Photo by Justin Petrone
Fix Cain, from Skaroreh Katenuaka, displays some of the Skaroreh Katenuaka Seed Bank’s holdings.

Tuscarora Seek Food Sovereignty Through Seed Bank

Justin Petrone

For many, the word “sovereignty” is linked to ideas about land ownership, or relations with state or federal authorities. Skaroreh Katenuaka, a Tuscarora community in North Carolina, however, has recently begun to revitalize its traditional agriculture through a new project that it hopes will wean its members and others off of mass-produced foods and back onto a healthier, “decolonized diet.”Fix Cain, a community member, initiated the Skaroreh Katenuaka Seed Bank several years ago in order to promote food sovereignty, as well as foster the culture in which he was raised.

“I came up with the idea as a way to maintain living history,” said Cain, as he walked through the community garden in Robeson County.

“It was also a way to reconnect with my childhood at a time when I would tend to the white corn with my aunts,” Cain said. “As I started to ask more questions, I discovered a great number of varieties and couldn't resist the urge to recover as much as I possibly could. It evolved from there.

Skaroreh Katenuaka’s office bears testament to this endeavor. Seeds are organized neatly in jars marked with names like “Tonawanda,” “Cornplanter Purple,” and “Tutelo Red.” While the garden’s tall sunflowers bear witness to the region’s relentless sunshine, the seed bank is kept cool and dry.

Different varieties of seeds at the Skaroreh Katenuaka Seed Bank, with traditional Gustoweh cap behind them. (Photo by Justin Petrone)

There are seeds for corn, beans, squash, and other vegetables and “every seed has a story,” as Cain notes. It could also be argued that some seeds show the trajectory of the Tuscarora, who once held political control over most of eastern North Carolina until a war with colonial authorities.

That conflict, called the Tuscarora War, reached its nadir with the March 1713 siege of Fort Neyuherú·kęʼ—located in present-day Snow Hill, North Carolina—during which about 1,400 Tuscarora men, women, and children were either killed or sold into slavery. Following the conflict, some survivors migrated to New York, where they became the sixth nation of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, while others were placed on a reservation in Bertie County. Others still migrated to what became Robeson County, leading Moravian missionaries to observe in 1752, that the Tuscarora had been “scattered as the wind scatters smoke.”

“Katie Wheeler,” a variety of corn that Skaroreh Katenuaka cultivates, reveals this aspect of the Tuscarora’s peripatetic past. According to Cain, Katie Wheeler, also known as Iroquois Calico, was developed by the Six Nations from lines that trace back to corn that was brought by migrating Tuscarora. Cain obtained the seeds from Phil Seneca at Good Mind Seeds, a provider of endangered and heirloom crops, and began to cultivate them in the group’s garden.

Some 300 years after some Tuscarora left North Carolina, their corn is once again being cultivated by Tuscarora people there. “We have almost every known variety of corn with ties to the Haudenosaunee and Tuscarora that isn't extinct,” said Cain.

A sign welcomes visitors to Skaroreh Katenuaka headquarters in Robeson County, North Carolina. (Photo by Justin Petrone)

Maintaining the seed bank has thus become a means of preserving Tuscarora culture for Cain and Skaroreh Katenuaka. Yet it is also a means to demonstrate sovereignty for Skaroreh Katenuaka for whom, according to Cain, state and federal recognition was never officially removed, but rather “intentionally neglected” as land leases came due in the early 1900s. As such, Skaroreh Katenuaka will not seek state and federal recognition, which Cain called a “degrading and humiliating” process.

By practicing its own agriculture, the group aims to take back a fundamental aspect of its culture that had been cast aside following centuries of colonization: diet.

“There are elements of life that should never be surrendered to any one person, group, or foreign nation,” said Cain. “Those things are clean water, clean soil, clean air, clean medicine, and clean food,” he said. “Our agriculture ties into all that. Our gardens need clean water, soil, air. In return they provide us with medicine and food. If we take care of those things, they will take care of us.”

Indeed, Cain noted that traditional foods seem to have a positive impact on the health of community members, especially in regards to diabetes, which is a common tribal health issue.

“Decolonized diets—what people are calling it now—have helped people reduce their symptoms almost if not entirely of diabetes,” he said. “A lot may also have to do with the fact that we may not have some enzymes to digest a number of foreign diets,” Cain said. According to him, Iroquois black sweet corn is also “actually beneficial for those who suffer from cancer.” He noted that the bank maintains other corn varieties that have been used as medicine for internal ailments.

Six varieties of corn from the Skaroreh Katenuaka Seed Bank in North Carolina. (Photo by Justin Petrone)

Kim Sierra, a member of Skaroreh Katenuaka, has been tending the group garden, which is also used as a staging site to educate other community members about traditional Tuscarora agriculture.

“In the future we hope to be able to provide more fresh produce to our community and share the seeds,” Sierra said. “This helps ensure our future generations have what they need to survive, and the knowledge to grow it.”

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