The Cherokees are a people defined by our rich culture and spirit. We are renowned for our adaptability and resilience, which I feel come from our understanding of our place in the world. It is impossible to separate the Cherokee people from three things, the forest, water- whether in rivers or streams, and corn. Nearly everything in the Cherokee cultural world is intrinsically tied to one or more of these three things. As a people we understand our place in the world, our frailty and dependence on the gifts the animals and plants give us, and each other. We understand full well that the plants and animals will survive without us but we will not survive without them. It is a concept that unites us as a people, even though we were broken up into clans and towns and separated by mountains and rivers, we shared this need to be respectful, hospitable and deferent to the plant and animal tribes.
This attitude permeated everyday life. The healer prays to the spirit of a plant to find out what disease that plant could cure and to seek the plant’s help in doing so. A hunter prays to the spirit of animals for guidance and for forgiveness after the kill. I can remember as a child being told to leave small patches of wild onions “so they will be here next year” and to make sure we clean the onions in the forest, discarding the roots back to the forest floor for the same reason. This was done, not only to ensure a crop for next year, but to show the plants we do not take them for granted.
Plants are the ancient clock of the Cherokee world. News of the first wild onions popping out of the ground in late February or March, spreads like wildfire from the south, where they come out first, to the north. Similarly news is anticipated about the coming of mushrooms, Socheni, Ooganost, mulberries, huckleberries, blackberries, poke greens and wisi, just to name a few.
Besides the plants of the forest, Cherokees are adept gardeners. There is a saying, “No respectable Cherokee would be without a garden.” There are rituals to gardening and the same deference paid to the bounty of the woods is paid to the bounty of the garden. The stages of the crops, even now, are the timeline of the summer and fall, like when to shuck the corn, when to dry it, when to grind it into meal and when to leach it with lye for hominy.
Tending plants, whether in the forest or in the garden, became a conduit for knowledge. While digging in the dirt you heard stories and learned life lessons like how to treat a wasp sting, why pregnant women shouldn’t eat squirrel meat, how to discipline a child, how to make the right fire for the right purpose; how to keep the little people happy and to what clan you belong.
Today the plants of the Cherokees and other Native American tribal people feed the world. It is estimated that over 60% of the food eaten in the world today has its origins in Native American gardens. Just imagine pizza with no red sauce, potato chips with no potato, ribs without BBQ sauce, salsa without tomatoes or peppers or your favorite movie without popcorn.