Indigenous people connect with culture through heirloom seeds
Across Virginia, seed keepers cultivate native plants.
Desirée Shelley Flores dotes after her seedlings. They’ve been in the soil since January, and their leaves are spotted with mist as Flores sprays them with her water bottle.
“Gardening is really a year-round practice,” Shelley Flores said.
She’s growing varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and tobacco indoors, because it’s too cold to plant them in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains before the spring.
She could wait to plant her seeds outdoors, but Shelley Flores said, “You could share food faster if you start them indoors.”
She is a native of Baltimore, but in 2017, one year after she and her husband had their first child, they decided to move to Catawba, northwest of Roanoke in the mountains of Southwest Virginia.
“A large portion of that was to be closer to my tribal community, which is the Monacan Indian nation, Shelley Flores said. "And to be within what we call yésah, or sometimes also called Tutelo-Saponi ancestral homelands.” Yésah is a Tutelo-Saponi word meaning “the people.”
Shelley Flores said she wanted to teach her children about their history and ancestral ways.
She has been gardening since she was a kid and even helped start an Indigenous garden at the University of Maryland while a student there.
It was at that point she realized she wanted to deepen her knowledge about native seeds and Native American history, Shelley Flores said.
“After graduating, I began to get more involved with Indigenous, traditional lifeways and foodways,” Shelley Flores said. “That was sort of how it all started.”
Shelley Flores is part of a group called The Alliance of Native Seedkeepers, which is a network of Indigenous people committed to cultivating ancestral seeds. Members of the alliance plant and grow them — then share them to ensure the Indigenous seeds survive.
Alliance members are mainly based in the mid-Atlantic region but spread up into the Northeast and Canada.
“A lot of these seeds were being housed with seed companies but not within Indigenous communities,” Shelley Flores said. “People will still talk about Tutelo corn, because that’s what [the companies have] called it ... Tutelo Strawberry corn. They say, ‘The people [who] used to grow this corn are extinct,’ and they’re seed keeping it for them in their memory. Sort of romanticizing the memory of Indigenous people, and that does a lot of harm to our communities.”
Victoria Ferguson, a Monacan elder, grew up on the West Virginia side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She now lives in Roanoke, where she built and ran the Monacan Village at Natural Bridge with her husband for 20 years until it closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
Today, Ferguson works as the program manager at the Solitude-Fracture house, which is the oldest building on Virginia Tech’s campus. It pre-dates the school and was built by enslaved people.
Ferguson is an historian and an expert on Indigenous lifeways, including seed keeping, which she learned from her mother.
“For years we’ve kept seeds,” Ferguson said as she showed off her collection, which she keeps in a tidy, portable box. “Years ago, my mother started putting them in envelopes and just writing the names on the seeds. And that’s why you’ll see some of the envelopes here, because it’s something that she used to always do.”
Ferguson has been keeping seeds for decades. In her collection today, she prizes her batch of Tutelo Strawberry corn, which she’s been growing for six years.
“I really, really like the color of them and how they look when they’re growing,” Ferguson said.
The Tutelo corn is rare and tastes sweet, but Ferguson said the seeds are so precious that she’s never even tasted the corn herself.
“I save almost any seed I could possibly save at this point in time,” Ferguson said. “But my father used to always say it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have.”
Ferguson recalled walks in the woods with her father and siblings in Beckley, West Virginia.
“As he’s walking through, he would identify different plants. He would tell them the use of it,” she said.
Following generations of racism, segregation and land loss endured by native people, Ferguson laments the loss of connection to tribal places. But she still cherishes what her parents taught her about living in harmony with nature and keeping traditions alive.
“My father made sure we built these little ridges to put our seeds in,” Ferguson said. “He had the stick that he used to put a hole in the ground where the corn seeds would grow.”
She said she still plants her corn and beans together like she learned at an early age. She taught her own children, and now she teaches students at Virginia Tech the same methods she learned as a young girl. In 2014, she started an Indigenous garden on campus.
“[I] showed them how I was taught to step off the garden and put the corn in, so we planted all of our corn that day,” Ferguson said. “And that was the first year we had the garden.”
Researchers at William & Mary are using technology to enhance ancient knowledge and build food sovereignty — a community’s ability to determine the quantity and quality of food it grows and consumes.
Troy Wiipongwii is an affiliate faculty member of the Global Research Institute at the university in Williamsburg. He and a small team of research scientists are hoping their computational tool can be used to help support Virginia’s Indigenous communities.
The program relies on both ancient and modern agricultural knowledge to predict the best place for crops to grow, how much that location will yield and the cost of production.
“We’re going out into the communities to talk about what types of foods they’re currently eating and what do they think are traditional foods, and what would they like to be seeing grown on tribal lands if they were to engage in a food sovereignty project,” Wiipongwii said. “It’s getting a conversation going. That's incredibly important for this resurgence of indigenous food.”
Wiipongwii, who is of Chickahominy descent, acknowledges the hesitation in using new technology to practice ancient traditions.
“I see the technology as an enhancement of what's happened in the past, with the ability to do real time kind of evaluation to ensure that we can continue to move forward either in the way that our ancestors have done it, or in a way that is set for the modern age,” Wiipongwii said.
Just down the road from William & Mary, the focus turns from sustenance to the sacred.
Historian Chris Custalow, who is Cherokee, shares his knowledge about American Indian life in the 18th century at Colonial Williamsburg.
“Tobacco is used in our community in a way, it’s more ceremonial and seen more as medicinal,” Custalow said as he held the miniature tobacco seeds in his hand. “You can fit about 50,000 tobacco seeds within one teaspoon.”
The seeds come from tobacco seed pods. Custalow said a typical tobacco plant puts off hundreds of thousands of seeds.
Custalow was faced with a challenge all seed keepers deal with. In order to cultivate the seeds, you have to plant them, but there’s always the risk that what you plant won’t survive. He started with just 100 tobacco seeds, and his efforts to cultivate the plant have been a success.
“I was able to provide tobacco to not only my own community directly, but the larger native community in Virginia,” Custalow said.
Custalow is growing the Indigenous tobacco, called Nicotiana Rustica, at Colonial Williamsburg to teach visitors about its historical and cultural significance.
“It’s typically taboo to purchase something like that,” Custalow said. “You’d want to grow it yourself, harvest it yourself or be gifted it. And so, it’s just become a responsibility of mine to provide that to the community.”
He said he sees the renewed efforts to cultivate seeds as a kind of activism.
“Tribes here in the local area have stood the test of time and have been here on reservations for the longest period of time as well,” Custalow said. “Being able to provide the seeds and cultivate the seeds, is that form of resistance to all the things that we’ve lost throughout time to colonization.”
Shelley Flores and Ferguson support all efforts — both technological and natural — to reconnect communities and revive ancestral practices.
“Fight like you live here,” Shelley Flores said. “You’re going to fight to protect that land, and part of that is taking care of it, because you want to take care of it for the next generation. For those who come after you.”