Seed Rematriation Using a Participatory Conservation Model

Final report for ONC20-071

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $40,000.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Seed Savers Exchange
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Cindy Goodner
Seed Savers Exchange
Heather Haynes
Seed Savers Exchange
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Project Information


Seed Savers Exchange (IA) researched histories and uses of varieties in our seed collection to determine which may have originated with Indigenous communities and over time been separated from these communities. We partnered with Native non-profit Dream of Wild Health (MN), farmer Becky Webster of the Oneida Nation (WI), and the Meskwaki Nation (IA), to regenerate varieties from seed over the 2020 growing season. At the end of the season, all partners harvested and saved seed for the seed bank at Seed Savers Exchange as well as rematriated seed to the communities where they originated. Through this participatory conservation process, all partners demonstrated, shared, and educated others about diverse methods for planting, growing and pollinating crops, as well as harvesting and saving seed. The project partners produced a brochure and a video. This project contributes to Indigenous communities being able to build agricultural sustainability and food sovereignty through active participation in crop and seed selection and regeneration.

Project Objectives:
  • Research and grow 9 Indigenous crop varieties at Heritage Farm and 18 varieties at partner sites, 
  • Share and demonstrate organic growing, corn hand pollination, and other planting/growing/harvesting/seed saving techniques among partners,
  • Increase the biodiversity of our food systems,
  • Support Indigenous agricultural sustainability and economic opportunity through rematriation of Indigenous varieties,
  • Ensure adequate seed inventory in the Seed Savers Exchange seed bank,
  • Ensure that these crops can be grown again in the communities and traditions with which they were originally grown.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Rebecca (Becky) Webster (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jessika Greendeer (Educator and Researcher)
  • Shelley Buffalo (Educator and Researcher)


Materials and methods:

2020 Seed Rematriation Varieties for SARE Report

2020 SSE Seed Rematriation Partnership Supplies

CSN Hand-Pollinating Corn

CSN Seed Saving Guide 

Isolation Methods

The process used by Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) and our Indigenous partners is based on the seed rematriation model developed by the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. In this model, Indigenous seeds are identified, grown, harvested, and returned to their communities of origin. 

The ultimate goal of seed rematriation partnerships is for Indigenous communities to be able to access seeds that help them build and sustain their capacity to grow and steward their own seed supply that in turn builds seed and food sovereignty. In 2020, with Seed Keeper Rowen White’s guidance, Seed Savers Exchange and our Seed Rematriation Project partners expanded on the original model by developing a participatory conservation model (with regular, frequent communication and collaboration) in which ALL partners (including SSE) grew and saved seeds for both preservation and sharing with Indigenous communities. 

A critical component of this work was a full, active partnership with all partners selecting the seeds they wanted to grow from the Seed Savers Exchange collection as well as sharing resources, methods, and knowledge around growing, pollinating, seed harvesting and processing, seed saving, and the histories of the seeds. As administrator of the SARE grant, SSE shared seeds and provided supplies like cover crops, fish emulsion, and cattle panels to grow beans. SSE also convened partner meetings and check-ins throughout the year.

The first step was sharing a list of seeds in the SSE collection with potential Indigenous origin (seeds sometimes come into the collection with names that might not truly reflect their origins, or with incomplete stewardship histories). The seeds were selected by the partners based on variety name, description, and their potential histories. This project has been instrumental in helping to accurately identify seeds with Indigenous origins and helping rename and improve the documented stewardship histories for varieties in the SSE collection. 

During the growing season, this participatory, collaborative model provided an opportunity to work with both traditional Indigenous and more modern seed growing and saving practices, with each partner choosing and combining the methods that worked best for them. (These methods included cover crops, fish emulsion fertilizer, planting mound gardens as well as planting in rows, interplanting crops, and corn hand-pollination.)   

At monthly check-ins, all partners shared successes and challenges, working together to address any issues. They also shared yield results and strategies for saving seeds as well as disbursing seeds into their communities that included creating crop cooperatives and seed steward networks.

In this first year of the collaboration, SSE shared primarily seed of which there was more than adequate inventory in the seed bank, so that the seed resulting from the 2020 partnership could be saved by the partners to share with their networks and grown by them again in 2021 and beyond. This has ensured that there continues to be enough seed securely stewarded in the SSE collection for future needs while also ensuring that partners are able to build seed saving knowledge, seed supply, and seed sovereignty in their communities. The ultimate goal of the partnership is to bring ancestral seeds home to their Indigenous families who will grow and share more seeds, and so on, to build local food sovereignty programs and networks.

Research results and discussion:

2020 Seed Rematriation Varieties for SARE Report

SSE and all of the partners reported a beautiful year in the fields, and shared that the seeds and plants taught them a lot about how and where they wanted to grow. At Dream of Wild Health in Hugo, MN, the Bear Island corn sacrificed herself to the wildlife, and only four cobs were able to be harvested. This corn is being planted again in 2021 to hopefully get a greater seed harvest. For the seeds at Dream of Wild Health that shared more abundant harvests, Jessika Greendeer was able to connect with 10 Indigenous women to accept seeds to grow and save in 2021, and share in future years.

