The USDA uses the phrase “food insecurity” to refer to a family’s inability to buy a balanced diet or to buy enough food to feed its children. By this definition, many Native American families are living in a state of food insecurity. Because of high rates of poverty, many Native Americans are reliant on government commodities: cheese, lard, powdered milk, and other processed, preserved, and packaged food. In addition, many American Indians live in remote areas and so have limited choice when it comes to fresh, nutritional foods. Food insecurity affects Native Americans’ health; the Tohono O’odham Nation, for example, has the highest rate of adult-onset diabetes in the world. How can American Indians increase their food security and at the same time improve their health? By returning to the agricultural practices of their ancestors.
This is what a nonprofit known as Native Seeds/SEARCH (Native Seeds) hopes to enable. Native Seeds is devoted to gathering, storing, and distributing seeds traditionally grown by American Indians. Native Seeds began when anti-hunger activists decided to give modern vegetable seeds to members of the Tohono O’odham Nation in an effort to encourage the creation of local gardens. The Native Americans responded by asking for seeds traditionally grown by their grandparents. This request prompted two volunteers, Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees, to begin the search for heirloom seeds. As more seeds were gathered, a seed bank was started within which seeds are preserved. Native Seeds now has over 2,000 varieties of arid-land adapted agricultural crops. The collection contains crops traditionally grown by the Apache, Hopi, Mayo, Mojave, Navajo, and Tohono O’odham among others.
Half of the Native Seeds collection consists of different types of corn, beans, and squash; these are known to Native Americans as the “three sisters” because they provide mutual benefits when planted together. Other crops include beans with purple stripes and speckles, a black chili pepper, and corn with red, white, and blue kernels. The Native Seeds’ seed bank contains a wealth of biodiversity, with crops that harbor resistance to disease, heat, and pests. Some of the seeds in the collection date back to prehistoric times.
How does Native Seeds benefit Native Americans? Native Seeds distributes seeds free to American Indians (and also offers its seeds for sale to gardening enthusiasts). The crops have benefits for recipients’ health and well-being. The tepary bean, for example, which used to be a staple of the Tohono O’odham diet, has proved effective at both preventing and treating Type II diabetes because the bean slows the uptake of sugar. Native Seeds offers gardening workshops and support and acts as an information clearinghouse to American Indians interested in returning to more traditional agricultural methods.
It has been estimated that 47 million of the more than 54 million acres of tribal and individual Indian trust land are range and cropland. The members of Native Seeds/SEARCH see here an enormous potential for increasing Native Americans’ food security.
Contact Group: Native Seeds/SEARCH
Address: 526 N. 4th Avenue
Tucson, AZ 85705-8450
Web site: www.nativeseeds.org