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Cherokee Medicine Keepers share land knowledge with college students

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Cherokee Medicine Keepers and students meet on the 830-acre tract of land in Adair County designated for them as a tribal conservation area. They are working with the Cherokee Nation to obtain more land in other areas of the jurisdiction for the same purpose. - Lindsey Bark / Cherokee Phoenix

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Cherokee Nation Medicine Keeper Anna Sixkiller, left, directs student Sky Wildcat on how to make cornbread from scratch on June 4th at the Tsa-La-Gi Community Room at the Cherokee Nation Tribal Annex in Tahlequah. Looking on is CN citizen and group leader Clint Carroll who was instrumental in putting together the Cherokee Medicine Keepers and getting the land conservation project started. - Lindsey Bark / Cherokee Phoenix

TAHLEQUAH – Nearly a year after its inception, a mentorship program combining elders known as Cherokee Medicine Keepers and college students are working to preserve the culture and conserve natural resources vital to the Cherokee people.

In conjunction with a project called “Knowing the Land,” the mentorship program seeks to acquire land in the Cherokee Nation by obtaining data for future land conservation.

According to the project’s website, its purpose is to investigate the relationship between access to natural resources, language preservation, environmental knowledge, and biodiversity maintenance.

“This project came about by my relationship and ongoing work with the Cherokee Medicine Keepers. They’re a group of elders that formed in 2008 around the goal of perpetuating Cherokee environmental knowledge and practices. So it really spans from the cultural knowledge of wild plants, the uses of those plants for food and medicine. We’ve been working together since then and part of what they had wanted to do going forward is get the young people involved. Start looking at transmitting this knowledge to them,” CN citizen and project leader Clint Carroll said.

The group meets several times a year to discuss plants that are in season, and students learn how to identify the plants and their uses from elder mentors.

On June 4, the group met in the Tsa-La-Gi Community Room at the CN Tribal Annex. Elders taught students how to make cornbread from scratch by shucking corn, grinding it in a hand-cranked grain mill and adding ingredients.

“I really like talking about the plants, plants that are meant for different uses whether to eat or whether to be medicine. I can share what I know, and I like doing that. Because if we just keep it inside and not share, then it’s just going to die. After a while, we won’t know anything, and this younger generation that’s coming up they need to know something like that,” Medicine Keeper Anna Sixkiller said.

CN citizen and student Sky Wildcat said she applied for the program to become more in tune with her heritage.

“We’re just learning to cook our own foods traditionally, and it will just be kind of like a holistic thing like we’re learning the language at the same time. We’re learning medicine. We’re learning food sovereignty. Those are the kind of goals for us to have towards the end of this program,” Wildcat said.

Carroll has worked with CN environmental officials to administer the three-year program. He said the elders and students work with the Kenwood, Greasy and Marble City communities because it’s a community-based research program.

“We have the investment of the community in the project but also that the community is also able to direct the research in the areas they feel are important. So far we’ve had a really good reception from each of these communities as far as the goals of the project. I think it’s a worthwhile question to ask. The question is how are Cherokee people navigating the landscape? With the checker-boarded property ownership and places that are hard to get to whether it’s a land lock by private property or even thinking about the impacts of climate change,” Carroll said.

As part of the group’s purpose, an 830-acre tract of land in Adair County has been acquired and designated a tribal conservation area.
Carroll said he hopes by the program’s end it has enough information and data to inform CN officials about tribal land conservation plans by obtaining local data on what areas need to be prioritized for conservation, protecting plants and ensuring Cherokee people can have access.

“This is a project that we’re really happy to see come to light as far as the broad goals of it. We’ve got younger people involved. It’s been a long time coming, and we’re all really excited to see this materialize or develop like it is. Again, just that ultimate goal of creating the next generation of Cherokee environmental leaders and the underscore of being connected to the land,” he said.

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