With Heirloom Seeds, Cherokee Nurture Cultural History and Future Health

Growing ancient crops is helping to conserve much more than traditional foodways.

Native American heirloom corn. (Photo: Garry Gay/Getty Images)

Jan 29, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When Ryan Mackey was a boy, he worked in his parents’ and grandparents’ garden, tending okra, watermelons, and traditional Cherokee plants such as beans and corn. The hard work required didn’t leave him with a great impression of growing food.

“When I got older and got a job, I thought, I don’t want to have a garden,” he said.

But for the past six years, Mackey has grown his tribe’s heirloom seeds, which have been made available for free to Cherokee Nation citizens every February 1 since 2006 by Pat Gwin, an administrative liaison in the tribal government. In 2014, the tribe distributed seeds to more than 1,500 Cherokee Nation citizens, and last year, it had the largest inventory of heirloom seeds since the program began.

Through its seeds, the Cherokee are not only nurturing their cultural history but reviving their language and protecting citizens’ future health.

Efforts to catalog and distribute the seeds were inspired by Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and the collection was initially populated with seeds from elders such as the Cherokee Medicine Keepers and families who still grew ceremonial, medicinal, and culinary plants—plants descended from seeds their forebears brought with them from the Cherokee’s ancestral home in the South to what’s now Oklahoma, along the Trail of Tears. Gwin collected 24 crop varieties, including Cherokee White Eagle Corn and Georgia Candy Roaster Squash, and planted a garden at the Cherokee Nation administrative building in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The initiative continues the farming traditions of the North American continent’s first agriculturalists, Gwin said. Just don’t expect Cherokee Purple Tomatoes, which are named for a geographical region and have nothing to do with the tribe’s history or ethnobotanical makeup, he explained.

That’s an important distinction, because what the seeds are preserving, in addition to genetic diversity, is the Cherokee language. Based on description and metaphor, the category IV language is one of the most difficult for a native English speaker to learn.

“We found out there were words for things we didn’t have concepts for in English,” Mackey explained. “[The elders] would have to take us outside and show us: This word for hoeing is specific for this activity, or this word for planting is specific for this type of action. If we don’t revive our cultural practices, we don’t have a reason to keep these ancient words alive.”

Added Gwin, “The language preservation was always one of the main reasons to do this.”

While many associate the Three Sisters crops—corn, beans, and squash—with Native agriculture, when the Cherokee spoke with tribal elders, they struggled to identify a word in the language for squash, Mackey said.

“It turns out that pumpkins were more common for us than squash,” he said, the exception being the sweet, heavy Candy Roaster Squash—which if kept in dry, dark conditions can last for up to a year and a half without rotting. “Apparently it was one of the main staples of our diet, because it’s one of the few words we still have left for squash,” Mackey said.

“The biggest misconception about Native heirlooms is how they were harvested and consumed,” Gwin said. Gardens weren’t for fresh-picked vegetables in spring and summer. In warmer months, the Cherokee could find plenty of foods in forests; the gardens were a way to guarantee food for the long, lean winters, when they couldn’t get out to hunt or forage.

The tribe’s heirlooms were selected over the centuries for improved storage characteristics, Gwin explained. Corn and beans were picked after they dried on stalk and vine and were ground into flours or cooked in soups. And that squash lasts practically forever. “The takeaway is to realize how brilliant the agricultural science of the Cherokees was,” Gwin added.

Trail of Tears beans. (Photo: Flickr)

Another peripheral benefit to the seeds is the labor that initially turned Mackey off gardening.

“The heirloom seed program goes along with the chief’s initiative to get our people outside, exercise, and live healthier lives,” Gwin said, referring to an ongoing effort to encourage tribal citizens to improve their overall wellness. As of 2013, the Cherokee Nation has contributed 35 percent of casino profits back into its health systems, enabling a $100 million expansion of medical services in an effort to combat some woeful statistics: Of those receiving health care at Cherokee Nation facilities, 34 percent are obese or overweight. Furthermore, Native Americans in Oklahoma are diagnosed with diabetes more frequently and die from the disease at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in the state. There has been some progress: Since 2005, the rate of diabetes per 100,000 among Oklahoma’s Native Americans has decreased 23 percent. But on its health report card in 2014, the state still gave its 37 percent rate an F.

“They call our traditional cultural patterns holistic,” Mackey said. “That’s a buzzword a lot of people like to use. But what it means is you can’t really fully engage in one thing without a comprehensive understanding of all the things that it touches. So when we started reviving our language, we needed to know about our farming and the plants our ancestors used. When we started reviving our ceremonies, we needed to know about those [growing] cycles.”

This spring, for the first time, Mackey plans to plant heirloom corn at home, purely for aesthetics.

“Our corn has beautiful purplish-red silk. In the fall, when the stalks dry, the corn stalks have a beautiful maroon-purple color. Even the corn itself is purple,” he said.

“It’s really clear to me that our ancestors selected these plants for their beauty. Not only do they have amazing utilitarian value—they enrich our lives in different ways. Form and function—they go together.”