Essay

Saving Seeds of Cherokee Culture

Every kernel of Cherokee white eagle corn is a vital vestige of the past and a link to the Native American tribe’s future, along with other Cherokee heirloom crop varieties. These seeds are a key ingredient in the history and culture of their tribe, and on February 25, 2020, some were sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in the frigid mainland of Norway. Why have the Cherokee tribe chosen to send the valuable seeds there?

The first reason for doing so is because of the location that they sent the seeds to. The Svalbard vault was created to reduce the risk of essential crops becoming extinct as a result of natural or man-made cataclysms, such as disease, warfare, or a plague of plant-munching pests. If all the plants of a certain type of crop were suddenly wiped out, the seeds in the vault would be used to regrow them. Plus, scientists picked the icy island locale so that the seeds would stay frozen even during power outages. At seed vaults in warmer parts of the world, loss of electricity can knock out freezers and lay waste to the botanical bounty.

But why if the Nation already has a seed bank of its own? Long before it garnered that honour, however, the tribe was already preserving a carefully curated collection of heirloom stock in its own seed bank. The Cherokee Nation Seed Bank was created as a way to protect traditional seeds and disseminate them to tribe members. But by depositing duplicate seeds in the Svalbard vault, the tribe can double down on protecting its heirloom seeds for future generations.

Another reason is the security of the vault. As of 2020, the Svalbard vault holds about a million packs of seeds, with room for upwards of 3 million more. It stores samples from almost every country, so it must have very high security, therefore a suitable spot to store precious heirloom seeds.

But it’s not all about past journeys, because the seeds are part of the tribe’s path to the future, too. By preserving the seeds, the Cherokee is making sure their culture will continue to grow and thrive.

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