Elizabeth Hoover: Seed Sovereignty and “Our Living Relatives”

Master Seminar by Elizabeth Hoover, Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University

The master seminar over lunch is intended to be a space for providing input on a work in progress. The author will circulate a chapter or other work in progress a week prior to the event. Faculty and graduate students are welcome to participate but must RSVP.

Seed Sovereignty and “Our Living Relatives,”explores how the broader literature defines what constitutes a “heritage” seed or variety of food, and how the different communities I visited define these for themselves. These seeds, many of which have been passed down through generations of Indigenous gardeners or reacquired from seed banks or ally seed savers, were often discussed as the foundation of the food sovereignty movement, helpful tools for education and reclaiming health. Stories of seeds that went on sometimes global adventures before returning to their home communities, and some which were spread across they country by enthusiastic nascent seed keepers under unintentionally fabricated stories of ancient provenance, all contribute to the broader discussion about the hunger that some are feeling for a connection to meaningful plant varieties. Seed keepers have formed organizations like the Traditional Native American Farmers Association (which helped write attempted legislation to protect Native seeds) and the Indigenous Seedkeepers Network (ISKN, funded in part through the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance) in an effort to not only pass along knowledge about how to grow these seeds, but also to protect seeds as both relatives and intellectual property through the theorization and enactment of “seed sovereignty.” Along this vein, this chapter gives a brief review of all of the scholarly literature about the term seed sovereignty, and then explores the definitions of seed sovereignty as provided by Native American seed keepers I interviewed. Many of the definitions they provided highlight the importance of heritage seeds for connecting them to previous generations of seed keepers; as a symbol of how tribal governments and citizens needed to better protect their cultural property; and as a token of the “relationality” that many Indigenous people feel towards aspects of their food systems. Seeds were described almost as intergenerational relatives-- both as children that need nurturing and protecting, and as grandparents who contain cultural wisdom that needs guarding.  For these reasons, a growing network of Indigenous seed keepers is coalescing to not only provide education to tribal people around seed planting and saving, but also to push for the “rematriation” of Indigenous seeds from institutions who have collected or inherited them, back to their communities of origin. (The term rematriation has been developed in opposition to the more traditionally used “repatriation” in order to highlight the role of women seed keepers). This chapter concludes with a discussion about how indigenous conceptions of seeds as living relatives and cultural patrimony have not been considered in the broader debate around genetically modified organisms, as detailed by science and technology scholars like Sheila Jasanoff (2005) and sociologist John Lang (2016). In addition I will include ongoing rematriation case studies from the Science Museum in Minnesota, the University of Michigan, Seed Savers Exchange, and the Chicago Field Museum    

Lunch will be provided to those who RSVP by February 17, 2019.



 Institute of the Environment next to UA logo

School of Anthropology nest to UA Logo


Douglass Building Room 102
1100 East University Boulevard
United States
Monday, February 25, 2019 - 12:00
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences