Calais Abenaki Flint, a corn variety featuring golden yellow and deep maroon kernels, was once a staple food of the Abenaki people living in northern New England. Resilient and relatively quick to mature, the corn was one of the few strains to survive the freezing summer of 1816, which reportedly wiped out three-quarters of New England’s corn harvest. With the forward march of mechanization, however, the corn gradually fell out of use. After being lost for more than 50 years, the seeds were recovered in the late 20th century from the basement of Roy and Ruth Fair in North Calais, VT.
How the seed passed from the Abenaki to white settlers is unknown, but what is known is that the genetic strength of Abenaki Flint is due in large part to the efforts of Abenaki seed breeders. And while the revival of Abenaki Flint (sometimes called Roy’s Calais) is unique, many of our familiar crops share a story of lost lineage.
Bringing a seed to a high level of performance is not accidental: Instead, it is a years-long process of observation, testing and careful stewardship. All of our most important food crops have undergone this process, yet many of the ties to their original producers have been severed. How we credit this work is a complicated process.
One of the methods of attributing value to seed creators is through royalties. Royalties are traditionally paid out to seed breeders who file a patent proving that their seed offers a new genetic profile with distinct characteristics from other seeds on the market. But what about the hundreds of years of foundational development before the common practice of patents and royalties? How do we recognize some of the most important seed architects?
In 2018, in recognition of this question, Fedco Seeds designated Abenaki Flint as “indigenously stewarded,” along with a handful of other varieties, and started allocating 10 percent of the proceeds from seed sales to a donation fund under its Indigenous royalties initiative.
Nikos Kavanya, seed branch co-ordinator at Fedco Seeds, was responsible for implementing Fedco’s program. “The impetus came from my sense of justice,” Kavanya said in an email. “For me, honoring our debt to the goodness and beauty of the past, especially for something as vital as seed, is a core value.”
Fedco was already paying royalties to independent seed breeders, but Kavanya felt that the foundation of some of that breeding work was going unrecognized and unrewarded.
“We were paying current breeders for seed that they had developed—but which had been bred before by many tribal peoples, whose work had, in many cases, been stolen,” said Kavanya.
“We exist in an industry that tends to be very pro intellectual property rights,” says Courtney Williams, Fedco Seeds’ co-ordinator and product developer. Of the Indigenous royalties program, she says the company wants to “value [the Indigenous work] in a way that is akin to valuing these intellectual property constructs awarded by patent offices.”
Determining which varieties to designate was the most challenging part of implementing the program. It is difficult to narrow down which crops deserve designation and harder still to confirm the lineage. How do you trace the story of something as complicated as a seed, small enough to fit in a pocket, and—up until recently—difficult to genetically verify?
“A case could be made that all of the seeds we sell were Indigenously derived,” said Kavanya.
The first stage of Fedco’s project was to designate varieties with the most overt connection, such as those with a tribal affiliation in their name, such as Hopi Blue Corn, Jacob’s Cattle Bean and Waneta Plum.
Choosing to call the designation Indigenous royalties was also a decision based on ease of communication, more than precision of the term. “We were already distributing ‘breeders royalties’ to some of the independent breeders whose seed we sell and so it felt like an easy shift for our customers to make,” said Kavanya.
Royalties traditionally refer to a direct payment made to an individual or company, but in this case, due to the difficulty of determining provenance, the proceeds are pooled. Therefore, Kavanya and her co-workers at Fedco decided to name a single beneficiary: a local project called Nibezun that crosses tribal affiliations to reach a broader constituency. Nibezun is a registered non-profit that operates on 85 acres in Passadumkeag, Maine, with access to Olamon Island, the original home of the Penobscot Nation and Abenaki confederacy.
Through the allocation of 10 percent of seed sales, along with direct donations from customers, Fedco paid out about $10,000 in Indigenous royalties last season.
In 2018, when Kavanya first started exploring a method to pay homage to indigenous breeders, she met with other seed sellers to brainstorm and explore the practical steps. Following up with those that sat around the table with her, she says she doesn’t see any evidence of implementation.
“I couldn’t find any of that work continued. It’s disheartening. There was a certain momentum at the time,” said Kavanya. She cites two possible obstacles. The first is with scale. For some companies, “the amount of seeds they are selling is so small, it felt sort of futile,” said Kavanaya. The second is with general opposition to the imprecision of the vocabulary itself. Using the word “royalties” was an unpopular decision with both sellers and Indigenous groups.
Because the money from all the designated seed varieties is pooled and not tagged to individual tribal breeders, “it is not terminology that everyone thinks is most representative,” writes Kavanya. An alternate name for the practice, which emerged from the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network, is “Indigenous seed benefit sharing.”
“Terminology is worthy of thoughtfulness, but, hopefully, [it] does not overshadow root concerns, which in this case includes the commercialization of seeds and the unsettled matter of what is adequate compensation for what to some are relatives, ancestors and children,” says Dr. Andrea Carter, AG outreach and education manager at Native Seeds/SEARCH, an Arizona-based seed conservation organization.
Recognition of prior ownership is a first step, but what about returning the seeds? Groups such as Native Seeds/SEARCH and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance are working on drafting policies and beginning the work of returning Indigenous seeds to their native communities. They call the process “rematriation,” in recognition of the role women have played in seed stewardship. Returning seed breeding and stewardship to original Indigenous keepers on Indigenous land is an important step in seed sovereignty, which is in turn a foundational step in food sovereignty.
According to NAFSA (the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, which houses the Indigenous Seed Keepers’ Network), “Seeds are a vibrant and vital foundation for food sovereignty and are the basis for a sustainable, healthy agriculture. We understand that seeds are our precious collective inheritance and it is our responsibility to care for the seeds as part of our responsibility to feed and nourish ourselves and future generations.”
“Rematriation of all Indigenously derived seeds is impractical,” acknowledges Kavanaya. It would mean no beans, corn or squash available on the commercial market. But recognizing this does not mean that all Indigenous seeds should be available commercially. Some nonprofits such as Native Seeds/SEARCH are removing culturally significant varieties from their catalog while choosing to leave others readily available.
Small seed companies provide a valuable service to all gardeners looking to benefit from careful breeding and stewardship, but seeds are not just food: they are also a living cultural legacy. Acknowledging this idea is just the first step toward addressing a complex issue. “It is a larger and much-needed conversation that requires the voices of many,” says Carter.