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USDA, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College Collaborate to Support Indigenous Seed Sovereignty Distribution of New Seeds in Late Spring

MANDAN, N.D., March 28, 2024—The U.S.  Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) announces a cooperative agreement with the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish (NHS) College to conduct research supporting Indigenous Seed Sovereignty. This collaborative effort will increase the number of traditional varieties of seeds of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation crops within NHS College’s traditional seed cache.

This agreement builds upon USDA’s strengthened partnerships with tribal communities to advance food sovereignty and ARS’ efforts to further incorporate tribal research priorities, including Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge, into its research portfolio. This partnership came to life in 2023 with a blessing of garden space, a traditional way of preparing for a successful harvest, after discussions between ARS and NHS College emphasized the need to expand NHS’s seed cache and increase seed accessibility to MHA’s Tribal members.

“As we celebrate our one-year anniversary, ARS is excited to announce that we have produced new seeds and seedlings of vital native crops which will be distributed to MHA Tribal members this spring via NHS College,” said Dr. Simon Liu, ARS Administrator. “Our partnership with NHS College enables us to gain a better understanding of the unique agricultural research needs of tribal communities. This achievement reflects ARS’ ongoing commitment to integrating the needs and practices of Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge into our research portfolio to support the priorities of tribal communities and indigenous agriculture.”

ARS’ partnership with NHS College will improve seed health through multiplication, germination, and viability. It also includes data collection to determine the traditional use and characteristics of MHA Nation’s traditional varieties. This work is important for protecting seed intellectual property, providing data to support increased consumption, and demonstrating the link between traditional varieties and health while sharing cultural protocols and traditional ecological knowledge throughout the project.

During the project’s first year, ARS researchers at the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory (NGPRL) in Mandan, North Dakota, successfully grew a wide range of traditional crops necessary for seed and seedling distribution.  The yield included eight varieties of corn (totaling 28 gallons of corn seeds), seven varieties of squashes (totaling over 500 squashes), four varieties of beans (producing a half a gallon of seeds), and more than 150 of one variety of watermelon (over 150 watermelons) grown on half an acre.

The NHS College established a Project Advisory Team that includes representatives from each of the three Tribes. This team provides direction on strategies to increase the number of seeds, to determine seed distribution, to collect program data, and to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge within the project.

“By reconnecting the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people with our traditional seeds, we are bringing life back into the relationship between our seeds, our people, and our land,” said Dr. Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills, Director of NHS College’s Food Sovereignty Program. “This act of seed sovereignty also strengthens our Tribal food system and provides access to nutrient-dense foods that our people’s DNA recognizes and remembers.”

Since 1998, NHS College has stewarded MHA traditional varieties through its Four Sisters Garden. NHS College’s traditional seed cache was established and has been maintained through donations by Tribal members and scholars and the rematriation [retrieval] of seeds from various institutions. In 1953, the Garrison Dam flooded the fertile agricultural land on Fort Berthold and forced MHA Nation Tribal members to re-establish new homes and communities on infertile dryland. This has contributed to the loss of cultural identity of MHA Nation tribe members, including the growth and consumption of their traditional crops.

“Seeds need to be regrown at least every ten years to remain viable, as the viability of seeds decreases by about 10 percent each year,” said Dr. Claire Friedrichsen, an NGPRL research social scientist. “ARS’ role is to increase the health of seeds within NHS College’s traditional seed cache. This includes ensuring seeds are free from disease or rot, have limited disease susceptibility, and are free from other detrimental developmental conditions. Maintaining the health of seeds is important for the ability of a collection to continuously adapt to climate, land, and culture to produce healthy crops.”

For inquiries regarding the distribution of new seeds, donations of old seeds that need to be grown to maintain their viability, or to become a member of the Nueta Hidatsa Project Advisory Team, email Dr. Ruth Plenty Sweetgrass-She Kills at NHS College at

This USDA-funded is a pilot project to create a roadmap for other Tribal institutions to collaborate with USDA ARS to support indigenous seed sovereignty.

The effort supports the USDA Indigenous Food Sovereignty Initiative announced by Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2022 (See, “USDA Announces New Resources to Empower Indigenous Food Sovereignty”).

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in U.S. agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.

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