‘SEED: The Untold Story’ Tells of Indigenous Guardians of Seed Diversity

SEED trailer / The inspiring film 'SEED: The Untold Story' unearths the dramatic story of seeds.

Documentary ‘SEED: The Untold Story’ Tells of Indigenous Guardians of Seed Diversity

'SEED,' now available for live streaming, shares the life-saving power of seed diversity and the work of passionate seed keepers.

Vital and miraculous, seeds sustain life on the planet. “If you have seeds in your pocket, you can walk, and you can eat the seeds. But if you have money, you cannot eat the money. This is gold,” said Emigdio Ballon, who runs Tesuque Pueblo’s agriculture programs, while clutching ancient seed varieties during the filming of the documentary SEED: The Untold Story.

SEED: The Untold Story takes viewers on a global journey from America’s Indian country to India, Peru, Hawaii and beyond. The documentary features indigenous guardians of ancient seeds, including Rowen White, Mohawk founder of Sierra Seeds; Hopi Nation leader Leigh Kuwanwisiwma; Louie Hena, a Tesuque Pueblo seed keeper; Winona LaDuke; and Native Hawaiian teacher Malia Chin, among several others.

SEED trailer / White is the founder of Sierra Seeds, an innovative organic seed stewardship organization based in California. She is also the current National Project Coordinator for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network, an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, a non-profit aimed at leveraging resources to support tribal food sovereignty projects.

SEED: The Untold Story, premiered on PBS last night, April 17, and is now available on DVD and online streaming at seedthemovie.com/watch. The documentary emphasizes that “the diversity of our seed stocks is as endangered as a panda or a golden eagle or a panda bear right now.”

In the last century, 94 percent of the world’s seed varieties have disappeared. The last study to count U.S. seed diversity was in 1983. There were 544 cabbage varieties; 28 varieties remained. There were 158 varieties of cauliflower; nine remained. There were 55 varieties of kohlrabi, three remained; 34 varieties of artichoke, two remained; 288 varieties of beets, 17 remained; 46 varieties of asparagus, one variety remained.

The documentary hones in on corn, first domesticated in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico. Corn seeds gradually snaked up the spine of the Americas, exploding across the landscape and North America about 1,000 years ago. “As keepers of the corn, the corn has come with us on our migrations, sustaining us,” Hena said.

“Corn really is this beautiful co-creation between plants and humans,” said White, a seed keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, founder of Sierra Seeds. “…Corn becomes so elastic and adaptive. Now we see corn being grown on every continent.”

Growing corn is spiritual, explained Kuwanwisiwma, Hopi. “The say when the corn hears you, they start dancing with you; the leafs flutter,” he said.

Even the tiniest cob, missing the majority of its kernels due to crow damage, is harvested and consumed. “People are too attracted to the big and beautiful. But the Hopi women and men say even this one is special [Kuwanwisiwma lifts a small, humble corn cob], because every seed has life,” Kuwanwisiwma said.

SEED trailer / Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, a cultural preservation specialist with the Hopi tribe

​In a highly organized seed bank that houses approximately 1,900 different accessions of traditional crops from quinoa and amaranth to the ancient ancestor from which corn originated, Bill McDorman proclaims, “This is food for the future.” McDorman serves as the co-executive-director of the Native Seeds/SEARCH, a Tuscon, Arizona-based seed bank, which has received most of its seeds from Native Americans, the true stewards of the seeds, according to McDorman. “We are hugely vulnerable with all those seeds. It becomes an immediate target to weaken a country,” McDorman added.

Seed diversity reduces crop diseases and thus increases food supply. Without seed diversity, life is at risk. “We don’t have the time left on this small planet to recreate it all. Seeds are living embryos; they do have a lifespan,” McDorman said.

Today, large biotech chemical companies like Monsanto sow genetically modified, identical crops on a massive scale. The documentary dives into detail about the injustice of the corporate giant owning national reproduction of these seed lifeforms, and the offspring of those seeds.

“When they go and take the dignity of that food from you and turn it into something else, it is offensive, it hurts our people. It hurts us economically and it hurts us spiritually,” said Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabe activist. Leader of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, a grassroots Native organization based in Minnesota, LaDuke and the Ojibwe introduced legislation that prevented manoomin, wild rice, from being genetically engineered.

SEEDS trailer / To the ricers of White Earth, the Ojibwe Wild Rice Moon—Manoominike Giizis—is the season of harvest, a ceremony, and a way of life. -Winona LaDuke

​Beyond killing off seed diversity, pesticides showered over crops by biotech companies like Dow Chemical are harming the health of humanity, as well as crippling indigenous economies and thus tradition. After Monstano took over the vast majority of Hawaiian farmland, Native Hawaiian teacher Malia Chin noticed that she and her family were beginning to suffer new, extreme health issues due to a mist of chemical gas that rolls over their Native Hawaiian homestead.

“The farmers are spraying pesticides at night while we’re sleeping. My two daughters wake up with blood-soaked pillows,” said Chin, who was diagnosed with adult asthma. “It’s so important to get back to our food source, to take back that ability to self-sustain like our ancestors.”

The 94-minute documentary feature SEED is directed by Jon Betz and Taggart Siegel. Siegel has produced and directed Emmy-nominated, award-winning documentaries including QUEEN OF THE SUN: What are the Bees Telling Us? and THE REAL DIRT ON FARMER JOHN. Jon Betz, an award-winning independent documentary filmmaker, was the producer and editor for Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? (2010). His previous film, Memorize You Saw It (2008), journals his experience as an aid worker living with former child soldiers in Eastern Uganda.

Hear about the majesty, power, and essential nature of seeds from a host of other seed protectors as well. “Seeds are so crafty. To me it’s magic, a life force so strong,” said Dr. Jane Goodall, primatologist.

Goodall also sheds light on the peculiar ways some seeds germinate, or reincarnate, through some artistic natural genius. “There are seeds that rely on fire. There are seeds that tangle up in the hair of an animal; they get carried for miles and miles. There are seeds that can’t germinate unless they pass through the gut of an animal. Darwin was amazed that a seed grew after it had been 21 hours in the stomach of an owl,” Goodall explained.