Tuesday marks a milestone for indigenous farming. A collection of Cherokee traditional seeds has reached the Arctic Circle to be preserved in the world biggest seed bank, after a 4,147 miles (6,674 kilometer) journey.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, established by the government of Norway in 2008, is a global backup facility for genetic heirlooms around the world. This is the second time the vault has received seeds from indigenous communities, following the deposit of 750 South American Andean potato seeds in 2015. While indigenous crops remain under represented, scientists and tribal leaders believe things are starting to change. The value they add to the vault could be immense.
“It’s important to understand that this is not a normal seed bank that preserves and distributes material,” Hannes Dempewolf, a senior scientist with the non-profit Crop Trust, which manages the facility in cooperation with the Norwegian government, told Earther. “It’s like backing up your data in a hard drive. Seed banks around the world deposit a duplicate of their seeds here, so should something happen to the main facility we can help rebuild that collection.”
For example, Dempewolf said, the Global Seed Vault was key to save the seed collection hosted in Syria by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). That seed bank was destroyed during the Syrian War in 2015, but the collection is now being restored in Morocco and Lebanon, with researchers withdrawing seeds from the Svalbard vault.
“Without a backup, there would have been no way to recover that unique material, and the loss for the whole of humanity would have been immeasurable,” Dempewolf said.
He stressed that despite being dubbed the “doomsday” seed vault, the gene bank was not designed with a global dystopia in mind. Rather, it’s a dynamic insurance policy for the unpredictable challenges faced daily by the thousands of gene banks around the world, from conflict to power failures due to extreme weather events.
For the Cherokee communities of northeastern Oklahoma, the only safe prediction about the local weather is its unpredictability, said Pat Gwin, senior director of environmental resources for the Cherokee Nation. That part of Oklahoma is part of Tornado Alley and is also prone to weather extremes ranging from severe drought, floods, and cold, sometimes with one following another in quick succession.
“One of these monstrous storms would be enough to wipe out our community gene banks, so [the Svalbard Global Seed Vault] is a real safety box for us,” Gwin told Earther.
The Cherokee seed collection is both young and ancient: It was built in just over a decade, but it includes a unique range of varieties pre-dating European settlement in the U.S., painstakingly tracked down in museums, family farms and tiny communities that had escaped European colonization. Today, the seed program counts two community banks distributing thousands of seed packets a year to Cherokee farmers. The program has helped revive 24 seed varieties ranging from beans and corn to ceremonial tobacco. Planting traditional crops, Gwin told NPR last year, is also a way to reconnect with the disappearing culture of the tribe’s ancestors. For example, in the garden where the seeds are sown and harvested, each plant is labeled in Cherokee only.
When the idea of a global seed vault was first began to gain major attention advertised globally, the Cherokee leaders thought about preserving the tribe’s agricultural heritage in the bank, like many countries were planning to do, only to realize that very little of their indigenous crop heritage had survived European colonization. Gwin explained that none of the tribe’s original seeds had survived the march known as the Trail of Tears. The U.S. government forced the Cherokee and other tribes to relocate in 1838 from their ancestral land to “Indian territory” in present-day Oklahoma. As thousands of people died away from home, much of the Cherokee identity and food culture was lost, along with traditional crops.
“For the past 15 years, we have been trying to rediscover, refine and reinvigorate these seeds,” Gwin said.
Among the nine species the tribe sent to the Svalbard, there is the White Eagle Corn, the oldest Cherokee variety named for its color pattern that resembles a flying eagle.
“The importance of corn for our culture cannot be overstated,” Gwin said, “but our deposit also includes beans and squash varieties,” two pillars of the Cherokee food system.
“It is such an honor to have a piece of our culture preserved forever,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief, announcing the partnership between the tribe and the Global Seed Vault. “Generations from now, these seeds will still hold our history, and there will always be a part of the Cherokee Nation in the world.”
But not all North American native communities are fully on board with the idea of sharing their seed with foreign partners. Clayton Brascoupe, program director with New Mexico’s Traditional Native American Farmers Association, said he personally doesn’t trust central governments to handle native seeds.
“Where I live, the people have created a seed repository, and we are encouraging the farmers to do the same,” he told Earther. “Long-term seed storage is not an answer for us. We want to regrow the seeds and replenish the stocks annually. It’s best for the seeds to be viable but also adapted to potential environmental changes.”
“Opinions on the Cherokee’s choice are mixed,” A-dae Romero Briones, director of programs for native agriculture and food system with the First Nations Development Institute in New Mexico, told Earther, noting that seeds are seen as members of the community and have a deep, direct relation to indigenous people. “Shipping seeds away to a seed bank is a great sacrifice for the tribe.”
She believes it’s too soon to say that mainstream and indigenous agriculture are finally coexisting in harmony, but the value of indigenous food systems is increasingly appreciated in modern agriculture.
For the Cherokee, trusting a foreign institution to protect their heritage seeds means not only securing the future of precious species after a difficult process of recovery, but also reclaiming their place in the global agricultural community.
“We are very grateful to the seed bank,” said Gwin. “This is a big deal for us, and I hope it’s a big deal for the Svalbard [seed vault] as well.”
Lou Del Bello is a climate and energy journalist currently based in India, reporting on how environmental changes are reshaping our lives.