Joy Harjo, the 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States and Muscogee Nation member wrote in one of her poems that people should “Bless the land from the top of its head to the bottom of its feet.”
Harjo’s deep reverence for nature is a core belief in Native American culture, which sees the earth as a living, breathing being. It is considered the mother of all living things.
Ahead of Earth Day and during National Poetry Month, the words in Harjo’s poem “Bless this Land” stress that land in Native American culture is not considered a commodity that can be bought and sold. Instead, it must be looked after for future generations as it is the giver of nourishment and life.
Much of the land that Native Americans used to live on has long since been taken, robbing the people who once lived there of their cultural identity and purpose. Through that and as the modern world continues to encroach on reservations, Native American life has rapidly changed and some traditions have been lost, particularly regarding land and farming.
But in recent years, a sweeping movement has sought to win back land and reintroduce those old traditions. The Land Back Movement is a campaign by indigenous people in the United States and Canada to reestablish political and economic control over their traditional homelands.
In spite of the formidable task of getting their land back, native tribes have had some incredible successes over the last few years. The removal of dams along the Klamath River in Oregon followed a long campaign by the Yurok Tribe and other activists, and the return of 1,200 acres in Big Sur, California, to the formerly landless Esselen Tribe. In 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that over 3 million acres of Oklahoma land, including Tulsa, remained part of an Indian Reservation.
But a vital part of that campaign is known as rematriation, an indigenous women-led movement working to restore the sacred relationship between America’s First People and their ancestral land. Rematriation honors the matrilineal part of Native American society and opposes patriarchal violence and dynamics.
Jessika Greendeer is part of the rematriation movement. She is a Ho-Chunk Nation member and a Seed Keeper and Farm Manager at Dream of Wild Health in Minneapolis, Minn.
Her position as a seed keeper is important as seeds are not just merely part of the agricultural process. They take on a spiritual meaning in Native American culture and are seen as living ancestors from whom she and her people are descended. The seeds take care of their descendants by providing food. In return, seed keepers protect the seeds for the future.
Greendeer sat down with Reckon to discuss her work as a seed keeper and how native women are helping win land back for their people through rematriation.
Reckon: Tell us about Dream of Wild Health and your work there.
We work to restore native culture, foods and the culture around our foods. We also teach people how to forage in the forest and woodlands as their ancestors did. We do that through different community classes we offer throughout the year. But a lot of our focus is on our youth through intergenerational learning, where elders and middle-aged folks and younger adults help to teach our future generations, usually kids aged 8 to 18.
They learn about agriculture, food preservation and preparations in our kitchen. And they dabble in a little bit of advocacy work as well, looking at different injustices. That teaching has helped them learn how to lift their voices up. It’s such an important part of what we do here.
I joined to work with the indigenous seeds the organization has cared for since the 1990s.
Our audience may not be familiar with seed keeping and seed rematriation. What exactly are those?
The decolonized History of the United States tells us that for hundreds of years, people have been either massacred or removed from their ancestral land due to colonization. So along with the land being taken from so many different tribes across America, as well as the other Americas, we also lost parts of our culture. My focus is on reconnecting to the seeds that we would grow on those lands.
And during the early 1900s, our seeds were being taken and put into museums and similar places to show how Native Americans used to do gardening and what they ate. And now, with rematriation in the last ten years, we were able to take those seeds from those institutions and grow them again. And then also share them with the communities they originally came from.
We are reconnecting with the land and our culture through seeds.
You seem to be culturally responsible for this incredibly important thing that has come from the past and now you’re tasked with preserving it for the future. Is that a heavy burden?
I spent more than ten years in the U.S. Army. And growing up, there were a lot of things that we would do not for ourselves, but for others. So, serving others was something with deep cultural ties within my family. But then additionally, going into the Army is the same thing. We talked about selfless service all the time.
I had my experiences gardening with family as a child, but it really started hitting me after I got out of the military and decided I wanted to be an organic farmer.
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Over the course of history and since human beings became agriculturists, we have carried seeds and grown them in a way that those seeds would outlive us. And excuse my language, but I can’t think of anything more badass to do. It’s knowing that if we’re doing the right things, all of our work will outlive us. And we’re just part of the legacy of human beings. I think the only way people can truly understand is to hold a seed of their ancestor in their hand.
