Sunday February 28, 2016

Seed keeping connects Mohawk gardener to her ancestors' food

The Mohawk Seed Keepers Facebook group encourages traditional indigenous gardening practices and seed saving.

The Mohawk Seed Keepers Facebook group encourages traditional indigenous gardening practices and seed saving. (courtesy Terrylynn Brant/Facebook)

Listen 6:40


  • Podcast page
  • Subscribe on itunes

Terrylynn Brant, from Six Nations, Ont., says seed keeping is in her blood.

Historically the Haudenosaunee people — or Iroquois people as they are also called — are known as agriculturalists, and for Brant, gardening is more than just providing a bounty of food; it is a connection to the ancestors.

"Our people don't venture very far, as a rule, from their homelands, and that's because of the dead — we don't leave our dead just anywhere. We don't just leave them unprotected," she explained. 

"I'm standing with the 200 years of ancestors behind me. You know, they're all relying on me to keep things going, they're all relying on me to feed them, and they're all relying on me to make sure that wherever they lay, that I'm taking care of that place," Brant said.

Brant comes from a lineage of seed keepers, originally learning from her uncle, a lifelong farmer. She has now taken it upon herself to maintain the tradition and pass it on to the next generation.

What is seed keeping?

"Traditional seed keepers in our community are individuals who've stepped forward and are maintaining the seeds that are from the lineage of their families," Brant said.

Collage Terrylynn Brant

Mohawk seed keeper Terrylynn Brant in her garden, and white corn that she harvested. (Courtesy of Terrylynn Brant/Facebook )

Among the seeds Brant preserves are varieties of corn and tobacco. One of her current projects is breeding a unique strand of red corn.

"I'm breeding that one to be my own, so after seven years of growing, I'll put a name on it and call it my own," she said.

"And as a seed keeper, that's what you do, you go and you pick the best."

Traditionally, Mohawk farmers would grow corn, squash and beans — a combination commonly referred to as the three sisters — because they flourish when grown together.

White Corn

A seed pack of white corn that Terrylynn Brant germinated. (Courtesy of Terrylynn Brant/Facebook )

The cultural significance in what crops Mohawk gardeners grow is deeply rooted in tradition and ceremony.

"Try to have ceremony, a feast without feast food. Does that make any sense? No. You can't have Kraft Dinner. There's just certain foods you have to have."

As with many traditions, if they aren't passed on they are lost for future generations. Knowing this, Brant has taken it upon herself to carry the tradition forward.  

"I kind of take that extremely seriously," she said. "I'd hate to be the generation that was responsible for losing it."

But Brant knows plants are resilient and will stand the test of time — no matter what.

"Put a seed in the ground and water it and till it and try and make it not grow," she said.

"It's going to grow in spite of you."