The Voice of a Seed
Honoring Indigenous Voices with 1st Graders
Illustrator: Ricardo Levins Morales
Little hands pull and poke at the soil, searching for Makah Ozette potatoes. They wrap their fingers around the plant stems, pulling up roots laden with what look like round, light brown stones. Excited gasps, shouts of “Over here!” and “Look!” arc across the patch of earth that is our school garden. Students hold up the small tubers in their hands for me to see. “What do we call this potato in the Makah language?” I ask. Some remember the message our class received from a Makah teacher and exclaim, “Qawic (pronounced Kaowitz)!”
My non-Native students and I recently learned the Makah name of the Makah Ozette potato from Makah language and culture teacher Yvonne Wilkie. Until meeting Yvonne, I had been the only one to teach my students this seed’s story.
The Makah Ozette potato of the Makah Nation in Neah Bay, Washington, has been grown for more than 200 years, preserved and shared by Makah families through deeply held traditions of foraging, harvesting, and cooking.
I was introduced to the tuber while farming on small, diverse vegetable farms around Oregon. Five years later, as an agriculture teacher at a public charter school outside of Portland, Oregon, I taught my 1st-grade students the story of the Makah Ozette potato. I wanted to teach them that every seed has a story. (See “The Story of a Seed: Food Sovereignty in an Elementary Classroom” in the Summer 2021 issue of Rethinking Schools.) The Makah Ozette’s story is one of Indigenous resilience — culture that has been carried by the tribe through centuries of colonization. Each year, we committed to save the seed and its story. I hoped that learning the story of this seed would teach my students to identify the culture and knowledge systems that the food on their tables did or did not carry. To look for meaning in every bite.
But the lesson was missing a vital perspective — the Makah’s. My students needed to learn why saving the Makah Ozette potato was important, not from their non-Native teacher, but from the Makah themselves.
True to colonial methods of research, non-Native ethnobotanists, geneticists, and activists have written the dominant narrative about the Makah Ozette potato. When I began my search to learn more about it, the literature I found about the tuber was distributed by Slow Food, an international organization with a mission to “achieve good, clean, and fair food for all.” Slow Food Seattle began a campaign in 2004 to preserve and market the Makah Ozette potato to chefs and consumers due to its “distinctive quality in terms of taste; link[ed] to a certain area, memory and identity of a group and local traditional knowledge; and [in] limited quantities.” I reached out to the organization, and they kindly flooded my inbox with their written histories of the seed and descriptions of their efforts to preserve it. Though the materials mention a partnership with the Makah Tribe, I did not come across any quotes or perspectives directly from the Makah nation. I also noticed that Indigenous ways of knowing were described as “lore.” Despite goodwill to spread awareness of this rare seed, these efforts seemed to continue to colonize — commercializing Indigenous foods and defining this cultural food in non-Indigenous narratives.
I do not want to teach my students to use Western narratives to codify Indigenous realities. I want to teach my students that Indigenous nations can speak for themselves, and non-Native people should listen.
For example, since 2015, Washington, Oregon, and Montana have passed legislation that requires the teaching of tribal curriculum in all public schools. Washington’s Since Time Immemorial curriculum, Oregon’s Tribal History/Shared History curriculum, and Montana’s Indian Education for All were written in partnership with the federally recognized tribes in each state. The essential understandings centered in each framework acknowledge that “each nation has its own oral histories that are just as valid as written histories.” And “History told from American Indian perspectives frequently conflicts with the stories mainstream historians tell.” Ultimately, the authors recognize that “the information taught need(s) to be coming from the tribes themselves.”
Yet asking Indigenous peoples to be present in these lessons can put an undue hardship on those individuals and communities. It is important for non-Native educators to acknowledge that by inviting Native communities into our classrooms, we may be unintentionally monopolizing their time and energy. Alternatively, there are many ways to lean on codified and recorded sources of Indigenous knowledge that are available online from Indigenous-led organizations like Wisdom of the Elders and the Northwest Indian Storytellers Association, the Cultural Conservancy, the Native Seed Pod, and the I-Collective.
