Cherokee Communities Sustain Agricultural Traditions

Food sovereignty has been central to indigenous communities for thousands of years. Families worked together to grow gardens, prepare meals, and share or trade the bounty with each other. Growing traditional crops like corn, beans, and pumpkins was not only a source of pride, but also a way to be self-sufficient within a community. 

Joseph Owle, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was raised in the Cherokee community, and now lives with his wife and young family in the Wolf Town Community on the Qualla Boundary in Cherokee, North Carolina.

He says there was less interest in cultivating traditional foodways from the 1970s to the 1990s when gaming at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino was established, but over the past decade and especially during COVID-19, many Cherokee families have returned to growing food at home. 

A popular method has been raised bed gardening where vegetables are grown in soil that sits above the ground in a container. This method reduces the need for weeding and doesn’t require a tractor or other heavy equipment that can be barriers to growing food at home. Joey learned about raised bed gardening while studying soil science in college and was eager to share it with his family, including his wife’s grandfather Eddie.

“I’ll never forget what Eddie said to me when I first came back and I had some raised beds in our front yard,” Joey remembers. “We’re looking at those raised beds and he says, ‘Huh. I didn’t know you could grow food like that.’ I turned to him with big eyes and thought, ‘Wow. Even old dogs can still learn new tricks.’ And it was cool just to be able to say, wow, I learned this in college and was able to share the knowledge up to someone in my family and they love it. They’ve added more raised beds and we’re adding more raised beds.”

Joey continued to spread the word about raised bed gardening and worked with his community to bring these kinds of gardens to nearby schools.

“That was something that I was able to focus on in collaboration with other tribal departments and entities was the idea of how do we get more raised beds at our school system? How do we get more raised beds in our communities? One thing I’m proud of was when I started as a coordinator there were two raised beds at the Cherokee Central School system. And now I think they’re up to 50 raised beds and they have roughly an 800 square foot greenhouse and they’re wanting and talking about more expansion of this kind of offering,” he says.

Although it’s unclear when and how children will return to school due to COVID-19, the community’s commitment to gardening is increasing in the face of adversity. 

There’s been more interest in programs put in place years ago to encourage families to grow food at home, like the garden kits that are distributed to tribal members each spring. For more than 15 years, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has offered a garden kit giveaway to its members. The kits contain a variety of seeds grown by Cherokee farmers Harold and Nancy Long at their farm that borders tribal land. This year, the kits were distributed in mid-April and contained seeds for several traditional crops, including creasy and mustard greens.

In an article published by Cherokee One Feather, the Tribe’s weekly newspaper and multimedia news source, Joey Owle says these kinds of gardening programs offer members greater self-reliance and sustainability during COVID-19 and increase food sovereignty within the community.  

“It’s intertwined in our culture to grow more than enough than what you need and say, ‘Come get some tomatoes. Here’s a mess of beans. Here’s a couple cans of kraut. Take it, please.’ Or trading or whatnot, but not making money off it,” he says, “It’s just a way of life.”

This way of life continues to thrive, especially during COVID-19 when the needs of the community are greater. Joey says this resurgence of interest in agriculture is strengthening bonds within the Tribe.

“Part of this holistic approach to Cherokee culture is how do you sustain yourself off of what you can grow and off the land, and also still contribute and provide to those in need in your community.”

Read about Harold and Nancy Long, the farmers who grow seeds for the Cherokee garden kits, in ASAP’s new Local Food Guide, coming soon.

Aired: August 3, 2020

Sign Up for Our Newsletters