Seed bank offering heirloom seeds

BY STACIE BOSTON
Reporter – @cp_sguthrie
01/05/2015 07:50 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Nation’s Natural Resources is preparing for the gardening season as employees sort heirloom seeds they harvested from the department’s crops this past year. The seeds are to be distributed to CN citizens wanting to plant them.

Administration liaison Pat Gwin said his team spent spring, summer and fall growing plants such as corn, beans and squash to obtain seeds. He said this past growing season was the best he’s seen since the program’s inception about 10 years ago.

“We have a record supply of just about everything we’ve ever had,” he said. “We hope to do thousands and thousands of packages this year.”

He said the highest number of seed packages the department has sent out in one year was about 5,000.

Some native seeds, those local to the area, that will be available are Wild Senna, Buttonbush, Jewelweed, White Indigo, Sochan, Hearts-a-Busting, Blackhaw, Rattlesnake Master and Cutleaf Coneflower. Heirloom seeds available include gourd, tobacco and Trail of Tears beads.

Gwin said officials are also trying to revive a plant that is “fairly endangered” in Oklahoma, the Prairie Willow Red Root. The plant is commonly used at Cherokee stomp grounds.

“We are growing that and propagating that beginning last year and continuing this year. We are supplying live plants of those to the stomp grounds,” he said.

When requesting seeds, a participant should email seedbank@cherokee.org. An official will send a list of available seeds. The participant requests what seeds he or she wants as well as provide a copy of his or her CN citizenship card, address of where the seeds need to be sent, and if requesting the native tobacco, proof of age confirming he or she is 18 years of age or older. The seeds are then mailed free of charge.

Citizens should include one or two seed alternates besides their first choices in case supplies are exhausted. Seed recipients are limited to two varieties of a seed and one variety of gourds and corn due to hybridization issues. Distribution will begin in February.

Each order comes with the Cherokee and English name for the plant and growing instructions.

“Some things are harder to grow than others…We’re growing plants that are native to the original Cherokee homelands back east, the Appalachian region, and here in Oklahoma it can get to 110 degrees and California dry, windy conditions. Just about all of it takes a little bit of special growing protocols,” Gwin said.

He said to have enough seeds for the bank project and to keep the seeds at their most pure-genetic state he has different gardens in the tribe’s jurisdiction. There is a garden near the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex in Tahlequah and others throughout Cherokee, Wagoner and Delaware counties.

Gwin said it is important to plant varieties of a certain plant at different locations to keep the genetics pure.

“Only one variety of corn can be grown here at the Cherokee Nation site. Another variety has to be grown, maintaining at least a mile separation,” he said. “If not, they’ll cross-breed and then you get nothing.”
Gwin said before the seeds are distributed to CN citizens he and his group remove seeds with the best genetics so the program can continue.

“The items that aren’t 100 percent fresh, those are placed with the excess,” he said. “We don’t waste anything. Everything is given to tribal citizens or remains in the seed bank.”

Gwin said in 2014 the growing process was different because the department had help from Cherokee elders called Cherokee Medicine Keepers.

“We quickly realized in working with the elders that it was a huge bonus for the language program,” he said. “We were quickly learning that some of the ecology-related Cherokee words were either forgotten or were being forgotten. This is a way to keep the Cherokee language as preserved and as up to date as possible.

“We have gradually, around the garden, been expanding and landscaping with specific native plants that are culturally important to Cherokees,” Gwin added. “We have that list to about 50-something Cherokee plants. This was the first year that we have harvested the seed from those native plants, not crops, native plants that the Cherokees would use medicinally, culturally.”

Gwin said he not only believes this program is important for preserving Cherokee culture and language, but also to help educate Cherokee youth.

“We want tribal citizens to partake in this program,” he said. “I think it’s a good way to teach kids responsibility. I think there’s a good youth component here. I think there’s a huge educational component. I think the cultural aspect is through the roof.”

For more information, email seedbank@cherokee.org. or call 918-453-5704.

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