,

and of that we spend seven million dollars — like that! —

off reservation, purchased Walmart, food service of America, Cisco, etc.

If you look at it, it's almost —

and what we buy on the reservation you end up buying just a little bit

that is in the food stores there and what the vast majority

of food stores there sell is junk food.

You know, good food not accessible.

In that, that food economy represents about one quarter of our tribal economy.

Which is lost down the drain through different sources,

something which could be a source of wealth for us at our community.

I don't know how to quantify the culture of grief

associated with loss of your most ancient varieties.

I don't know what that price tag is.

But I know that it's significant what has happened to our peoples.

But it is not just what's happening to our community.

It's what the future's going to look like for all of us.

Because we're sitting in Minneapolis today and it's 100 degrees out.

That is climate change is what is going on here.

You've got floods in parts of the country,

you got a good portion of the country is on fire right now, right?

You got tornadoes coming down.

They're saying that over the next 20 years

we gonna spend 20% of world GDP on climate change related disasters.

And amidst that, we have a food system that is increasingly concentrated

in both its monoculture and its ownership.

They're projecting a 34% loss in corn crop in North Dakota.

And what I am concerned about is the fact

that we don't have all the seeds we could have at the table.

What we have is a concentration, and a rising sense of food insecurity.

So we have some ideas on this, this is my community,

we have this corn restoration project. This Bear Island Flint corn

we've been working on for a long time. It's a good corn.

And in that corn in itself, it came from Bear Island in the middle of Leech Lake.

I got about this much from a seed grower.

He gave it to me and now we have fields of it.

Grows about this tall, has big ears,

doesn't require irrigation, frost resistant.

And when a sear wind comes through, Monsanto's round up ready corn tips over,

but our corn is still standing.

That is the corn we are looking at.

The one in the middle, beautiful, pink lady corn, kind of a magenta colored corn.

I just like how it looks, it tastes good too.

And this other one, Pawnee Eagle corn.

They say that the Pawnees were given corn from the corn mother,

had this corn for all their time.

And when they lived in Nebraska they did good with their corn

and the other people came, the settlers came to see them.

And when the settlers came they got on good with the Pawnees.

They traded horses and had them fix their wagon wheels and various things.

But the government forced the Pawnees to leave and go to Oklahoma.

And when they went they took their corn with them but it did not grow.

It did not grow.

And so for many years they grieved the loss of their corn,

got less and less until they just had like 25 different seeds.

And then one day the descendants of the settlers in Carney Nebraska

asked if they could help grow this corn varities again.

And they petitioned the Pawnees.

The Pawnees seed keeper talked to the elders and they said,

"We'll let them try cause we can't grow our corn."

They sent that corn back to Nebraska, and that corn flourished.

And their varieties flourished.

And so the descendants of the settlers today grow the corn for the Pawnees,

and what dad told me was that the corn remembered the land it came from.

It is a story. Corn has a history, it has a story, and in this case,

it is a form of redemption.

That is the work we are doing in our community.

We're working to bring back our sugar bush,

that's the first harvest of the season.

That's my youngest son, sucking the sapp out of the tree, eating my profits.


We like this though, we feel good when we are in the sugar bush.

And we are trying to grow back all our old varieties.

This young man, that's a Lakota squash.

And that squash, in itself, was given to me in October, and I ate it in May.

Why am I telling you that?

Because it's a perfect carbon reduced food.

It didn't require refrigeration, freezing, or canning.

It just hung out, was a squash. Delicious that much later.


And so --

it's not just that you grow local food it's also what you grow.

Cause it turns out a lot of these old varieties are higher in amino acids,

antioxidants, protein, trace minerals than anything you can buy at the store.

I don't know why that is.

What I figure is that, in creating industrialized foods,

that they could move 1500 miles from farmer to table,

they created foods that would respond well to pesticides, were uniform,

could be picked well with whatever equipment they were using, and transport well.

And somehow in that I think that they lost some nutritional value, you know.

And so these seeds are the endangered ones,

but these are the ones that in our theory are the seeds not just for now,

but are the seeds and the hopes for the future.

Now as I reflected what to talk to you about here tonight,

I remembered that my father — he passed away about 15 years ago —

but he used to tell me something, which — you're all pretty smart people,

you're probably like me.

He said, "You know, Winona. You're a really smart young woman,"

He said, "but I don't want to hear your philosophy if you can't grow corn."

That's what he said.

And there's something in that, that was right.

You know, we could be smart in our heads,

but until we restore that relationship that we have with the foods

that the creator gave us, we're missing something, you know?

We need to buy these foods locally, we need to support this.

That's how you address climate change in itself.

Go organic and local, sequester your carbon.

But, more than that, to me it is also about how we re-establish

this relationship with our ancestors

and our relatives, the ones that have roots.

Migwetch. Thank you.


Winona is an internationally renowned activist working on issues of sustainable development, renewable energy and food systems. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. As Program Director of Honor the Earth, she works nationally and internationally on the issues of climate change, renewable energy, and environmental justice with Indigenous communities. In her own community, she is the founder of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, where she works to protect Indigenous plants and heritage foods from patenting and genetic engineering. A graduate of Harvard and Antioch Universities, LaDuke has written extensively on Native American and environmental issues. She is the author of five books, including Recovering the Sacred, All our Relations and a novel, Last Standing Woman. 


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