Rematriation: How Indigenous Seeds Are Healing the Land and Its People
Just up the road from the Ute Mountain Ute Nation, over the mountain from the Navajo Nation, 10 miles from one of the oldest ancestral cities in the Southwest, and a quick drive to my homelands on the Southern Ute Nation lies 4th World Farm.
Step out of the front door of our two-story log cabin and you see the peaks of Dibé Ntsaa, the northern sacred mountain of the Dinè people, directly to the northeast.
Sweeping back towards the east, you see Ted and Violet, the Royal Palm turkeys, with their flock of 10 running between the medicine garden and the 100-year-old barn that has seen better days. If you’re lucky, you see the faces of Beats, Arias, Hundo, Shima, and Bodex, the Navajo-Churro sheep peeking from the gate next to Radish the Rabbit’s hutch.
To the south, there’s a pollinator garden and outdoor cooking space with the horno as a centerpiece.
To the west you see Taw’toykyang, also known as Mesa Verde, and rows of sunflower, beans, amaranth, sunchokes, corn, and squash.
To the north are hay fields, horses, hills, and homes. Homes that differ from the one that my family tends here at the farm, which is on the frontlines of reindigenizing land — and self.
I say all this to situate the depth of history I am blessed to reside within and to invite you on a journey into the work and practice of Rematriation. At its most precise, Rematriation is the retrieval of Tribal seeds from universities, museums, seed companies, and private collectors, as well as their journeys home. As we will see, though, that is just the beginning.
The deforestation of old growth Pinyon/Juniper forest, disruption and displacement of watersheds, grasslands, and native species, along with the hundred-plus years of cattle and industrial agriculture have left this place scarred. I speak this because in order to have need for something like Rematriation you had to have suffered loss — something this land and its people have been experiencing for a few hundred years, and something the land has been sharing with me since I stepped on the soil here and took time to listen.
For us, the enforcement of patriarchal systems through colonialism has displaced much of the feminine. One of those displaced beings are the lifegivers of our very sustenance: seeds. Along with the displacement of our people came the removal of our foodways, thus pushing our seeds into a forced migration.
Restoring the Communal Ecosystem
Seeds in diaspora. Now, say it again. Seeds. In. Diaspora. Where does that make you feel? Does it come as a metaphor or lived experience? Along with the many displacements Indigenous peoples of this land continue to experience — one that has created need for things such as the Repatriation Act that helps to mediate the return of stolen ancestral remains and relics — the loss of our seeds leaves a deep wound, one that is finding healing through Rematriation.
Our seeds, these relatives that we have spent literally thousands of years cultivating relationships with and commitments to, can be seen as Indigenous microchips. If you were to remove a microchip from whatever device you’re reading this on, that device would malfunction. For us, that removal results in a loss in our Communal Ecosystem — that space of caretaking water, land, animal, and one another — and creates both a place of mourning and a space for healing.
Healing here at 4th World Farm looks like Rematriation of the entire Communal Ecosystem and it begins with our microchips — the return of our seeds.
Where the forest was removed, trees have come home. Alongside these chokecherry, buffalo berry, saskatoon berry, three leaf sumac, and chamisa bushes. Under these, banana yucca, prickly pear cactus, wild potatoes, wild onions, rice grass, wild tea, and amaranth. Beneath these members of the Communal Ecosystem, the mycelial network has come home and flourished. And our animal relatives that called this place home are returning and sharing in the abundance we have been blessed with.
Today at 4th World Farm, beans that haven’t been tended by Indigenous hands in this valley for nearly a millennium settle into remembrance in the soil on this plateau, corn that was functionally extinct is now abundant enough to explore other fields, and the squash, well the squash, tells you the story of of how things that seem gone, find their way home again.
Healing Through Homecoming
Before being forced into prisoner-of-war camps, the Southern Ute were on the other side of the Continental Divide, beginning just north of Taos Pueblo, in modern-day New Mexico. Before that, this was a major place of trade for the Utes.
As practitioners of what I call “cultivation in motion,” the act of creating foodscapes along routes of travel, open trade with agriculturalist communities meant the addition of those staples — corn, beans, and squash — to the diet of the Utes. With the removal of the people, came the removal of trade systems. This removal was shortly followed by the enforcement of an unfamiliar foodway, and soon these trade and culinary connections faded away.
Some years ago I was told about Utes who had taken on some of those agricultural practices from that region, and started the cultivation of what became known as the Nuchu Kavaachi, the squash most prized by the people. It was a blessing when, a few years ago, while I was teaching at Taos Pueblo, I was gifted a bag of their seeds. I have since begun growing them here at the farm and realizing their magic. After all, how many others do you know that produce multiple varieties from one seed? Like the return of our seeds, the revitalization of trade routes is yet another form of Rematriation and creates a space of homecoming.
Rematriation and the Return of Indigenous Foodways
This return of Indigenous Foodways gives us a glimpse into the world of Rematriation, and the braiding of these stories has been leading to one place: the kitchen. Looking out over this landscape of Indigenous healing I can think of no better place to watch it come to life than at the table and over a meal with my community here at 4th World Farm.
Spit-roasted mutton leg served with a red chile sauce straight out of the coals, freshly dug sunchokes charred and served with a sweet corn purée and toasted pine nuts, and of course there’s the corn husk-baked squash with chile sauce! The squash is tucked into the ground in its bed of corn husks by the very hands that have been blessed by its return.
A layer of glowing coals, juniper greens, carefully placed corn husk, squash, apple, onion, garlic, squash blossoms, and chile; the aroma hinting at a future fork full and a remembrance of last fall’s feasts. Another layer of husk, wetted burlap bag, soil, and again fire.
A memory of a flavor only the earth can give. A taste of corn husks you’ve been tending from seed. Love you put into the soil is reflected in the flavor of onions and garlic. Sour apples harvested from your favorite tree up the valley. The flavor of smoky sweetness a welcoming friend.
After the meal, when the night quiets, I sit looking westward out my living room window into our field, which experienced its first light frost under the Hunter’s Moon. I find myself readying for the final harvest. I recognize, not for the first time, that in healing this space alongside family and community, that the reciprocity of our Seed relatives coming home is that we are being healed too.