Cherokee Heirloom Seeds Head to Norway’s Global Vault

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. (left) and Secretary of Natural Resources Chad Harsha with heirloom seeds being sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. (Cherokee Nation Photo)

Preserving heirloom seeds in vaults not only protects Indigenous culture, it serves to increase and safeguard global biodiversity in the case of an agricultural hardship or global catastrophe that would leave future generations without food supplies. 

Svalbard Global Seed Vault, known as the “doomsday vault,” has invited the Cherokee Nation to deposit its traditional heirloom seeds. 

A long-term seed storage facility housed deep inside a mountain on a remote island in Norway, Svalbard Global Seed Vault also doubles as an insurance policy for other seed banks around the world. The vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops and currently holds more than 980,000 samples from nearly every country in the world. Situated less than 700 miles south of the North Pole, seeds are safely stored in permafrost conditions. 

“The Cherokee Nation Seed Bank has always hoped to be able to deposit our traditional food crops into Svalbard one day,” said Feather Smith, Cherokee Nation cultural biologist.

The Cherokee Nation is the first Tribe in the United States to receive an invitation from Svalbard Global Seed Vault, managed by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.

The Cherokee Nation Secretary of Natural Resources office collected nine samples of Cherokee heirloom crops to send to Svalbard, including Cherokee White Eagle Corn, the Tribe’s most sacred corn, which is typically used during cultural activities, and three other varieties of corn grown for consumption in distinct locations to keep the strains pure. Other seeds sent to the seed bank include Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, Cherokee Turkey Gizzard black and brown beans, and Cherokee Candy Roaster Squash.

All nine varieties sent to the seed bank predate European settlement.

“This is history in the making, and none of it could have been possible without the hard work of our staff and the partnership with the team in Norway,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “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.”

In 2019, after being interviewed by National Public Radio about the Cherokee Nation’s heirloom seed bank program, Senior Director of Environmental Resources Pat Gwin was contacted by Luigi Guarino, director of science for the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

“He sent me an email and said they would be honored to have the tribe’s seeds in the seed vault,” said Gwin. “This is a tremendous opportunity and honor for the tribe. Additionally, knowing the Cherokee Nation’s seeds will be forever protected and available to us, and us only, is a quite valuable thing indeed.”

Svalbard will host its largest seed deposit event on Feb. 25 to deposit the 2020 collection of seeds, including Cherokee Nation’s. Learn more about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault online at https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/.

The Cherokee Nation also began dispersing its limited supply of heirloom seeds to Cherokee Nation citizens on Feb. 3. Cherokee Nation citizens are limited to two varieties of seeds. Citizens can submit order requests by visiting https://webapps.cherokee.org/seedbank. Create an account and follow the instructions to see a complete list of available seeds and to place and track orders. Previous participants of the tribe’s seed bank program can also use this link to log in and update their shipping address before submitting orders.

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