* * *
Once I had read through Slow Food’s resources on the Makah Ozette, I asked the founder of the Makah Ozette campaign if he was still in contact with any members of the Makah Tribe. He sent me to Yvonne Wilkie, the Makah language and culture teacher who had recently retired from 30 years of teaching Makah youth on the reservation at Neah Bay, Washington. She was also a longtime advocate and gardener of the Makah Ozette.
That fall, my students were familiar with the Makah Ozette in our garden and we were just about to harvest. During planting the previous spring, they learned about the U.S. government’s seizure of Makah lands. Standing in our school garden, I asked my students how they would feel if we were forced to leave our school and our homes. They responded with frowns, as well as words like “horrible,” “scared,” “sad,” and “mad.” I told them that this was similar to what had happened to the Makah and many other Native American tribes. It was important for my students to learn about this history. They needed to develop a context in which to understand the struggle and resilience of the Makah’s preservation of their culture and life ways. Without this knowledge, they would not be able to understand the importance of the Makah Ozette potato.
Yvonne and I exchanged a few emails, and she expressed interest in recording an interview that I could bring back to my students. Prerecording our interview was important for a few reasons, but most significantly for reducing the burden on Yvonne and increasing the impact for the students. Our virtual meeting required less time and effort than asking her to visit in person. It also increased her reach, as I will use this recording with a new class every year, and it allows me to pause and rewind to discuss certain points. For example, when she mentions historical events like the Treaty of Neah Bay, or words that the students are unfamiliar with.
Back in the classroom, I said, “Tomorrow, I am meeting with Ms. Yvonne Wilkie. She is from the Makah Tribe and is a teacher where they live in Neah Bay. She has grown the Makah Ozette potato for many years and said she would share her stories of the Makah Ozette potato with us. Remember, the Makah have been the keepers of the seed for more than 200 years.”
“Now, what would you like to learn about the Makah Ozette potato from Ms. Yvonne?”
My students were elated. It was rare to have a visitor since the pandemic, even virtually. Their questions trickled in slowly, and then bubbled up all at once.
“How do you like to eat them?” offered Sarah.
“Good question,” I said, and wrote it on the board. “What else could we ask her?”
“Do you have a potato garden?” asked Malik.
“Yes, maybe we can ask her how she grows them in her garden,” I said.
I turned to write it down and heard Valencia ask, “Is she a farmer?”
“Are potatoes really that old?” said Maive.
“Why are they called Ozettes?” I heard Celine whisper.
I turned away from the board toward the class, thanking them for their excellent questions.
* * *
As Yvonne and I got acquainted at the start of our virtual meeting, she shared some of her experiences teaching Makah youth and adults about their Native foods at the Makah Cultural and Research Center. Yvonne told me she and her students grew, harvested, and ate the Makah Ozette potato. Through their Native foods, Yvonne taught a lesson in food sovereignty, what she described as self-sufficiency. She said:
When I was teaching 5th grade, I noticed that there were a lot of families that had moved away from Makah tradition. There are a lot of people who don’t pick berries, don’t go out and fish, don’t have smokehouses. They rely on buying food at the store. One day I asked my students, “How many of you have tried seal oil?” Only one hand went up. I called some other people in the tribe, and we said, we have to do something about this. So I asked people in the community for smoked fish, seal oil, Ozette potatoes, clams, and mussels. It gave the kids the opportunity to try some of our traditional foods. Then I asked my students to name some. I made a T-chart on the board of traditional foods and non-traditional foods. A light bulb went off for one student. He said, “Ms. Yvonne, everything on this side of the chart is free, and everything on this side we have to buy at a store.” We had sparked the knowledge of self-sufficiency. They learned that you can get your own clams, smoke your own fish, grow your own potatoes. Now, our young people are regenerating this knowledge.
Yvonne described the soul of Indigenous food sovereignty. Rooted in Makah culture, her message illuminated the importance of preserving culinary traditions, teaching her students the symbiotic relationship between traditional foods and self-sufficiency. Though I chose not to immediately share this nuanced part of the interview with my students, I hoped that I could when they were a bit older. Though the Makah Ozette is not a first food, as are fish, seal, and berries, and was brought to Neah Bay by colonizing forces, it had become an important food for Yvonne and the Makah community. Hearing this message resonate throughout Yvonne’s dialogue, I then moved into our interview and asked her a few of my students’ questions about the Makah Ozette.
