Cherokee Nation Seed Exchange Program GrowsCaidlen Dunham of Jay stands in front of Cherokee Colored Flour Corn that she and her father Mark grew this summer. The special corn was among the varieties of seeds exchanged earlier in the year as part of Cherokee Nation’s heirloom seed preservation program.
This spring when the Cherokee Nation announced a small program offering free seeds to grow rare Cherokee heirloom plants, Pat Gwin assumed he would probably send out about 20 to 30 packages of seeds to local citizens.
Much to his surprise, Gwin, director of the Cherokee Nation’s Natural Resources department, discovered that Cherokees from all over the world want to help establish heirloom plants and contribute to the tribe’s new seed exchange bank.
The new program was announced through local newspapers and the Cherokee Nation Web site. It offered any interested Cherokee citizen a shipment of seeds if they would write or call and make the request. The only thing asked in return was that successful gardeners share a few seeds from their bounty with the Nation to help replenish the precious seed stock of the rare plants.
“It just blew out of proportion,” said Gwin. “We had requests from all over the world and actually ended up sending out about 6,000 packages of seeds to citizens that are close by, like Oklahoma and Tennessee, then all the way to Canada and even Nigeria.”
Carol Sanders, a Cherokee Nation citizen from Franklin, Tenn., was among the thousands of people that requested seeds. She planted with a modest goal in mind.
“I just wanted to grow enough of the seed to at least replace what I had received,” said Sanders, who received seeds for a rare type of beans called rattlesnake beans, because of their snake-like appearance.
In the meantime, the Cherokee Nation had also established its own garden of the heirloom plants near the tribal complex in Tahlequah. The small plot of rattlesnake beans that Gwin and his staff had planted in the tribe’s garden were destroyed by deer and thought to be a lost cause, until Sanders heard about it.
“I received a letter letting me know that the rattlesnake beans had suffered a great loss,” said Sanders. “I was blessed enough so that I could share more of what I had kept and return it to the seed exchange program.”
With the generous contribution from Sanders, the rattlesnake beans were once again planted and continue to grow for the tribe to share with gardeners participating in the program.
The Cherokee Nation Natural Resources Department has been obtaining and growing a variety of heirloom Cherokee plants for the past several years. Although the seed stock was gathered from throughout the United States, its origins come from the Cherokee Nation’s ancestral lands in the southeast. Eventually enough seed stock had been collected that it could be shared with the public.
“The idea behind the seed exchange was to let Cherokee Nation citizens become part of the heirloom plant project by giving seeds out so people could grow their own bit of Cherokee history,” said Gwin. “More than twenty plants have been identified as historically being with the Cherokee people for generations. We have several varieties of corn, gourds and beans, as well as a few specialized plants such as tobaccos and squashes.”
The effort has paid off, as seeds have come pouring back to the tribe after this summer’s harvest. Those seeds and seeds from the tribe’s garden are now being placed into the Nation’s seed exchange bank for distribution next spring. Participating Cherokee gardeners that have seeds left over are encouraged to send a few back to Gwin to help keep this unique part of Cherokee history and culture thriving. Sanders says that is exactly what she plans to do.
“What I have kept, I will once again plant next year, and with prayer I will be able to return more seeds in the future,” said Sanders. “It is so important to save our heirloom plants.”
For more information or to find out how you can contribute your seeds to the seed exchange bank, please contact Pat Gwin at (918) 453-5704 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Mark Dunham at (918) 453-5336 or email@example.com.