Bill and I took a trip to Cherokee country on Tuesday.
Oklahoma may be one state, but we are many nations as Travel Oklahoma puts it. Every corner of Oklahoma is not only diverse in its topography, soil and weather, but also, in its people. Because of our history, we have native peoples from all over the United States. Oklahoma is home to thirty-nine American Indian tribes. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw and Seminole tribes, often called the Five Civilized Tribes in historical documents, were removed to Oklahoma from the southeastern U.S. Other tribes, like the Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache and Arapaho, made Oklahoma their home long before.
Bill and I drove through the eastern part of the state on Cherokee tribal lands. If you look at the bottom of the red section in the map above, we were in Sequoyah County in Sallisaw where Sequoyah settled after moving here from Arkansas in 1829 long before the Cherokee Trail of Tears. The county is named for this Cherokee silversmith who developed the written Cherokee alphabet around 1809.
Bill and I didn’t stop at one of the many casinos that now dot Oklahoma’s landscape. Instead, we ate at the Restaurant of the Cherokees in Tahlequah before heading home. This buffet is no tacky tourist attraction. It’s a legitimate eating place for everyone working in the area. We sat next to a painting crew whose table was beside a paving company superintendent and inspectors. We ate crispy fried catfish, an extremely popular dish on many Oklahoma restaurant menus. Some places do it well, and this one did with a cornmeal crust light as a feather. All of the food was homemade. I had pickled beets and okra, along with coleslaw. Bill had the homemade rolls.
As we left, I stepped into the gift shop and found three books on native plants. One book was published entirely in Cherokee, and there was no English translation. I talked to the young woman in the gift shop, and she couldn’t translate the title. She said there once was an English translation too, but both were out of print. From the photos, I could tell it was about plants native to Oklahoma. Sadly, I placed it back on the shelf, but I bought Plants of the Cherokee, by William H. Banks, Jr. and Cherokee Plants: Their Uses–A 400 Year History, by Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey. I can already tell both of these books will be great for identifying native plants throughout Oklahoma and the Appalachian area where the Eastern Band of the Cherokee still live.
Banks, who became a professor, originally wrote Ethnobotany of the Cherokee Indians, for his Master of Science Thesis at the University of Tennessee in 1951. It was studied and kept in archives before found and published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. Although you might consider this a dry read, for those of us infatuated with plants and people, it isn’t. He interviewed Cherokee tribal elders and walked the hills of North Carolina learning about traditional medicine. Banks’ personal observations are also interesting. The photos of the Cherokee he consulted are priceless for their time warp of rural 1951. I wish the photos were larger. What excites me most about the book, is the Cherokee plant names written phonetically so they can be pronounced by English speakers. Plants names are also listed as common names and botanically. Because it was written in 1952, note that some of the botanical names have recently changed due to DNA analysis.
Although this book focuses on plants used by the Eastern Cherokee, many of these plants also grow in Eastern Oklahoma. Some, like baptisia, also grow on the southern plains. There are further chapters relating to Cherokee tribal ceremonies and culture. Banks was thrilled he lived to see his thesis published. We are fortunate he had access to tribal elders who shared their vast, oral knowledge with him about Cherokee medicine and botany. If you’d like to read more about Banks’ life, his obituary is online.
The second book is more historical and less scientific. It is also based upon interviews with Cherokee elders, especially Hester Reagan. Chiltoskey interviewed Cherokee in North Carolina to write down practices and plants of the tribe. Although both books write of Cherokee culture and how plants worked within it, it appears that the authors never crossed each others’ paths. I think this is because Banks wrote his book in 1951 while Hamel and Chiltoskey copyrighted theirs in 1975. Banks’ book is listed in their bibliography, however.
The green corn ceremony is highlighted in both books, and it’s worth checking out. It is celebrated by several different tribes in the southeast, and the Mississippian Culture. Corn was one of the most important plants to the tribes for food. A lot of lore grew up around its use and cultivation.
I find our history as its woven with the history of the southeastern and southwestern states fascinating. If you’re interested in native plants, Native American tribes and their history or ethnobotany, I think these books might be of some value to you. Taking trips and learning about one’s culture is all part of being human. Also, I had a great-grandmother who had Cherokee heritage. At that time, she wouldn’t admit it because of her own reasons, but now I celebrate her and my family history any way I can. You might take a trip through your state and learn its living history too.
Even though I missed Wildflower Wednesday, I am including this post in Gail’s Clay and Limestone links as I have highlighted a few native plants here. We forget how much native plants played a role in the survival of people before “modern medicine.” I still use natural therapies for many of my winter complaints.