Beth Roach, a councilperson of the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia, believes that a packet of seeds can do more than grow a bountiful garden. With seeds in hand, Native American communities can rebuild culture and remedy food insecurity.
This is why in 2018, Roach co-founded the Alliance of Native Seedkeepers, a non-profit that supplies seeds to tribes across the country. A history of stolen land and government-imposed culture and language erasure has left many Native American communities struggling to re-discover their history and cultural traditions. Roach hoped that returning to the practice of community agriculture would revitalize some aspects of a tribe’s unique culture.
While working on a traditional mound-style garden, a Nottoway elder named Yvonne was reawakened with memories of tribal and family practices from her childhood that she then shared with fellow gardeners.
“The physical methods of actually being in the garden … activated memories of (Yvonne’s) elders. That shows the line (of) ecological knowledge we still have coursing through our being,” Roach said. “It’s so important for us that we have people in the gardens doing these things so that we are building up that collective memory muscle.”
At 2 p.m. EDT Wednesday, July 1, on CHQ Assembly, Roach will present a lecture titled “Growing Hope,” where she will share her experience with cultural reconstruction. It’s part of the Interfaith Lecture Series theme for Week One: “Faith to Save the Earth.” Roach will also tell the tribal creation story that inspired her efforts with the nonprofit: the story of the Sky Woman.
For the past decade, Roach used her public speaking experience to share the legend of the Sky Woman, which Roach said stresses the importance of interdependence between species and living in balance.
“I’ve gotten deeper in my studies of the story. It turns out that seeds are the integral part,” Roach said. “She brings seeds down with her, and our original instructions say that our duties are to not waste the seeds, and to share them.”
Roach’s organization works to share seeds with all tribes across the country. Through this, they are encouraging tribes to grow and repopulate endangered plants and seeds historically associated with their tribes.
“There’s a Cherokee family that lives outside of Richmond. They were just growing corn and big tomatoes, and we were like, ‘You should grow some Cherokee stuff,’” Roach said. “Three years later, they’re growing like a dozen Cherokee varieties, and it’s just taken off.”
Native American communities face food insecurity at higher rates than the rest of the nation. Nearly all Native American reservations are in food deserts — regions that lack access to fresh produce as a result of a lack of grocery stores and markets.
Food insecurity can also be classified as a lack of access to healthy food in particular, sometimes caused by financial barriers. The percentage of Native families living in poverty is about five times higher than the percentage of families nationally, leaving Native communities less likely to afford fresh and healthy produce, even if it is readily available to them. Driven to less healthy food options, Native American people are more likely to experience diabetes and kidney failure.
Roach said that with these seeds, Native communities can grow community gardens to bring more, and healthier, food to the table. This can remedy hunger and nutrition-related conditions.
“If you look at our food systems you know the Native people have high rates of diabetes,” Roach said, “but if you look at our traditional foods — they can help with that so much.”
Food insecurity has been exacerbated since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, Roach said the organization has had more people interested in stocking up on seeds than usual. To address this added need, the Alliance offered a deal to customers that for every bundle sold, seeds would be set aside for a community in need.
The Alliance would typically spread the word of their work through community events like Pow wows, where they would set up tents and invite people in to share stories and learn about the organization.
But, after the pandemic, many of their outreach plans were canceled. But, one major outreach plan stayed the same: a presentation at Chautauqua Institution. Roach said that she is excited to be able to connect to people wherever they are quarantining, and hopes that the audience can reflect on the history and culture in their individual communities.
“(My presentation is) grounding everyone in the space where they are, hoping that they can start to think about how we can continue to grow our own kind of hope,” Roach said.
This program is made possible by the Gertrude Elser Schroeder Fund.