COMMENTARY: Cherokee Communities apply land-based knowledge and practice in light of COVID-19 pandemic

by Apr 28, 2020OPINIONS




Oginitsi Selu, the corn mother and Cherokee first woman, shared a final meal with her children and told them to drag her dead body across the field so they might grow corn themselves (Marilou Awiakta, “Selu: Following the Corn Mother’s Wisdom,” Fulcrum Pub., 1994.). Since that first harvest, Cherokee people continue to learn and teach lessons of agriculture and tradition. In response to COVID-19, Cherokee community members are returning to planting and harvesting traditions so we might strengthen our bodies and our Nation.

Shown is a large garden at Kituwah. The author states, “As we reap the seeds our ancestors sowed, we might come to understand the past is our best medicine.” (Photos by Nolan Arkansas)

The virus outbreak hit close to home in March, and schools, businesses, and social gatherings closed for an indeterminate amount of time. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) restricted non-citizen and non-resident traffic into Cherokee territory on March 23. 

Even in the absence of easy travel, social gatherings, and busy, everyday lives, Cherokee communities were not idle. Like many nations across Indian Country, Cherokee communities took innovative steps aimed at combating COVID-19. Tribal Council representatives urge at least one from each household to be tested at the Cherokee Indian Hospital drive-thru COVID testing sight. Neighbors and family members, as spring makes its way from the valleys to the mountain tops, harvest plants like ramps, sochan, and crow’s foot, and just this year till and maintain over 1,000 gardens across Cherokee land. 

When asked how our community might respond to the coming of spring and the conterminous COVID-19 outbreak, Joey Owle, the EBCI Secretary of Agriculture and Natural resources answered, 

“The COVID-19 public health crisis has created an opportunity for individuals and families to invest more of their time into their home and health… There is an uptick in interest for gardening this spring. With families afforded more time at home, I believe it has generated a greater sense of responsibility (as well as urgency) to grow more of our own food during this challenging time.” 

Cherokee people today are thinking deeply about our health, and as we care for our soil and our diets, we highlight a principle Native people have known since time immemorial: the health of our bodies depends on the health of our homelands.

Cultivating the soil has always been a necessary practice in strengthening our bodies and Nation. Because sustaining healthy food sources is vital to maintaining sovereign nations, Native food systems have often been targeted and replaced with agribusiness and foreign, less nutritious diets. Histories of scorched-earth battle tactics, land theft, forced removal, and loss of access to traditional seeds predispose Native people to high rates of diabetes and financial strain, thus making us more susceptible to the physical and economic threats of COVID-19 (Elizabeth Hoover and Sean Sherman, “The answers to our ancestors’ prayers; Seeding a movement for health and culture,” Oxford Food Symposium (2019): 4.). Native people across Indian Country today use traditional seeds and gardening practices to save money and eat well, which proves vital in this time of food and job shortages.

In Cherokee, the EBCI Extension office is helping as many community members as possible grow their own food. 

Owle explained “In roughly our fifteenth year, we have been providing on average 800 kits, with ten packs of seeds that are tailored to produce a variety of spring and summer fruits and vegetables. That’s 8,000 seed packets each year that go to our Cherokee families to get their garden started and add to their own family’s seed bank.” These kits include a variety of heirloom, Cherokee veggies and provide families with healthier, traditional alternatives. Aside from the individual health benefits that come from growing one’s own food, Owle understands local gardening to be a point of strength for Cherokee communities at large. 

He adds, “Anytime we can strategize to localize our food production and purchasing power, the more resilient that community and region can be.” But unlike many regions, where local foods are grown and often sold in farmer’s markets, Cherokee people today practice a more collective flow of harvest:  

“Our community members tend to be generous folks, sharing some tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, and squash, with the expectation of nothing in return.”

Besides health and economic benefits, gardening can even boost the immune system. Ethnobotanist Linda Black Elk (Catawba) speaks to the ways in which cultivating the land helps the immune system on the All My Relations podcast, hosted by Matika Wilbur (Swinomish, Tulalip) and Adrienne Keene (Cherokee). She tells listeners that getting out in the sun provides an excellent source of vitamin D. Black Elk also describes the effect of stress and happiness on the immune system. She encourages daily projects such as gardening, whether alone or with family, as happiness and mental health boost the immune system while stress has the inverse effect. 

Black Elk understands the movement across Indian Country to practice local, traditional food ways as an opportunity to become “good relatives” with our homelands. By means of social distancing and reduced travel, “the earth is healing herself.” 

Native people, too, are perhaps healing from extractive and busy lifestyles through reconnecting with lifestyles our ancestors sustained for thousands of years. Our uptick in local gardening is part of a larger phenomenon of healing the earth and our bodies. 

With more food grown at home and by our own sweat and labor, Owle notes “… we reduce demand of goods at the store, thereby reducing the amount of carbon that is released in the atmosphere by making the supply side very local.”

With 10 confirmed cases currently reported, future news and health reports may suggest COVID-19 had little effect on the life and culture of the EBCI. Although our communities evade rampant levels of disease, this social distancing era does mark a significant turning point in Cherokee life and history, perhaps for the better. Now more than ever, Cherokee people reclaim the lessons those before us planted into our soil and into our memory. As we reap the seeds our ancestors sowed, we might come to understand the past is our best medicine. And as the world around us rises and falls with the whims of disease and capitol, we see clearly: the lessons our ancestors gave will sustain.

Arkansas, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians from the Wolftown Community, is a student at Yale University majoring in American studies.