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Cherokee Nation Will Become First US Tribe to Protect Their Seeds in 'Doomsday' Vault

PETER DOCKRILL
11 FEB 2020

If the worst ever happens, there's a special place on Earth from which plant life might just have the best chance to spring anew. That place is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Often dubbed the 'Doomsday Vault', this fortress-like bunker in Norway stores almost a million samples of food crop seeds, in case of future crises like wars, disasters, or climate change. It's an insurance policy, basically, to protect and preserve plant life for an unknown future – and it's about to receive a first-of-its-kind contribution.

 

The Cherokee Nation, the largest federally recognised Cherokee tribe in the US, will be the first indigenous tribe in the US to deposit heirloom seeds in the Svalbard Vault.

010 svalbard doomsday vault 1Cherokee White Eagle Corn. (Cherokee Nation)

The tribe, which counts more than 370,000 tribal citizens worldwide (most of whom live in Oklahoma), is donating nine ancient cultivars: traditional seeds that have been used for countless generations, pre-dating European settlement in the US, and which have been selected for preservation in the facility.

"This is history in the making," says Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.

"It is such an honour 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."

There are thousands of seed banks and gene banks in the world, but none as secure and remote as Svalbard, which houses plant and crop varieties from almost every country in the world, boasting a capacity to store a maximum of some 2.5 billion seeds.

 

That said, even a Doomsday Vault is not necessarily indestructible, even if it's designed to be. Climate change in the region has led to concerns about the vault's long-term prospects against the spectre of global warming, with melting permafrost causing leaks and other problems, but the facility still receives thousands of contributions every year.

Later in the month, the nine varieties of Cherokee heirloom seeds will be deposited, including a sacred corn used during cultural events, called Cherokee White Eagle Corn, along with other corn varieties, plus Cherokee Long Greasy Beans, Cherokee Trail of Tears Beans, Cherokee Turkey Gizzard black and brown beans, and Cherokee Candy Roaster Squash.

While this constitutes the first-ever seed donation from an indigenous tribe in the US, it does not represent the first contribution from indigenous peoples; Peruvian samples were collected in 2017.

Nonetheless, the significance of being invited to donate the seeds of your cultural legacy to a building designed to preserve plant life forever is an honour that isn't lost on anybody.

"As Cherokee, one of our beliefs or tenets is that, as long as we have our Cherokee plants, the Cherokees can remain," Cherokee Nation's senior director of environmental resources, Pat Gwin, told Modern Farmer.

"To me, this lends a little bit of infinity or perpetuity to that belief. Cherokees cannot be Cherokees without their Cherokee plants."