February 2014

Cherokee Nation Preserves Heritage with Heirloom Seeds

Cherokee White Eagle corn seedsCherokee White Eagle corn seeds

Cherokee White Eagle corn seeds
Cherokee White Eagle corn is one of the kinds of seeds that the Cherokee Nation is providing for its people.

The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma is working to preserve the heritage of its people in many different ways. In January, it announced that it is giving out special heirloom seeds to members of the tribe. An heirloom is something that is handed down from one generation to the next. The lineage, or ancestry, of the heirloom seeds traces back to plants that the Cherokees grew in their original homeland.

The Cherokees were once one of the main tribes of the Eastern Woodlands. They lived in what is now the southeastern United States for hundreds of years. In the 1830s, the United States government began forcing the Cherokees and other tribes to leave their lands. It made them move west to the Indian Territory, located in what is today the state of Oklahoma.

The Cherokee people had to walk about 800 miles through bad weather with soldiers guarding them the whole way. One out of every four Cherokees died of starvation and sickness on the journey that became known as the Trail of Tears. Those who survived carried with them items important to their culture, including heirloom seeds.

Today, the heirloom seeds are being made available from the Cherokee Heirloom Seed Project. However, only official members of the Cherokee tribe can get them. The seeds are naturally resistant to drought and have other traits that are significant to the Cherokee culture. For example, some Cherokee White Eagle corn seeds have eagle-shaped marks on them. The eagle is an important symbol to Cherokee religious beliefs.

This year, the Cherokee Heirloom Seed Project is offering two varieties of corn and three kinds of beans, including Trail of Tears beans. The project is also offering one type of squash, three varieties of gourds, and a kind of wild tobacco that is used in some Cherokee ceremonies. The heirloom seeds do more than help preserve the Cherokee heritage. They also allow the Cherokees to help each other by growing food that can feed many families.

Image credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung
Question 1
What is an heirloom?

Question 2
Which kinds of seeds is the Cherokee Heirloom Seed Project offering?

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