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From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds


An assistant professor at Brown University, Elizabeth Hoover had originally planned to be a farmer. (Photo: Jared Leeds)

Anthropologist and Humanities Center fellow Elizabeth Hoover spent four months crisscrossing the country, interviewing Native American farmers, growers, chefs, and community members about food heritage.


Elizabeth Hoover is an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University, where she received her PhD in Anthropology. Dr. Hoover’s first book, The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community (2017), described the impacts of environmental contaminants near Akwesasne, an indigenous community in upstate New York. Her current project draws from environmental justice movements and brings food heritage to the fore. 

What exactly do you mean by food sovereignty, and why is it important for Native American communities?

The typical definition of food sovereignty that has been developed through international activists and academic movements is, basically, the right to culturally appropriate food and control over how that food is produced. And that's a step beyond food security, meaning does your household have enough calories? Instead, food sovereignty asks: Are those calories coming from food that’s produced in a way that's safe for the land and for the people doing the farming? 

When I talked to indigenous farmers and gardeners, they layered on top of that the importance of culturally appropriate, culturally relevant food because of the ways that food is tied to language and culture reclamation. Physical health was also an important component of food sovereignty—as a tool to help you achieve health—because native people have the worst rates of diabetes and other metabolic disorders of any ethnic group in the country. 

Fresh strawberries and blueberries from the Nisqually garden in Dubpont, WA. (Image credit: Angelo Baca)

And education was seen as a big component of food sovereignty, educating people about where food should come from. But also looking to foods as educators—looking to those plant communities, bird communities, fish communities as sources of education about how to interact with the world and with the environment. 

If you're not planting, growing, and hunting your own food, how are you supporting the people in your community who are doing that work? Rather than just going to Walmart Supercenter and buying your groceries there.

What sparked your interest in this movement?

I grew up on a little farm in upstate New York, where we planted all our vegetables and had chickens and goats and turkeys and all those edible friends. I was going to be a farmer. But then we got a new guidance counselor at our little rural public high school who came and said, “Well, farming is not an easy business to get into right now.” 

She was the one who got me to apply to Williams College and encouraged me to check out some anthropology and sociology classes. And then a few years ago, I wrote to her and said, “Thanks, I just finished a PhD in anthropology and I'm not a failing farmer.” 

Then I was working on my first book project on environmental contamination and health and food systems, and volunteering with a group in Akwesasne called Kanenhi:io Ionkwaienthon:hakie. They were trying to get people back into farming and gardening and seed saving. 

We'd be sitting around having these discussions about, okay, how are other community organizations making this work? How are people getting funding? How are they getting youth involved? How are they getting people to eat what comes out of their gardens? And that led me to all these different food summits that tribes had started organizing. I was like, I want to go see these projects, not just on their Power Points. 

So I applied for some funding and then did a big road trip. I drove 20,000 miles around the country and interviewed people.

How did you conduct your road-trip field research visiting farmers?

I spent four months just visiting. It was amazing. I reached out to people that I had met at these different summits and said, “I would like to come visit your community.” And people were really excited to have me come see their projects, and sometimes they'd say, you know the next state over or the next town over, this other guy’s working on something. You should go visit with him too. Then I'd phone him up and jump back in the car. And so I brought a tent—sometimes I camped, sometimes I stayed at people's houses, sometimes I stayed in hotel rooms. 

I went to 40 communities and I did approximately 63 interviews. And then I would record some of the farm tours

What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned from Native American farmers?

I think what really brought it together was being in Mexico at the International Indigenous Peoples Corn Conference, in that it brought corn growers, indigenous folks from the U.S., a few from Canada, all over Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Peru, and Panama. And everybody had such a similar story. Whether its funding or not having a lot of land. Or erratic weather or concerns about trying to reclaim heirloom seeds and the impact that multinational corporations can have on that. 

We think about indigenous people south of the border as having retained more of their culture and original lifestyle. And then to be at this conference and hear them describe the exact same struggles as the people that I talked to who are farming out of Minneapolis or Hopi land in Arizona or Narragansett in Rhode Island, I mean, maybe it shouldn't be surprising.

Is there an art to the science of seed preservation?

Oh, there's an art and a science. Sometimes I like looking at science from the lens of a non-science practitioner, because it is sort of art and humanities in the way things are described and depicted. 

When I interviewed people about heirloom seeds, some communities have had a continued relationship. In other words, their relationship with heirloom seeds has never been broken. For example, corn that has always been passed down from grandma to granddaughter in a steady line. And then in other places people have really had to seek out and find where their heirloom seeds were taken and reintroduce them in the community. 

Margaret and Clayton Brascoupe in their kitchen with some of their traditional corn. (Image credit: Angelo Baca)

So there's a real diversity of where people are getting their heirloom seeds from, what they consider to be a genuine native or heirloom seed. For some people, it's like, if it's gone out of the community, then it's not ours anymore. Other people are really excited to bring back a seed that's been gone for a hundred years and they really want to bring that prodigal seed child home. 

I’m also looking at how a lot of the natural science movement that is behind genetic modification, genetic engineering has thought that people who are resistant to these practices are just being ignorant. These scientists have the impression that if these people just knew more about science they wouldn't be opposed to genetic modification.

But the people that I was talking to consider these seeds as living relatives. And you wouldn't let somebody molest your relative. You wouldn't let somebody imprison your relative. 


There’s such an emphasis on fresh and organic in foodie culture. Does that intertwine?

It really depends. I mean, there are instances where you have native farmers and co-ops that want to sell their product. They want it to go into restaurants and people's homes and be supported in that way. You know, wild rice that's actually harvested from lakes and processed by native people, and not paddy-grown out here in California and marketed as wild rice, even though it has barely a blushing acquaintance to the actual wild rice. 

I think there are interesting ways that indigenous chefs have used food as a platform. Like when Sean Sherman did this beautiful meal at the James Beard House. We thought, no native guy has ever cooked at the James Beard house, and his assistant was a 12 or 13-year-old Mohawk girl. He had these amazing indigenous folks in this highly elite place of food, and in a place like Manhattan where people do not think of as an indigenous space. On the menu that night were foods that at one point had lived and grown in that space. And he sourced a lot of the shellfish from the Shinnecock, which is a tribe just south of there that nobody pays any attention to. 

That’s been the value. The people buying those meals are getting the education, but then their money from sales is used for the next program and the next program after that. So that's where I think the role of foodies comes in.

What do you hope people take away from this project?

There are a lot of things. There’s a chapter on pipelines and mines and how resisting those kinds of fossil fuel extractive projects dovetails with food sovereignty. It looks at how allies have been part of that. Like resisting the Keystone Pipeline, by planting corn there that was done in collaboration with white farmers and ranchers. And so part of the point is how can allies be contributing to stopping bad projects and supporting food sovereignty in that way for indigenous communities?

I wanted native people to be able to read this book—including people who were part of these projects—and be inspired. I want food studies people to be thinking more about the importance of food justice and environmental justice, and the way that those things dovetail. Mostly, that you can't be thinking about native food independent of those factors.