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Head Seed Keeper Emily Burgueno

With a dynamic voice in Indian Country advocacy, Emily Burgueno is the Head Seed Keeper of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel. Her Native ancestry spans the lipay Nation of Santa Ysabel and the Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation—two of twelve federally recognized community bands in Southern California—to community villages in northern Baja California, Mexico. The connection she shares with her ancestral lands fuels a passion for her work.

Reinforcing the importance of balance in the circle of life, Emily says, “We're part of that land. We are the land. So when you remove us, that ecosystem becomes broken or unbalanced.” The title of Head Seed Keeper was given to Emily through her grassroots work as a cultural practitioner and the development of her Tribe’s community garden, initiated in January 2020. She reflected on the project's growth from its early beginnings, saying, “I've been tending a space for community. It was a very humble five-raised bed garden and two fruit trees.” This small start to a dream transformed the original space into a vibrant garden now utilized by community members of all ages. 

In her role as a land steward, Emily checks in on the plant relatives and other creatures that live there. “The natural landscape: that is our ag[ricluture]. The acorns, the oak trees: that's our food, sustenance, everything out there,” she said. “This is how we ‘Ag-ed’ back in the day, by living with the land.” Remembering how her ancestors tended the soil, she acknowledges the importance of honoring plant kin, saying, “We would tend to certain plants and bring some a little bit closer to our homes from atop the mountain, but it was never like a mono-crop… I would welcome [the] community to come and build on their relationship with the land, with plant relatives.” 

Seeing community members connect in a healthy way, the garden doubles as a learning hub to help highlight cultural knowledge for the Tribe and encourage self-determination. With the nearest market being sixteen miles round trip, the garden creates accessible food security for people on and off the reservation. Emily, on a mission to strengthen food sovereignty in her community, devised and implemented a Tribal seed bank or seed library. Tribal members “check out” the seeds and return them once they are regrown. “It is building relationship[s] with seed relatives through this Tribal seed bank,” Emily said. “In our creation story, we were made from the clay. So, we are the earth. That's why it's so significant and important to always have that relationship with the Earth because it's your relationship with yourself.” 

Outside of the garden, Emily is an advocate for her people and Tribe. Her passion for land conservation, stewardship, and heritage preservation pairs naturally with the mission of the Native Farm Bill Coalition (NFBC) and its advocacy work. In reflection she said, “I never thought I would find myself on Capitol Hill advocating, and I just am so grateful to the Native Farm Bill Coalition for creating that space and that opportunity for me to be there.” Emily actively consults with federal agencies on plant restoration and cultural competency and joined NFBC at a 2023 spring fly-in meeting with congressional leaders. 

“To represent my people in a good way, […]it was an honor for me and really motivated me to just continue to take up space in these spaces, whether it's on Capitol Hill, or within policy-making decisions in ag[riculture]. It really assured me that I was where I needed to be.”

As an  innovative Native woman, Emily found her voice was amplified through NFBC, “After I attended the fly-in and participated with the Native Farm Bill Coalition, it kind of motivated me to keep doing that.  Even though I feel so small, it's a big impact at the end of the day.” 

While looking toward the future, Emily is excited about the progress to ensure that good medicine is shared as Head Seed Keeper, saying, “That's what has really kept the work going, is that motion of healing.” Her work with the land is bringing plant medicine to those who need it most.



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