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Putting Down Roots and Supporting Cherokee Culture Through Ethnobotany

Putting Down Roots and Supporting Cherokee Culture Through Ethnobotany
Students learn about the ecology of rivercane from the director of the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources initiative Dr. David Cozzo.

It seems only natural that Frostburg State University’s Dr. Sunshine Brosi, an assistant professor of biology, would end up doing research that involved working with the Cherokee Nation.

Brosi spent part of her childhood just outside of Cherokee, N.C., going to school with Cherokee classmates and eventually working in the area when she was a teenager. It was during this time that she discovered the beautiful baskets of the Cherokee people.

Sample Image
  Sedia Ngofa works clay in a pottery class that
  was part of the Intersession program in Cherokee.

“My first job was at a Cherokee craft shop that sold junky crafts that were probably made in China,” she said. “I always thought, ‘This is too bad that this happens to people who have these amazing crafts they do, and then there’s all this junk in the tourist shops.’”

The thought stayed with Brosi long after she went on to pursue an academic career in ethnobotanical research, which examines the relationships between people and plants, eventually completing her Ph.D. in natural resources at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Brosi decided to do her doctoral work with the Eastern band of the Cherokee in North Carolina. She focused on conservation of natural resources used in their baskets, including white oak, and butternut trees, which produce a natural dye that highlights patterns in the baskets.

“The Cherokee are known for their baskets they make with these native materials, but there’s limited availability and supply of these materials,” Brosi said. “I basically wanted to increase the supply and improve the sustainability of the resources. When you lose the material, you lose the ability to make the craft, the knowledge behind the craft.”

In 2005, she implemented some experimental planting methods, taking care to plant the white oaks in tree shelters so they would grow straight and tall with fewer branches, making them more appealing and practical for Cherokee basket-making. To increase the number of butternut trees, which are being killed off by an exotic fungus, she combined them in a companion planting with river cane, a plant the Cherokee say is a “sister species.”

Combining biological conservation with preserving that “knowledge behind the craft” was the inspiration behind Brosi’s latest research effort in Cherokee, N.C. – a Frostburg State course over winter break called “Field Experiences in Ethnobotany and Ecology.” For the course, Brosi blended online learning and readings with actual fieldwork and immersion in the culture of the Cherokee people in North Carolina.

Supported by FSU’s President's Experiential Learning Enhancement Fund, students got to do everything from measuring the growth of the original tree plantings from Brosi’s doctoral research to evaluating the current yield of plants and estimating the number of additional plantings required for sustainable harvesting. They also met with and profiled Cherokee artisans, visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and experienced Cherokee storytelling.

Sedia Ngofa was one of 14 students who participated in the course. A senior who grew up in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, Ngofa is majoring in ethnobotany, a decision she said came out of her original interest in pharmacy, with a focus on herbalism. Inspired by what she’s learning in ethnobotany, Ngofa runs her own business, Bijoux’s Basket, which specializes in all-natural beauty and hair products. She is the child of African immigrants; her mother is from Sierra Leone, and her father is from Nigeria.

“I never really grew up in nature, but I fell in love with being outdoors and being in the woods. It’s kind of funny because no one from my family, my friends, is into the outdoors,” she laughed. “I’m kind of the hippie tree-hugger one. My best friend likes to call me the African Pocahontas.”

Brosi’s course was Ngofa’s first experience doing field work in ethnobotany. She particularly loved visiting the Cherokee’s Katuwah sacred site and clearing out plants like greenbrier and honeysuckle from around the tree plantings.

“Being out there and clearing the area, and after hours and hours of work, being able to see that these trees were fighting for their lives all this time,” Ngofa said. “It was exciting to realize that the butternut we were saving would be used to teach future generations. By going in there and saving and revitalizing that site, we were giving so much opportunity to others to come in and do bigger projects. … It made me excited about doing my own research. It was good motivation.”

As part of Brosi’s course, Ngofa is working with a classmate to create a poster they will present at the joint meeting for the Society for Economic Botany and the Society of Ethnobiology in Cherokee on May 14.

“We’re basically taking the data that we gathered in Cherokee, and we’re going to be doing a planting right here on the Frostburg campus,” Ngofa said. “The butternut trees have a special chemical (juglone) in them that makes it hard for other plants to be around them, and ethnobotanists use the companion planting method. We’re going to plant the butternut as a centerpiece, with morning glories, yellow root and juglone-resistant species, such as beans, corn and squash, mimicking the three-sister planting system of the Cherokee.”

Ngofa is also applying for a grant to do research in Sierra Leone this summer.

“It wasn’t until I learned about ethnobotany that I really thought about going back to my parents’ home countries and coming up with innovative ways to improve the area,” she said. “The traditional medicinal aspect of ethnobotany just fascinates me. When you think about it, in ethnobotany, what you’re learning is the basis of modern medicine. … The fact that it’s so multidisciplinary … it just amazes me. It touches on all parts of life.”

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