Svalbard Global seed vault

(Subiet, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons)

In his public statement, the proud Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation declared, “It is such an honor to have a piece of our culture preserved forever. Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world."1

The Cherokee people contributed corn, squash, and bean seeds to the Arctic vault, becoming the first United States tribe to deposit and safeguard crops of cultural significance for future generations.

The vault

Losing a crop variety is just as irreversible as losing a bird or animal species. The Svalbard Seed Vault is the world’s most secure seed storage facility. It currently holds 992,039 crop seeds from around the world. The goal is to safely preserve as much of the planet’s unique genetic material as possible. Thus, the vault was built on an isolated Norwegian archipelago approximately 800 miles from the North Pole.

Svalbard seed vault

(Cierra Martin for Crop Trust, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The seeds

Nine varieties of Cherokee seeds have been placed in the vault deep inside a mountain located on permafrost. Among them is the tribe's most sacred corn, 'Cherokee White Eagle', used for cultural ceremonies. The beautiful blue and white ears with a red cob can also be solid blue. Several people have claimed to see the image of a white eagle in the kernels.

Cherokee White Eagle corn

(Abrahami, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Other Cherokee seeds deposited in the vault are 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' beans, 'Cherokee Turkey Gizzard' beans, "Cherokee Candy Roaster' squash, plus three additional corn varieties.

As a child, I spent time on my grandparents' farm. On many warm summer days, I sat on the porch with my grandmother helping her string and shell mounds of beans. She prepared them to perfection, and I still compare all cooked shelly beans to hers. Shelly beans is the Southern term for string legumes that differ from other bean varieties in the way they're harvested and consumed, pod and all, before the seeds inside have fully matured.

How to cook Cherokee long greasy beans

Most heirloom beans need the strings removed and must be cooked for at least 25 minutes.

  1. Remove all strings and break beans into short pieces. If done carefully, greasy beans will usually string cleanly.
  2. Wash beans in a colander and place them in a saucepan with a heavy bottom. Just barely cover with water. Add salt and seasonings to taste. Bacon is always good, or try a little olive oil and a bouillon cube.
  3. Cook for at least 25 minutes and check for tenderness. Continue cooking until tender (up to 90 minutes). Taste and adjust seasonings. When cooked to my grandmother's standard, the beans inside should be tender and a little creamy with no raw taste.

This made in USA cast iron Dutch oven is perfect for Southern cooking. It works well on top of the stove and also as a roaster.

plate of Southern food
(photo from Savoring Kentucky courtesy of Rona Roberts and used with her permission)

The selection

Cherokee seeds are only the second deposit from an indigenous community to be selected for storage in the Svalbard vault. In 2015, 750 South American Andean potato seeds were added to the vault.

“The Cherokee Nation is the only place on the planet where all these crops are grown, and these days tough weather patterns make the situation precarious.”2

Oklahoma has had record droughts, tornadoes, and multiple floods during the past decade. These extreme weather events are linked to the climate crisis and continue to increase in frequency.

More than 1,700 food gene storage banks are located around the world, but many are considered vulnerable to catastrophes such as war, extreme weather, lack of funding, infrastructure problems, or poor management.

The Svalbard Vault has the capacity to hold 4.5 million crop varieties in conditions that can withstand both natural and man-made disasters. It ensures the protection of duplicate seed samples kept elsewhere. Located well above sea level in permafrost and thick rock, the location ensures seeds remain frozen even without power. The vault can only be accessed through a 394 foot tunnel.

Cherokee Purple tomatoes

('Cherokee Purple' tomatoes)

Svalbard also holds unique varieties of Asian and African staples like Zea maize, rice, wheat, and sorghum, as well as European and South American varieties of lettuce, eggplant, potato, and barley. About 500 seeds of each variety are stored in sealed foil packets at -18°C.

The climate crisis remains an ongoing threat, and the vault has required multi-million dollar upgrades in order to prevent flooding caused by extreme rainfall and permafrost melting. Svalbard is the ultimate fail-safe for crop biodiversity, which is extremely important to the Cherokee Nation.

The gardens

Scientists spent several years searching for crops lost to the tribe. They planted two tribal gardens in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. One is dedicated to cultivating 24 of the most significant Cherokee crops. The other contains medicinal plant varieties and inedible plants, such as river cane, a type of bamboo traditionally used for construction purposes.

Each year, thousands of seed packets are sent to Cherokees around the world. One member of the Cherokee Nation put it this way, “As long as Cherokee plants exist, we exist. This is so important. We consider our plants to be as genetically Cherokee as we are."2

('Cherokee Candy Roaster' squash from Baker Creek Heirlooms)

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1 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/doomsday-vault-cherokee-nation-first-u-s-tribe-preserve-seeds-arctic-svalbard-norway/
2 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/07/cherokee-nation-seeds-arctic-vault-svalbard