How would you describe that feeling to non-native people?
Maybe you would hear amazing stories of someone; maybe it’s somebody you didn’t remember from when you were a kid. But you kept hearing the stories. Often, they would be little things, and even though you weren’t there, the stories are something you carry with you. Stories that you don’t forget.
I want you to imagine that story and fast forward 30 years. There’s a knock at the door, and it’s that person you don’t remember at your doorstep. In your heart, there’s a part that you that knows them through the stories you’ve heard even though they have been living their life somewhere else all this time.
And because you know their stories, there’s a familiarity, a closeness. You have catching up to do because you missed growing old together or experiencing each other’s company. And that’s exactly what it’s like when those seeds come home. There’s a story in each one and each one is family.
We may not know what their names were or remember their faces, but we know that they were the cornerstone of not only indigenous survival but also part of our deep culture.
That’s such a beautiful way of seeing life. As you were talking there, I was thinking about how you had that profound moment in your own life where you decided the future really matters. And that’s such a hard thing for people to do right now, especially with the environment.
I know and that’s part of why we’re in the mess we’re in today. There’s a lot of wisdom in our culture that could do so much for a world less interested in just money and power.
Your work feeds into the wider rematriation and Land Back Movement. How are those connected?
In the grand scheme of everything, it’s all connected.
I can’t grow the seeds without having good earth to grow them in or access to ancestral land for the season. It’s all very linked. And unfortunately, within this country, there are people willing to acknowledge that, but not to the point where it’s okay if they live in their house and we steward the land for them. That’s not how the white, western system of ownership works. They want their land to themselves.
I think we would live in a very different place if we accepted that the land belonged to nobody but allowed us to care for it.
At Dream of Wild Health, we did have to purchase additional land to support the work that we do. I think that’s very common for not only Native tribes but other Native organizations across America because we’ve had to pay for it and someone might argue that we should already have access to it.
I can’t speak for every single indigenous person, but once upon a time, we also didn’t own the land but we took care of it. It was our responsibility, our purpose. It’s the place where our ancestors are buried. It’s the place where our ancestors lived and thrived. We didn’t overburden any of the land. We picked different spots to farm, so it wasn’t the same spot every year. We hunted the animals and helped manage the forests. There was nothing out of balance because it was about survival. It wasn’t about making money or ownership.
Women seem to be at the forefront of so many good things within your culture. How important are women to Native American culture and the rematriation movement?
Do you really need to ask?
There are so many tribes throughout the Americas that are matrilineal or matriarchal. The responsibilities, guidance, and direction of the family, unit, or tribe often come from the woman.
Women are the carriers of life in so many ways. Even within our plants or trees, there’s a feminine and masculine. They live in balance. And it’s one of those things that I think has been taken away from so many cultures around the world, not just indigenous people. There’s a lot of power in that women make decisions differently than men. And I’m not trying to say we should be asking a woman everything. I don’t want to get it twisted because I was also raised by very strong and balanced men.
But even if you look at a mother and a father. If a child falls, the mother might be concerned and the father will brush it off as something that just happens. That child is still loved by both mother and father, but the woman has a different perspective.
I think that a lot of times, women are forward-thinking, shaping what their lives will look like now, hoping what it will be like in the future, and even wondering how unborn grandchildren will be or what they will do. Thinking about future generations is just the most important thing and that typically comes from a woman.
How does that knowledge mesh with your work as a farmer and a seed keeper?
It does help shape the way I farm. Because I do see those little faces during our summer program. And I want to be able to know every single day that I can look any one of them in the eye and know I did the very best I could to make sure that they have good clean soil that they’ll be able to plant into. And those children are not of my blood, but it doesn’t matter. At one point in time, someone thought enough to make sure that we had everything we needed to live and survive. And now it’s our time to be able to do that for all children. That kind of thinking breaks down the barriers in our communities and transcends language. It’s an act.
Everyone needs to ask themselves, what are we going to sacrifice today and make a difference today for the continuation of our entire species going forward?