Cherokee Nation grows heritage with heirloom seeds
By BRIAN BRUS
Feb. 26, 2018
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (AP) — The value of cultural heritage continues to outweigh the entrepreneurial potential of heirloom produce among tribal members, Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said.
The tribal government's seed bank is distributing seeds again this month, the 10th year of the resource-sharing program. Last year, the tribe distributed about 3,500 packets of seeds including corn, beans, gourds and squash not typically available in commercial stores. The bank also holds seeds that produce Trail of Tears beads, tobacco and other plants traditionally used in Cherokee customs.
They are heirlooms in two ways: Among hobbyist farmers, the term refers to seed varieties that are propagated primarily in isolated communities or among ethnic cultures, gene lines that would otherwise vanish under the market pressure of mass-produced fruits and vegetables.
Then there's the value that Hoskin said only tribal members appreciate. Each plant has a Cherokee name, and those names carry generations of history. By cultivating the seeds, tribal members keep their cultural language alive.
"It connects Cherokees today with our roots, with our heritage . back to a time when our ancestors would be growing the same plants," he told The Journal Record . "And it's a way to encourage people, young and old, to get outdoors and garden, to connect them with their food and remind them where it comes from. It encourages healthy lifestyles, too."
Under the program, tribal members are allowed to use the seeds as they wish, for personal consumption or sale after harvest. Hoskin said the latter hasn't gained much traction.
Sheryl Joy, collections curator at the Native Seeds/SEARCH nonprofit seed bank in Arizona, said domesticated crops are chosen for uniformity and efficient marketing, which means they depend heavily on human caretaking to compensate for natural pests and illness. Although some heirlooms are praised for richer flavor — which improves their market standing — they can be more difficult to produce in volume — which detracts from the profit margin. Heirloom crops tend to be limited to hobbyist gardens or tribal interests, she said.
Joy tends a bank of about 1,900 donated collections, each of which is composed of thousands of seeds, primarily corn, bean and squash. The NS/S program focuses on more arid Southwestern states and northwestern Mexico, but she has accepted a few donations from Oklahoma. Like the smaller Cherokee bank, NS/S guards its resources in a safe environment for the proverbial rainy day when those plants can no longer be found growing in a farmer's field, Joy said.
Feather Smith, the Cherokees' cultural biologist, said requests continue to grow. Orders took a big jump last year when the program went online for the first time.
"We do ask that people don't sell the seeds directly or use the Cherokee name for branding," Smith said. "We have not heard of a lot of entrepreneurship primarily for that reason. Last year, during the Cherokee national holiday, there was a man selling squash in the Tahlequah area that was clearly identified as a Cherokee crop. After we talked with him, he gave away the rest for free."
Information from: The Journal Record, http://www.journalrecord.com