Charles Gourd's garden is so big that before he installed irrigation, it could take three hours to water everything by hand. He grows beans and cucumbers that wind up archways you can walk underneath and pluck the ripe vegetables as though they're growing in thin air.
"I like the basics, the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash," he says. "In order for it to taste right, you have to cook a bunch of it — it means you have to have your family and friends there." He describes making a pot of beans, adding a little bit of hickory nut meat, then some corn hominy and squash. "You boil that up real good, and the more times you boil it, the better it tastes."
"Talking about this made me hungry," he adds.
Gourd is the director of the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill, Okla., and one of the many Cherokee who order seeds from the Cherokee Nation's seed bank each year in February. The seeds are free for any Cherokee; this year, recipients are limited to two varieties because demand is so high. Last year, the bank sent 4,905 packages of seeds to citizens of federally recognized Cherokee tribes. This year, they will distribute a record 10,000 seed packets.
The idea for the seed bank formed after one of the Cherokee council members came across an article about the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. "At the time, natural resources for the most part involved forest conservation and protection, and fishing and wildlife issues," says Pat Gwin, senior director of environmental resources for the Cherokee Nation.
Gwin decided to do some research into saving Cherokee seeds. "The next month, I had to come back and say we won't be putting a seed in the vault," Gwin recalls. "Not because we didn't want to, but because we don't have any seeds."
Initially, he found one one variety now known as the "Trail of Tears" bean. The seeds made the journey to Oklahoma when the tribe and others were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands by the federal government during the 1800s, a grim and deadly process that became known as the Trail of Tears.
After a year of traveling throughout the United States, and with help from people at the Minneapolis American Indian Center and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (descended from a group of Cherokee who refused to leave their original home in what is now North Carolina), Gwin collected around 20 varieties of traditional crops and native plants that had been used by their ancestors. The program's first year was 2006.
Collecting the seeds could be a surprisingly emotional experience. To obtain some of their corn varieties, Gwin visited Carl Barnes (who has since passed away), a Cherokee corn expert and breeder of glass gem corn. "His walls were covered in nothing but shelves, and on those shelves were different varieties of corn," Gwin remembers. Gwin says that he could feel the relief coming from Barnes that someone was going to collect and continue growing these corn varieties, his life's work.
This year, the bank will offer 24 varieties of seeds, including black and brown turkey gizzard beans, basket and jewel gourds, native tobacco, and a variety of native plants like sunchokes, trumpet vine and American basket flowers. Those who obtain the seeds are asked to be "mindful of the directions in the planting guide" to minimize accidental hybridization. Corn crops, for example, have to be placed far away from any other varieties to prevent cross-pollination.
The seed program has become about preserving more of Cherokee culture than just plants, Gwin says. The garden where seeds are grown for distribution every year has become part of the language program for Cherokee schools. "Last year we installed signage completely in Cherokee," Gwin says. Now if people want to walk through the garden and talk about or identify the plants, it can only be done in Cherokee.
Eugene Wilmeth, who lives in one of the Cherokee Nation counties in Oklahoma, has been growing seeds from the program for about five years. He's grown tobacco, the jet-black "Trail of Tears" bean, and a dent corn known as Cherokee white eagle, which has a pixelated color scheme of white and purple kernels. "Almost all the seeds within the program, they're all multipurpose," Wilmeth says. "Throughout history they were used ceremonially, for crafts, for sustenance."
He was a gardener before the program started, but has grown a deeper connection to gardening through growing these crops. "Not only are we protecting the viability and history of these seeds and our culture, we're keeping them alive so we're able to pass them on to future generations," Wilmeth explains.
One year, Wilmeth tried growing the same crop with aquaponics just to see what would happen. "It was a lot of fun to take a different approach that was still a natural approach," he says. "Some of these crops were grown symbiotically — the corn and beans and squash were grown together in a way that there wasn't a need for pesticides, and they were very drought resistant," he says.
It felt similar to what he knew of aquaponics. "It's a symbiotic closed-loop system that incorporates plants and fish together, making an organic ecosystem plants can thrive in." It's the 21st-century version of what Cherokee farmers have been doing for generations.
For most of Wilmeth's life, he lived outside of the Cherokee Nation counties. "When I started [growing seeds], it was a way for me to tie into some of my Cherokee lineage and culture," he says. With about 300,000 citizens, the Cherokee are one of the most populous tribes in the United States, and many of them are spread out throughout the country, with less access to cultural events and community than those who live close to the three tribal headquarters.
Pam Tinker, who lives just outside of Washington D.C., has formed a small cultural hub through the Capital City Cherokee Community, which currently has roughly 100 members. She first heard about the seed bank through one of the cultural exchanges with the Cherokee Nation. She's always been a gardener, and her grandparents were farmers, but there was something different about growing these seeds. "When your family moves away, you're so separated that having these traditions with the plants and the food makes you feel connected, which is really important for people that don't quite fit in."
She was only able to get white eagle corn through last year's exchange, and had to supplement her plan to grow the Three Sisters with heirloom seeds ordered online. "I'm hoping this year I'll get the beans that grow up the stalks," she says. She grew Candy Roaster squash, offered through the exchange, which surprised her by taking over her garden. Cut in half and roasted ("without salt or pepper or anything") it almost tastes like fresh pumpkin pie, Tinker says.
When Tinker brought some of the squash and corn she'd grown to a Cherokee event, she says that she saw people's faces light up with smiles and questions. People always seem to love the food grown in their own gardens, but there's something even deeper in the connection to these foods and plants and crops. "It's almost like you remember it when you taste it," Tinker says. "Like it's in your DNA."
"No self-respecting Cherokee would ever be without a corn patch," an elder once told Gwin. The saying has stuck with him as a motto of sorts for the seed-saving program.
Thinking back on their history, Gwin muses, "You can't be Cherokee without Cherokee plants. And without Cherokee plants, there can be no Cherokee."
Tove K. Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Ore.