Becky Webster harvested enough seed in 2020 at her farm in Oneida, WI to form a bean cooperative with nearly 20 families to share and grow the seeds she is growing through this partnership. Becky is also experimenting with growing crops in a high tunnel, and will report as part of the 2021 grant reporting on which varieties do best with season extension. She also noted the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash) mound gardens provided better growing conditions in 2020 compared to the traditional row system, producing healthier crops and higher yields. The mound garden she planted is a large field of nearly 100 mounds, and at the base of each mound was a buried fish that provided natural fertilizer.

In August a powerful derecho swept through central Iowa, and caused significant damage for Shelley Buffalo and the Meskwaki Nation. This provided an unexpected learning opportunity: the corn they had planted in rows all failed to recover from the storm, but the corn planted in mounds proved much more resilient and were able to recover and grow. This knowledge will inform their planting methods moving forward. They did have major success growing Illinois Watermelon through this partnership, from which they harvested seed that they are growing again in 2021.

Seed Savers Exchange successfully grew 3 beans, 4 corn, and 1 squash at Heritage Farm in Decorah, IA. One particular bean in the collection at Seed Savers Exchange only had the USDA name of PI 276298. Becky Webster identified this bean as the Seneca Bird Egg Bean, and SSE’s seed historians are doing more research to confirm. The major success was Menominee squash, a squash that is culturally significant to several Indigenous nations in the Midwest. Seed Savers Exchange was able to harvest over 3 pounds of seeds, and is sharing seed with three new partners through the 2021 SARE grant portion of this project. Two of the four corn varieties (grown in rows) had somewhat poor yields and are being grown again in 2021.

Participation Summary
4 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 Published press articles, newsletters
11 Other educational activities: Monthly partner meetings

Participation Summary:

3 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

2020 SSE Spring Heritage Farm Companion

2020 Seed Rematriation Brochure Final

Indigenous Seed Rematriation Video

SSE and the project partners had been planning a field day component of this project for the summer of 2020. When this was no longer feasible, the partners pivoted to the development of a video to highlight the project and assist individual partners with outreach within their communities. The video is attached to this report and is being shared by partners, Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, and with Seed Savers Exchange’s extensive online community. 

In addition, the project partners all began to develop the stewardship networks and community education needed for these seeds to truly be rematriated within their communities. All partners have seen initial challenges as well as successes building these networks, based on perceived or actual lack of knowledge around how to save the seeds as well as individual comfort levels about welcoming them home. 

Becky Webster of the Oneida Nation experienced the greatest success in 2020 by developing a bean cooperative with 20 Oneida families. She shared the seeds she had less of with more experienced growers and seed savers, and shared the more abundant seeds with less experienced growers and seed savers to begin the connections and the learning process without risking losing the seeds. This cooperative is also sharing knowledge and resources to ensure success moving forward.

These seed stewardship chains and educational mentoring networks are a critical component of the long-term success of the seed rematriation work, as Indigenous communities continue to rebuild seed and food security and sovereignty.

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

4 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

This project is one of the initial steps being taken by Indigenous nations and communities to enhance their food security and food sovereignty, and Seed Savers Exchange believes that ensuring access to the seed resources within the Seed Savers Exchange collection directly fulfills our mission. Seed sovereignty is connected to food sovereignty, and in order for Indigenous communities to form robust local food programs, they need seeds to grow and share. There is other seed rematriation work happening around the country (and the world, referred to in some places as seed repatriation) and the participatory conservation model that SSE and the 2020 project partners collaboratively developed will be shared broadly for use by others. 

Seed sharing and knowledge building among project partners has already begun rippling into their communities, as evidenced by the cooperative formed by Becky Webster and the seed steward network initiated by Jessika Greendeer. COVID 19 complicated the human connection to the seeds and the ability (particularly for Shelley Buffalo) to connect in person with elders and potential new seed stewards. All partners have noted that they need more culturally specific educational materials about seed saving to distribute in their communities. This was definitely a learning year, and confidence has increased for all project partners to grow, save, and share seeds as well as successfully teach their communities to do the same. 

In regard to the three specific project outcomes identified in the grant application, impact is as follows:

Planned Outcome 1: Through sharing, SSE and three farmer partners gain knowledge of diverse sustainable ag processes, methods and techniques. Measured by comparing knowledge at the beginning of the project with post-project knowledge.

Actual Impact 1:  SSE and three farmer partners were able to share and choose among a number of both Indigenous and more modern methods to implement the practices that will work best for their situations and values moving forward, and all feel they now have more knowledge to draw on as circumstances change. One example is using an interplanted mound system for greater crop resilience, combined with fish buried in each mound to provide fertilizer. In addition, the partners have been experimenting with cover crops to determine the best cover crop (as well as the optimal timing for planting) for each site. In 2020,  they tried early spring plowdown cover crops, and with the 2021 project, Jessika is trying a late summer cover crop. Becky is looking into the best ways to cover crop and mulch her mound system as well as her high tunnel.

