Cherokee Nation preserves food culture by freezing history

Before the Cherokee people were forced from their lands in the eastern U.S. along the Trail of Tears, the tribe grew varieties of crops now nearly lost. But at the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank in Tahlequah, Okla., a vital part of the tribe’s history is kept frozen.

Deep underground on a Norwegian island in the remote arctic, the Global Seed Vault shelters seeds from around the globe, protecting them from natural disaster, nuclear catastrophe or any apocalypse that might bring humans to the brink. For the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the apocalypse already happened. Since first contact with European explorers to their removal to Oklahoma, the crops tribal members once ate and used in rituals have become more and more rare.

Until, that is, about 10 years ago. That’s when the Cherokee Nation started scouring the country for genetically pure examples of plants that are important to its culture. Today, the fruit of that labor is stored in a nondescript freezer in a closet at the tribe’s headquarters in Tahlequah.

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