Indigiqueer Gardening – Our Sovereignty is Land Sovereignty

Shawn Peterson (Nuu-chah-nulth) Youth program manager, Na’ah Illahee.

Itai Jeffries (Yésah) Co-Manager, Paths (Re)Membered Project

Yireidi Valencia-Martinez Hñähñu (Otomi Nation) Youth coordinator, Na’ah Illahee

Tell us about your garden.

Shawn: Our organization had been caring for beds at the University of Washington Arboretum for a few years now, we’re a small staff, and it was a lot to manage. Then last year, when the protests happened in Seattle, and they created the Capital Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), I started hearing about Black Star Farmers making a garden right in the middle of CHOP, and I thought that was so cool.

Yireidi and I went down to see it, and it was huge. I was floored. And we introduced ourselves and asked how we could help, and Kalimah, who is part of Black Star Farmers, asked, “How can we help you?” From the beginning, it was that way—reciprocal. So we invited them to our garden beds and talked about what we envisioned—garden spaces that would bring people together in Black and Indigenous solidarity.

Since then, we’ve been slowly cultivating that relationship. Black Star Farmers also tends several beds around the city. We’ve been collaborating on workshops and collectively hiring people to help manage our garden. We’re working together to create garden spaces for healing. To practice food sovereignty and in return personal and community sovereignty.

As Indigenous 2SLGBTQ+ people, what draws you to garden spaces and to the work of gardening? 

Yireidi: I’m far from my land. I’m a desert baby. Back home, it’s the norm to grow your own food, so wherever I live, even in urban areas, it feels like a must to me. Gardening is one way I find Indigenous community on the lands where I’m living. I think everyone should know how to grow their own food. We shouldn’t see gardening or food sovereignty as something you learn once you’re in college. We should see it as a regular thing. Even if it’s just growing vegetables on our windows, it should be accessible to anyone. It’s part of our healing journey too. Growing your own food teaches you a lot—how to bond with people, how to talk to people, how to care for yourself.

Itai: Yeah, elders in my family taught me about our plants being our first teachers. That was reinforced when I moved here, learning from folks like Valerie Segrest and Melissa Meyer. I’ve been honored to learn about plants here on Muckleshoot and Coast Salish territories. When I think about queer people in garden spaces, I think about how we have a lot of work to do still to convince our two-legged relatives to remember us as Two Spirit people, remember our traditions, remember our practices, so we can be seen as fully human and part of the circle. But the plants, our first teachers, already know that. We’ve long been the keepers of plant medicines, plant stories and memories. We don’t have to explain ourselves to them, so it makes sense to me we would gravitate toward the relatives who remember us, and that we also remember them.

Right now I’m helping an elder with a garden in urban Seattle. And the first time I started gardening here, I thought, how am I going to cure tobacco in a 600-square-foot apartment? So I turned a shoe closet into a miniature buck barn. Then the garden got bigger, and we started hanging tobacco on the rafters of her friend’s basement. We make it work, and we go out and give that tobacco to whoever needs it, and all of that, too, is part of land restoration, part of healing the land that was taken from the Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples.

Shawn: My understanding of gardening and looking at the land first came from a Westernized lens, I was raised mostly by my mom, who is non Native. Only in the last six years have I started to look at it in a different way, as a Nuu-chah-nulth person living in an urban space, as a way of reclaiming land. I’m a guest on this land, but I still consider myself a caretaker.

Two Spirit people have a lot of medicine. We’re spiritual healers, caretakers and warriors. When the time came, we stood up for our people and protected our young ones, our communities. Today, Two Spirit people are still in those roles of protector and caretaker. Existing and communicating the medicines of these plants, and their stories, and holding space in these gardens for our Two Spirit identities, insisting on those identities, is revolutionary. It’s taking back what colonization took from us.

How does your sovereignty as a queer person relate to the sovereignty of the land and to healing?

Shawn: I think first about our personal self-determination. Who we are, who we want to be in this world. When we make those decisions for ourselves, our lives that’s an exercise in personal sovereignty that’s directly related to land sovereignty and food sovereignty. The land isn’t property. It isn’t like that. We’re in relationship with the land, and our food.  we’re working as a community, so we’re also in relationship to each other. It’s a circle. We’re supporting each other in that mutual sovereignty, those relationships the colonized world tries to squash.

As Itai and I work to support our LGBTQ+ youth, we’ve been really thinking about our plant relatives and the land, the relationships they have with one another and how they’re in harmony and balance, and asking: How does that relate to our own lives? How are we interacting with one another and with ourselves? As Two Spirit people, we’ve always held that space. We’ve always been the ones to care for our communities and our other relatives. Respecting them is a way of respecting ourselves.

Yireidi: When I came to the U.S. I heard the phrase, “You are what you eat,” for the first time. I didn’t realize it was supposed to be a metaphor, and I was like, Yes. We really are what we eat. What we eat holds knowledge, and that knowledge gets passed down to us. How it was harvested and by whom—all of that gets passed down when we take food into our bodies.

Itai: When I think about this question, I think about the fact that I’ve had things done to me and to my body without my consent. Even the way people look at me and make assumptions and weaponize those assumptions against me. That’s a violation of my sovereignty. And because those looks and assumptions are a denial of our Two Spirit traditions, they are also a denial of the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples broadly, of our ways of being that have been colonized.

So when I learn to garden respectfully and responsibly, I’m teaching myself what consent can look like. I don’t just go out into the garden and say, Okay, it’s time to plant this, and stick my shovel into the earth. I put down tobacco. I sing for the abundance of the plant. That’s how we garden. We harvest together and sing and laugh a lot. We’re out there bringing joy to the plants. These are plants we’ve been in relationship with for thousands of years, and they do better in relation with us, too. It’s about care, and the more care I give to other beings—including the standing silent nations of the plants and trees—the more care I give to myself.

As Two Spirit people, there’s certain types of healthcare we can’t access. There’s rooms in schools we can’t go into. There’s bathrooms we can’t pee in. But even if all you have in your 400 square foot apartment is a window, you can grow a little tomato plant in that window. And when you eat that one tomato that you grew, you’re taking back hundreds of years of violations of your sovereignty. That plant might yield only one tomato, but there’s nothing small about that one tomato. Shawn used the word revolutionary earlier. That one plant is revolutionary.

Nobody can take that one tomato from you. And you grow from there. You grow from there.