When Clint Carroll moved into his Longmont home in 2015, the garden was waist deep in weeds. Today, he tends tall stalks of old white corn, as well as raised beds sown with beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, traditional tobacco and more, depending on the season.
Not all of these cultures originated in Colorado, the Cherokee lands, or even the lands we know as North America, but they all serve the same larger purpose: to cultivate and preserve native culture in a time when the climate change, encroaching development and persistent colonial-era stereotypes threaten it.
Carroll is an associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, where he teaches Native American and Indigenous Studies, focusing on environmental issues such as access to wild plant gathering, land use management, and governance. He is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and serves on the Board of Directors of the Center for Native American and Native Studies (CNAIS) at CU Boulder, as well as the Board of Directors of the Denver Botanical Gardens.
“The more people can see themselves in relation to the land, these plants and their food, the better off we will all be,” Carroll said. “Growing your own food is a way to seal that connection to the land and have some sense of connection to what we eat and where it comes from.”
Corn in particular is a sacred plant for the Cherokee people. Some call her ‘Selutsi’ or ‘mother of corn’, demonstrating both her sustenance and her spiritual importance. This staple for the Cherokee, as well as many Indigenous peoples of the Americas, first faltered in Carroll’s backyard in the face of high Colorado winds and persistent squirrels, but has since taken root under the care caring about him and his family.
Inspired by his own father to care for the earth, Carroll and his wife Angelique Lawsonwho is Northern Arapaho and assistant professor of ethnic and film studies at CU Boulder, now hopes to spark that same interest in the next generation, including their own child.
“Tending to the corn, tending to the garden is a way of instilling those lessons of being grounded and being aware of your surroundings, being aware of the weather and s ensure that these plants survive,” Carroll said.
Many more families across the United States will soon come together to share a food-centric tradition. Thanksgiving, however, comes with a complicated story, and the version taught to many children is incomplete.
“That’s obviously part of how most Americans feel about the founding of this country,” Carroll said. “A lot of Native people recognize it as a day of mourning or a day of grief because of the genocide that happened in this country against the Native people.”
Yet Carroll sees Thanksgiving as a teachable moment, in terms of this country’s history and food appreciation, both of which can extend beyond a single day of the year.
“How can we learn these lessons and have critical discussions with family, or as a nation, around Thanksgiving that push us to better understand what it means to be in relationship with the land and the Indigenous peoples, who are still there ?” Carol said. “We can have conversations that cause us all to rethink some of what we were taught as kids.”
Whether it’s taking the time to learn the history of Thanksgiving from the perspective of Native Americans, know what lands you are onor “decolonize” your table by taking a closer look at the ingredients involved, there are a variety of ways to learn about the impacts of colonialism on Native American history, culture, and food.
For Carroll, next week won’t be much different from normal for his family: coming together to eat and give thanks for the food they grow in their own backyard, while honoring family, community and tradition. .
The challenge of climate change
The Cherokee were forcibly removed from their homeland in the southeastern United States by the United States government from 1838 to 1839. Growing their traditional plants and foods in the territory we now know as Oklahoma was not easy, as the soil and precipitation differ greatly from that of the land named by the United States such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina.
When Oklahoma later became a US state in 1907, the US government virtually dissolved the Cherokee Nation government, Carroll said. Tribal lands shrunk from 4.48 million acres to just 100,000 acres in 1971, again threatening their ability to grow food and gather medicine and cultural material.
Now that global weather patterns are changing due to climate change, indigenous peoples around the world face multiple barriers to maintaining access to traditional foods, plants and practices, because as plant species shift locations, property boundaries remain the same.
Working with youth, elders and Cherokee Nation governance, Carroll is exploring how Indigenous communities can retain the ability to gather and use wild plant species, including those on land claimed by the National Park Service.
“Climate change is having an even greater impact on this ability to continue these types of Earth traditions,” Carroll said. “It can be seen as another move, but we are staying put this time.”
Initiatives like the Ărramăt project launched earlier this year, funded by the Canadian government and for which Carroll is a co-applicant, aims to address some of the great challenges posed by climate change to Indigenous peoples and their lands.
Carroll was able to link this multi-million dollar, multi-year project with work he has been leading for five years at train the young people of his community in Oklahoma on important issues and challenges related to food, natural resource management, and land use decisions.
“The beauty of this project is that it provides funding for these local place-based initiatives. It also connects Indigenous peoples around the world, allowing us to learn from each other and guiding our efforts within the Cherokee Nation to ensure that future generations can carry on these plant-based traditions.