The Cherokee Indians are preserving the roots of their heritage with a program that allows officially recognized members of the tribe to access seeds that are unique to the Cherokee Nation.
Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Bill John Baker explained the seeds' lineage to CNN. "This strain of seeds came with us on the Trail of Tears," he said, referring to the forced migration of Cherokee nation from their land east of the Mississippi to an area that is now Oklahoma. The 15,000-person march took place in 1838 and 1839 under Andrew Jackson's Indian removal policy, and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 4000 Cherokees, due to starvation and sickness.
"They have been preserved and grown every year before that, and they are the basic foods God gave us that we grew long before the contact with Europeans," Baker continued.
Baker takes special pride in the Cherokee White Eagle dent corn offering. "If you look at each individual seed there is an eagle on the corn," he said.
Heirloom seeds - which come from plants that have remained genetically unchanged and have been open-pollinated (by insects, birds, wind, etc.) for at least 50 (some say 100) years - are prized by cooks, farmers and scientists not just for their exquisite flavor, but also for their genetic diversity, and the stories they tell about generations long past. Baker embraces that mission.
"We are going to keep the seed stock alive and keep storing and keeping them pure," he promised.
The Natural Resources Department's current offerings include two breeds of corn, two kinds of beans (including Trail of Tears beans), two gourds and medicinal tobacco, traditionally used for Cherokee customs. At this time, they are only available to members of the Cherokee Nation who have a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood. The seeds are not available in stores, and eligible parties may request two varieties via an in-person appointment or cherokee.org.
Chief Baker believes the program, which started in 2006, underscores the idea of Cherokees helping Cherokees. "We think we have plenty for our members, and we are growing the gardens every year to provide us with the seed stock. But at this point our citizens are the only ones that seeds are being made available to. If more than 5,000 packages of seeds get requested, then we will distribute more."
This is no small gesture, as the seeds also provide a formidable food source. “If you plant corn and you decided to save the seeds, one packet of seed corn would probably make enough corn to share with a hundred families,” Baker said.
"This is just another way we can preserve our link to the land."
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