Cherokee’s seeds of life

Dalton Walker

Heirloom seeds now call a global bank home

A tiny part of Cherokee Nation is heading deep inside a secluded, freezing-cold mountain thousands of miles away from home.

This is the way. This is life. This is survival.

It’s also history. As many tribes across Indian Country are preparing for spring planting season, Cherokee Nation is taking a dramatic step further, beyond planting and its annual seed distribution to its citizens. The tribe is the first in North America to deposit traditional heirloom seeds at Norway’s Svaldbard Global Seed Vault. Cherokee Nation is only the second Indigenous community to store seeds at the vault after South America’s Indigenous Andeen communities in 2015.

Cherokee Nation made the seed announcement in early February and the deposit is scheduled to happen today, Feb. 25.

“My hope is that we are not the last [North American] tribe, last group of Indigenous people to be invited and that we are just the first of many,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.

Nine Cherokee heirloom samples were sent to Norway: Cherokee White Eagle Corn, Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, Cherokee Turkey Gizzard black and brown beans, Cherokee Candy Roaster squash and three other types of corn. Each predates European contact and is significant to the Cherokee people. Hoskin said the seeds selected are the most popular among the tribe and “varieties that we would want to provide in case of global catastrophe, so our history is not lost.”

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Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Secretary of Natural Resources Chad Harsha with heirloom seeds being sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. (Photo courtesy of Cherokee Nation)

A Crop Trust representative connected with Cherokee Nation last year after the tribe’s seed bank program was highlighted on National Public Radio. The vault is owned by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food and is a partner with Crop Trust. It was built to outlast the worst case scenario. It opened in 2008 and can store up to 2.5 million seeds. Cherokee Nation will be part of the largest seed deposit since the vault’s opening, pushing the seed samples from across the world to past 1 million, according to www.croptrust.org. Of the 36 institutions depositing seeds this round, eight are first timers bringing the total number of depositors to 86.

Cherokee Nation Senior Director of Environmental Resources Pat Gwin said depositing the seeds “is a tremendous opportunity and honor for the tribe. Additionally, knowing the Cherokee Nation’s seeds will be forever protected and available to us, and us only, is a quite valuable thing indeed.”

Each year, Cherokee Nation disperses heirloom seeds to its citizens in Oklahoma and those living across the nation. More than 10,000 seed packets are given out annually to Cherokee citizens. The tribe has a seed bank and a heirloom seed garden that started in 2006.

Many tribes across Indian Country have seed banks and community gardens. In northern New Mexico, the Tesuque Pueblo Seed Bank continues to thrive. It was built in 2011 from recycled materials and is powered by solar power. The seed bank stores traditional pueblo seeds and seeds from other tribal nations. In addition, the small four-person seed bank staff tend to a greenhouse, a garden and an orchard with a variety of apples and berries.

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Tesuque Pueblo Farms Seed Bank (Photo courtesy of Gailey Morgan, seed bank staff)

Emigdio Ballon, Inca and Tesuque Pueblo agriculture director, said growing food is important to Indigenous people and for survival. He said preserving traditional foods is key and acknowledged the effort by Cherokee Nation to store seeds in Norway. “When they bring seeds over there, it’s because they care, they care for their brothers and sisters and the food for the seven generations,” he said.

Svalbard is a small, remote island north of the Arctic Circle off the Norwegian coast. It’s about 620 miles from the north pole. More polar bears live there than people, according to the vault’s website. Seeds reach the island by plane and are then taken to the vault by vehicle.

The vault was built in a mountainside well above sea level and radiation and humidity levels tend to be naturally low, according to the website. Deposits happen three to four times a year and only once has a depositor taken their seeds out. It happened in 2015 after access to a seed bank was lost in Syria because of civil war, but seeds have since been re-deposited.

“It is a long-term seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters,” the website reads. “The seed vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity.

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A map of Svaldbard Global Seed Vault in Norway (Photo courtesy of Crop Trust website)

Inside the facility is a tunnel longer than a football field to reach the area where the seeds are stored. Cold air is piped into the vault to make it even colder than naturally. The vault temp is set at 0 degrees fahrenheit. The mountain rock is dark but walls have been coated with a mixture of plastic fiber and concrete that lightens them up to look like snow. The vault is not meant to be a tourist destination and isn’t an eye catcher. A virtual reality and a 360-degree interactive tour is available on the website that shows a glimpse of what’s inside.

Hoskin said he hopes a Cherokee citizen visits the vault one day, not to re-collect the seeds under dark circumstances, but to develop a relationship with vault leaders.

“I do hope in the future we have an occasion to visit the seed vault to engage directly with people operating the vault,” he said. “It’s a significant moment in history and I think is only the beginning of a larger conversation of preserving heirloom seeds used by Indigenous People.”

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Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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Comments (1)
No. 1-1
Nelli
Nelli

Beautiful cultural balance in the writing of this story. Thank you, Dalton. Your writing is nourishing to the intellect and the spirit. A story of the Seed Bank could be written in a sensational style to engage people by frightening them. You chose not to do so, but shared in a way that empowers all of us who are planters of seed, whether physical or metaphorical.


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