When I brought our prerecorded interview back to my students, I said, “You are all the Makah Ozette seed savers of our school. I want you to listen to what Ms. Yvonne says about the seed savers in the Makah community. What do they do with the seeds they save and why?” I wanted my students to see Yvonne as the expert, a keeper and teacher of these traditional foods and knowledge systems.
Yvonne introduced herself as a Makah language and culture teacher.
“How did you first learn about the Makah Ozette?” I asked her.
“It’s been grown here in Neah Bay since the late 1700s,” she said. “Our tribe had five villages before we signed the [Treaty of Neah Bay in 1855, which ceded 300,000 acres of tribal land to the U.S. government,] and then we became Neah Bay. The Ozette Village is farthest south. They are the ones who grew the potato first. It has been passed on generation to generation and is still being grown here today. It has a really rich history.”
“In Ozette,” she said, describing a Makah village, “it is all rainforest. There are tons of trees, and not many open spaces.” Her ancestors “wouldn’t cultivate a whole garden, but they would find a clear spot and plant a potato here and there and then go back and harvest them. We have a history of gathering food. All different kinds of berries, fruit trees — harvesting and gathering is something that is traditional to us. Every season there is something to harvest.”
“My grandmother grew the Makah Ozette potato in her garden,” she remembered. When Yvonne decided to grow the tuber, she received seeds from a fellow Makah gardener who “took me under her wing. Ozette potatoes were one of the first things I learned to grow. In the Makah language,” she said, “we call them Qawic.” She repeated, “Qawic.”
I asked how Makah Ozette potatoes were traditionally eaten.
“My favorite way to have them is with smoked dry fish, steamed potatoes, and seal oil,” she said. “Elders who are older than me, they like to have them in fish soup, either halibut or salmon. Every family has their own favorite way. They pass on the recipes through the generations.”
When I asked who the seed savers are in her community, she answered, “There are probably too many people to name, because it has gotten popular to grow the potato. There is somebody in just about every family in the village who grows them. Today, most everyone has their own garden, but they don’t just keep their harvest to themselves. Everyone exchanges food often. It’s about giving and not taking. There are so many people who grow them now, and it just pleases me that there are people who want to pass it on and are willing to share their potatoes and their seed with me.”
She went on, “One difference between Makah culture and non-Native culture is that everyone in the Makah community is a part of our family. When you ask a Makah to name their family, they’ll name their mother, father, brothers, and sisters and they will also tell you about their aunties, uncles, and cousins. I was raised with three cousins, but we don’t call each other cousins, we call each other brother and sister. Local kids call me Auntie, but I’m not really their auntie, or they will call an elder Grandma. It’s a way of showing respect to elders and connection in our community.”
“What is your favorite part of teaching the Makah Ozette potato?” I asked.
“I was a language and culture teacher for 30 years,” she said. “The Makah Ozette is an important aspect of our culture, and something that I want to see passed on in our community. I am excited that other people are wanting to learn about them. The Makah Ozette story is a unique story not just to the Makah people, but the cultural aspect of it, of people passing it on all these years, is quite an amazing story. So thank you for what you do also. I can’t wait to see pictures of your harvest.”
Through the story of the Makah Ozette, Yvonne delivered a message of the Makah’s culture of family connection and the importance of passing on traditional foods and recipes. Now it was my job to make sure my students understood her message.
I turned to the class, “Who did Ms. Yvonne tell us were the seed savers in the Makah community?”
“Everyone!” “Everybody!” “In every family!”
“Right,” I said. “Do those seed savers keep the seeds to themselves?”
“No!” the whole class responded. Hands flew up in the air, eager to share.
“The Makah share and give the potatoes and their recipes to every family. They share them with Ms. Yvonne and that makes her happy. Ms. Yvonne said it is about giving, not taking,” said Monica.
