Preserving Cherokee heritage goes beyond baskets, blow guns and pow-wows to the very foods and crops once grown and savored by the tribe centuries ago.
One of those important foods — for the Cherokee and any mountain dweller of yesteryear — was apples. There were dozens of varieties, nuanced in flavor and colorful in their names. Efforts are underway to propagate the heritage varieties.
At a workshop in Cherokee earlier this month, more than 30 different varieties of heritage apples were grafted — a far cry from the scant half dozen varieties you might find on supermarket shelves.
Some of the grafts will be planted in an orchard managed by the tribe while others will be taken home and planted in the yards of tribal members.
The project was a joint effort by the Cherokee Cooperative Extension, Aerators and Roanoke College.
One of the varieties that was grafted was the Junaluska Apple, a particularly significant variety among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as it was the favorite among the famous Chief Junaluska. Community members at the apple grafting workshop livened up the conversation with an argument over which apple varieties had the best flavor.
“Cherokee apple varieties were actually saved and curated right after the Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears by two very wise gentlemen,” said Jon Cawley, a professor at Roanoke College who is working on the project.
Namely Silas McDowell in Western North Carolina and Jarvis Van Buren from Georgia.
“They rescued the original varieties so that they can be re-established on sovereign Cherokee land today,” Cawley said. “After several generations, it is a very high privilege for me to be a part of the project to replant their original rare apple varieties on their sovereign estate.”
The AmeriCorps team also built a large shade house so the Center for Cherokee Plants could grow plants that need forested shade settings rather than hot sunny fields. They also planted white oak trees, a traditional material needed by basket makers.
“Heritage crops are important because they represent a living link between people and history,” said Phillip Hash, AmeriCorps member and event coordinator. “They maintain diversity of species and through this diversity allow for resistance to disease.”
Tribal members who run the farm and operate the Traditional Crops Seed Bank believe they are carrying on an important tradition.
“There is belonging to a heritage, and then there is living a heritage. I choose to live my heritage,” said Kevin Welch, operator of the Cherokee farm and seed bank.