Cherokee Nation Businesses Takes on Preservation of Traditional Plants

Dala Kelley, cultural art coordinator for Cherokee Nation Businesses, helped her team save more than 50 plants traditionally known within Cherokee culture to provide medicinal benefits. (Courtesy Cherokee Nation Businesses)

Often referred to as the economic engine of Cherokee Nation, Cherokee Nation Businesses employs 11,000 people in 49 states and posts annual revenues over $1 billion. A recent report by economists at Oklahoma City University shows the Tribe has an economic impact of approximately $2.2 billion across Eastern Oklahoma.

“You can imagine how that filters through the economy and really does change lives,” Chuck Garrett (Cherokee), CEO of Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB), told Native Business. (Garrett is a keynote speaker at the Native Business Virtual Summit 2020 broadcast, live streaming from the Native Business production studios November 17-20. Register now at 

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CNB owns companies in the gaming, hospitality, cultural tourism, consulting, health sciences, environmental services, real estate, technology, engineering, manufacturing, construction and technology industries. One-hundred percent of the company’s profits support future business investments and the well-being of the Tribe’s citizens through health care, education and job creation.

For CNB, serving the well-being of the Tribe’s citizens entails supporting the preservation and proliferation of Cherokee culture, including through the conservation of medicinal plants — which is a form of cultural intellectual property.

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CNB’s cultural art staff recently stepped in to help save more than 50 plants, each traditionally known within Cherokee culture to provide medicinal benefits. Necessary safety protocols during the recent health pandemic prevented the plants from being planted and cared for at the new Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation.

“Each of these plants is culturally significant to our Tribe, so our entire team is excited to see them thriving again,” said Gina Olaya, director of cultural art and design for Cherokee Nation Businesses. “We’re all working very hard, especially Dala Kelley who has taken on the responsibility of caring for them on a daily basis, to keep them alive until they can be planted outside next spring for everyone to enjoy.”

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The plants were ordered early this year and began arriving just as CNB offices closed and construction at the new medical school halted due to COVID-19. For months, a facilities manager watered the plants when possible, but a lack of sunlight, nutrients and appropriate care left the plants nearly unrecognizable and a few beyond repair.

Olaya and her staff trimmed and repotted the plants, and through daily care were able to save all but one species. The recovered plants, including rattlesnake master, coneflowers, New Jersey tea, yarrows, blue indigo, hearts-a-bustin’ and elderberries, will eventually be incorporated at the new medical campus, as originally planned.

The company’s cultural art department is actively involved in the process of conceptualizing, planning and opening CNB properties. The department’s staff and art committees serve an integral role in selecting culturally appropriate designs, materials, textures, colors, names and themes to ensure Cherokee culture, language and customs are represented accurately. The team also provides support for Cherokee Nation’s government properties.

In accordance with Tribal law, new construction and renovation projects fund the procurement, preservation and exhibition of cultural artifacts and artwork. The law calls for those funds to be used for any form of art deemed historical, cultural or traditional, including crafts, paintings, beadwork, sculptures, plants and landscaping. It also allows for the expense of preserving, installing and displaying such art.

The OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation focuses on educating primary care physicians who have an interest in providing care to Native and rural populations in Oklahoma. Once fully operational, the medical school will provide 200 students with all four years of medical education at the Tahlequah campus, which is certified by the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.

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