Cherokee Nation Donates Indigenous Crops to the Global Seed Vault

It's the first U.S.-based tribe invited to preserve its heritage seeds among the one million other samples collected from around the world.

Workers deliver seeds into the vault
A man carries one of the newly arrived boxes containing seeds from Japan and USA into the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, on March 1, 2016. Photo: JUNGE, HEIKO/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Cherokee Nation started to distribute its supply of heirloom seeds, which are free to any Cherokee. Last year, the Cherokee Nation Heirloom Garden and Native Plant Site distributed almost 10,000 packets of seeds to any Cherokee citizen who requested them. This seed bank was established in February 2006, and the number of participants who register to receive their two crops has steadily increased every February—although 2019 was its biggest year to date.

"It's important that we continue to distribute these seeds every year," Feather Smith, a cultural biologist for the Cherokee Nation, told the Cherokee Phoenix. "These plants represent centuries of Cherokee cultural and agricultural history. They provide an opportunity for Cherokees to continue the traditions of our ancestors and elders, as well as educate our youth in Cherokee culture."

But this year, in addition to the members of Cherokee Nation who apply to receive two varieties of gourds, corn, and native plants, some of those seeds are also being sent some 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where they'll be cataloged and preserved in Norway's ultra-remote Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Yes, the one that's supposed to save civilization and keep us all from starving to death after any kind of Doomsday scenario.)

Although the Global Seed Vault contains more than one million seed samples from around the world, this marks the first time that a U.S. Native American tribe has been invited to store its seeds inside the facility. Anadisgoi, the Cherokee Nation newsroom, reports that nine samples of heirloom seeds were collected to send to the vault, including Cherokee White Eagle Corn—which the tribe considers to be its "most sacred" corn—Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, and Cherokee Candy Roaster Squash.

"This is history in the making, and none of it could have been possible without the hard work of our staff and the partnership with the team in Norway," Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. "It is such an honor to have a piece of our culture preserved forever. Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world."

It's rather poetic that these seeds have been chosen for the vault, since the Cherokee Nation's own heirloom seed bank was inspired by the collection in Svalbard. Pat Gwin, senior director of environmental resources for the Cherokee Nation, told NPR that after reading an article about the Global Seed Vault, he spent a year traveling throughout the United States, visiting groups of Cherokee and acquiring seeds for traditional crops and native plants so that they could be planted, cataloged, and distributed.

"You can't be Cherokee without Cherokee plants," he said. "And without Cherokee plants, there can be no Cherokee."

Svalbard will deposit its 2020 collection of seeds, including the ones it received from the Cherokee Nation, on February 25.

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