Planned Outcome 2: Adequate inventory of seeds from 15-35 chosen crop varieties (with histories and varietal information including evaluations from grow outs) are returned (rematriated) to at least three Indigenous communities, so that they can grow crops in the following year. Measured by the number of varieties and the seed inventory able to be rematriated.

Actual Impact 2: SSE and the three partners were able to harvest and save enough seed from 19 varieties in 2020 to share with their communities and with 2021 SARE Grant partners. Two of the varieties turned out not to be the Indigenous varieties their SSE collection names suggested, so they were used as food crops. Five varieties experienced low seed production and will be grown again in 2021 to try again to build up the seed supply.

Planned Outcome 3: Field day attendees learn about seed to seed production of rare and endangered varieties. Measured by post-field day surveys, and conversations with attendees.

Actual Impact 3: With COVID 19 impacting the project partners’ ability to conduct educational activities, the focus shifted to ensuring that the partners themselves all gained the knowledge they were looking for so that they would be able to share it more broadly in future years. One valuable component was the monthly meeting format, where a sense of community developed among the partners. All partners shared questions, experiences, and insights, and were able to learn valuable tools and methods for seed rematriation work. These monthly meetings are being carried into the 2021 project as a result.

While the field day did not happen, and despite the challenges presented by COVID 19, this actually gave the project partners more time to build relationships within their communities, and spread the knowledge shared and learned through the partnership with the people who are the primary intended beneficiaries of the project. In 2021, SSE and the 2020 project partners are sharing and promoting the video created in 2020 to our collective networks and social media audiences to increase interest in the virtual conversations that will happen as a component of the 2021 project. These virtual conversations will share more in-depth information about the process as well as tips for success for seed to seed production of rare and endangered varieties.

Success stories:

The opportunity for the partners to welcome the seeds home, and to learn from them about how and where they want to grow, has been a meaningful measure of success. From an Indigenous farmer in Minnesota, “This was the first year I was able to grow one of my ancestral bean seeds, and I am so grateful for it. It was welcoming somebody home that you hadn’t ever met before. And that feeling, it can’t be replaced by anything. Knowing that feeling, I want to help create it for other people, because we do have seeds out there that need to come home. And it’s us having the curiosity to find them, but also having the willingness to learn what we need to to care for them when they do come home.”

“The most dangerous place for a seed to be is in a jar, on a shelf, but the safest place—and the safest place for our future—is to ensure that there are multiple hands caring for that seed….You can’t have food sovereignty without seed sovereignty, and that’s why this work is so important.”

The Seed Rematriation work is already rippling outward. From SSE’s initial partnership with the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network in 2017 to this 2020 project with three partners to the 2021 project with eight partners at nine sites, this work is expanding and growing. All of the 2020 partners are continuing the collaboration in 2021, along with five new partners. And each partner is and will be sharing seeds with their community. 

From an Indigenous farmer in Wisconsin, “We are reconnecting to our foods. We are making the seeds available for our community. We’re doing that out in the open and very proudly.”

From an Indigenous farmer in Iowa, “Even though this year has had it’s challenges, this partnership has been a joy to have. That sense of connection to the other Indigenous farmers who are also growing out the seeds that they chose, and always having support from Seed Savers [Exchange]. What’s great about this is that we have the opportunity to introduce more diversity, learn about them [the seeds], cook with them. Some of the seeds, depending on the season, will do better than others—so having that diversity is really important.”

From an Indigenous farmer in Minnesota, “I am incredibly grateful for the relationship between the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network and Seed Savers Exchange. It helped me reconnect with other parts of my culture, and that’s what I think is so beautiful about this seed work. It’s not just about growing seeds. Anybody can put a seed in the ground, but it’s about cultivating the relationship and the whole history of that seed, and why our ancestors did everything they could to protect them.”


There are several recommendations that arose from the project in 2020. They are as follows:

  • There needs to be broader awareness of the cultural context around seeds and seed saving, and open discussion around how people talk about seeds and plants. Referring to seeds as “accessions” or “germplasm” or “commodities” does not resonate with all communities, and print and virtual materials as well as field days and other educational outreach need to reflect this. (SSE and the 2021 project partners are developing culturally specific educational materials.)
  • There is a need for more research into local seed adaptability within the region. (This is being addressed by several of the 2021 Seed Rematriation project partners growing the same varieties in different locations.)
  • There is a need for more community education about seed saving. Many people are excited to bring seeds into their lives, but may not feel they have the expertise to securely grow and save them. (SSE and the 2021 project partners [including all three 2020 partners] are working to develop more seed saving educational materials that will resonate with Indigenous communities.)
  • The model used for this project is scalable and replicable. It can and should be shared,  scaled up, replicated, and adapted as the seeds become more abundant, in combination with the cooperative models, stewardship network models, and community seed steward models being implemented by the project partners. (The 2021 project is already scaling up this model, and outreach is being done to share it with others who may be interested in replicating or adapting it.)

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.