“Remember, much of the Makah’s land was taken from them. This land is where the Makah gathered their food like berries and tree fruit. Do you remember how you would feel if your school, your home, and your food were taken from you?” “Bad,” “Sad,” “Mad,” “Hungry,” I heard echoed around the room.
“Even though much of the Makah’s lands and foods were taken, one of the things they are able to keep and share with each other was Makah Ozette potatoes. Ms. Yvonne taught us that sharing the Makah Ozette with one another keeps their families fed with special recipes that are important to them. She told us that we are a part of saving this important seed, of giving and not taking. Our job as seed savers is to share it and make sure it stays with the Makah,” I said.
When we went out to the garden to harvest the Makah Ozette potatoes, the lesson we learned from Yvonne’s message was put into action. “What will we do with the potatoes that we harvest?” I asked them as we dug. Their responses varied, as did their pronunciation of Qawic, but the message was clear.
“Give them to Ms. Yvonne.”
“Share them with the Makah.”
“Pass them on to Ms. Yvonne’s family.”
“Why do we need to make sure these potatoes go back to the Makah?” I asked.
“Because these are their potatoes!” Malik said, his hands full of them.
“Because their land and food was taken from them,” said Dominic, his brow furrowed.
“The potato feeds them and it makes them happy to share it with each other,” said Celine.
“And make special recipes,” added Kara.
As I took videos and photos of the students harvesting the potatoes to send to Yvonne, I noticed they were quite small. Much smaller than years past, and I wondered about the sweltering 116 degree days we saw over the summer. The 2021 heat dome sizzled our blueberries and shocked the flowers off of our tomato plants. This had been our school garden’s smallest harvest in four years.
I asked the students if they noticed a difference between the potatoes they planted in spring and the ones they were harvesting.
“They are tiny!” squealed Jordan, holding hers up to her eye.
“They aren’t as bumpy,” noted Maive, exchanging the tuber back and forth between her hands.
“What did you notice happened this summer that affected the plants outside? Did you see the trees and bushes in your neighborhood change?”
“It was so hot! The leaves on the tree outside our apartment died!”
Other students shared their summer heatwave stories about singed bushes and broken air conditioners.
“Do you think the heat could have changed the Makah Ozette potatoes?” I asked. “I wonder what Ms. Yvonne thinks.”
“Can we ask her?” responded Mikiah. “She’s an expert.”
I sent our photos of these tiny potatoes to Ms. Yvonne, but soon after, they shriveled, too small to store. Next season, I will source Makah Ozette seeds from a non-Native farmer about 20 miles away. I will not ask Yvonne or the Makah community for a supply. As non-Native gardeners, we will not be taking seeds or resources out of Native hands, working toward Indigenous seed sovereignty only by returning them. When I think about discussing this nuanced understanding with my students in our next planting lesson, I wonder about other resources we could work toward returning to Indigenous peoples. I wonder what the conversation of Indigenous reparations sounds like in an elementary classroom. What I know now is that when we plant these seeds with a fresh batch of 1st graders, they too will learn Ms. Yvonne’s message, and with the help of some extra compost, hopefully, harvest a more sizable potato to send back to the Makah. And that is a start.
* * *
Before Yvonne’s lesson, previous 1st graders in my class had learned the role of seed saving to keep the story of the seed alive, but not from the Makah themselves. The “why” to saving seeds came from non-Native people speaking for the tribe. Learning that “every seed has a story” is my students’ first step toward preserving Indigenous seed sovereignty, but they must hear this story from the people whose resilience has protected the seed for generations and follow their instruction. I cannot speak for them. I cannot teach this lesson or any like it without them. Most importantly, I need to bring Indigenous voices into my classroom in a way that honors and respects their time, energy, and privacy.
I hope that centering Indigenous voices in the classroom and school garden will teach my students the value of Indigenous ways of knowing. As they develop an awareness of the social injustice and resilience that characterizes the stories of Indigenous peoples and their food cultures, I want them to be dissatisfied with the absence of Native narratives and seek out the voices of the tribes themselves. If they can become familiar with this practice while they are young, then perhaps when they are older, it will be second nature to make choices that shape food systems that would support the livelihoods of those woven throughout them.
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