Photograph courtesy of Lisa Waterman Gray
Housed inside a welcoming midtown Tucson shop, the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH works to preserve endangered or rare plants of the Sonora Desert region. To accomplish this the organization sources, stores, distributes and sells approximately 1,900 varieties of drought-tolerant, non-GMO (genetically modified organism) seed.
About two thirds of the Native Seeds/SEARCH ‘library’ comes from Southwestern U.S. and Mexico Native American communities. Seeds range from chiltepin chiles (ancestor to most chiles) to chapalote ‘Pinole Maiz.’ A corn variety grown for thousands of years, this chapalote combines high protein and fiber with low fat and simple sugar and no GMO pollen contamination. Reintroduced in the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix and in the Santa Cruz River Valley, pale-colored heirloom White Sonora Wheat resists both rust and fungus. Brewers and bakers especially appreciate its sweet, earthy flour flavor and nutty texture.
Native American health challenges instigated creation of the organization. Native Seeds cofounders, Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees, collaborated with the Tohono O’odham Nation to help them establish gardens that would support their nutritional needs.
Adult Native Americans have double the incidence, of Type 2 diabetes, when compared with non-Hispanic whites, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. From age 10 to 19, they are nine times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes and diagnoses rose 110 percent for this age group between 1990 and 2009.
“[Our] founders perceived that threats to the lifeways of indigenous peoples in the Greater Southwest posed irreversible extinction of very remarkable crop plants that thrived in challenging climates,” says Nicholas Garber, conservation program manager. “SEARCH stands for Southwestern Endangered Aridlands Resources Clearing House. ‘Clearing house’ conveys access to the collection via exchange and not sales.”
The organization’s Native American Seed Request program distributes up to 10 free or low-cost traditional seed packets, annually, among individual Southwest Native Americans, and regional tribe members who live elsewhere. Native Seeds/SEARCH has received about 450-550 requests during each of the last five years, comprising approximately 20% of total seed distribution.
“Our partners [include] Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture. We have taught seed saving classes this year at Kykotsmovi with Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture as our hosts. We have also increased the numbers of Native American farmers in our Bulk Seed Exchange, from 1 out of 6 total farmers in 2016 to 6 out of 11 in 2018.”
Partnering with indigenous farmers promotes seed access and sovereignty, keeping traditional produce available for special flavors and culinary properties required in ancient recipes. This program supports small-scale farmers who promote the seeds and return a portion of them following each successful harvest.
“We make larger quantities of seed available for farmers to plant at field-scale in exchange for 1.5 times the amount provided at harvest, and we pay for any amount over that which the farmer is willing to sell us,” Garber says.
Recent partnerships have included Ndée Bikíyaa (The People’s Farm) at White Mountain Apache, two independent growers at Hopi, one independent grower at Okay Owingeh (Santa Clara) Pueblo, Owl Peak Farm in La Madera, NM – led by a descendant of Taos Pueblo – and Crooked Sky Farms, run by a Cherokee farmer in Phoenix, AZ.
Community Seed Grants comprise another 11% of annual distributions. Recipients include more than 100 schools, food, banks, senior centers and seed libraries that promote nutrition, food security, education and/or community resilience, especially among underprivileged groups.
“We support real agricultural economies on reservations where opportunities are limited,” Garber says. “We’re also building on relationships with farmers, in Native American communities, to create new seed banks where they [determine] who gets their seeds, and at what cost.”
Unfortunately, no Native Americans serve on the organization’s staff. “Reasons include the location of our Conservation Center in an affluent, Anglo zip code; and interpersonal,” Garber says. “We can’t operate on a racial imperative in hiring so what we’re trying to do is to figure out how we create an environment that makes Native Americans interested in working here.
“Financial issues have kept us from creating any open [staff] positions and developing a program to actively recruit from Native American communities, but we have very generous donors and some umbrella grant funding,” Garber says. “And we need to figure out how we participate in the community.” Three Native Americans did join the Board in 2018. Hopefully, more will participate in the future.
Making seeds available for free to Indigenous people, whose agricultural legacies are represented in the collection, is ‘ethically mandatory’ for Native Seeds/SEARCH. “These are their seeds and we have no authority over how they are used,” Garber says. “[We want to] make sure indigenous people have access to the seed collection as easily as possible.”