What is the Southeastern American Indian Garden?

Sponsored by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians nation and the Cherokee Nation, SAIG is a garden planted with crops of cultural significance to American Indian nations native to the Southeastern United States.

What does this garden aim to do?

1. CultivatE crops: 

Through growing these heirloom varieties, we seek to preserve and make available foods that have been significant to Native diets and communities.  By continuing to grow these crops and keep their seeds, we contribute to ongoing efforts to save these heirloom varieties into perpetuity.

2. Cultivate community

More than a demonstration garden, we seek to offer a space for Native and non-Native students and community members to work with, taste, and explore the cultural heritage of these plants, offering a connected and connective space to engage with issues of food sovereignty, displacement, and ecological justice.

3. Cultivate research

We offer students the opportunity to contribute to a growing body of research around sustainability that is rigorous, integrated and connected to real communities and stories, offering opportunities for hands-on learning beyond the classroom.

What We Are Growing:

For our inaugural year, we chose to plant a Three Sisters garden, with different varieties of corn, beans, and squash.  The Three Sisters are Corn, Beans, and Squash, and called the ‘Three Sisters’ because of the way they mutually benefit one another when growing together.  This year in the Southeastern American Indian Garden, we planted White and Colored Flour Corn, Turkey Craw and October Beans, and Georgia Candy Roaster, Dutch Fork, and Dipper Gourd Squash.


In addition to saving these seeds and offering them back to their respective seed banks for future use, we are also working to learn more about both the crops and their cultural and historical significance.  While none of these varieties enjoys a huge amount of notoriety, we have nevertheless worked to learn as much as we can about these crops, so the stories that surround them may also be preserved.  However, the work of storytelling is by nature a collective effort.  While we have done our best at the Duke Campus Farm, we welcome any revisions or additions!

What Crops are We Growing?

Legend has it that a hunter shot a turkey and found this bean in its craw. The bean was collected, planted, and later passed on, giving it the name “Turkey Craw” (Southern Exposure Seed Exchange). Turkey Craw (Phaseolus vulgaris) is a sturdy and vigorous variety of bean, eaten fresh as crunchy pods or harvested for their speckled brown seeds (Seed Savers). The bean thrives in the mid-Atlantic, where it has been a favorite among farmers in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina since the early 1800s.

This eye-catching local type of bean is considered to be so pretty that their pink-red-speckled shells have been strung as beads for jewelry. But October Beans are beloved among farmers and gardeners in and around Appalachia not only for their beauty, but also for their late timing in the season.  They provide a bountiful last-minute harvest, just when it seems that the season has ended. Originally inherited by indigenous groups in the mountains, October Beans are rich in local food and land history.

White flour corn is an ancient heritage corn variety, bred and grown by the Cherokee Nation for many generations. Growing up to 15 feet, these tall corn plants produce long and slender cobs with white kernels. The corn is traditionally ground into flour for baking into bread, cakes, and tortillas. Compared to other types of corn, flour corn has softer kernels with starchy centers, making an easy-to-grind sweet flour.

Similar to white flour corn, colored flour corn has been bred and passed down by members of the Cherokee Nation for thousands of years.  Although primarily ground into flour for baking bread, the beautiful red, white, yellow, purple, and blue hues make for beautiful decoration and jewelry.

Distinct among other crops grown in the Southeastern American Indian Garden, Indigenous peoples bred and cultivated the Dipper Gourd for functional rather than culinary purposes.  As their name suggests, Dipper Gourds are used to make dippers and storage containers.  Other uses include artwork, drums, and decorative masks (My Cherokee Garden). Vera Bates, an artist from the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, uses dipper gourds in her work, as shown in the picture below.

Native to South Carolina’s Dutch Fork region–home to Tsalaguwetiyi (East Cherokee), S’atsoyaha (Yuchi), and Miccosukee peoples (Native Land Digital)--this pumpkin has a rich, sweet flavor that is ‘unmatched’ for baking.  Once common in South Carolina, the Dutch Fork Pumpkin is now grown by a small handful of seed savers, farmers, and chefs.

Indigenous peoples bred this squash in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, and north Georgia in the early 1800s.  Long and banana shaped, this squash can be stored for up to six months, and its rich nutty flavor sweetens with age.  The Candy Roaster Squash easily cross-pollinatoes with other squash varieties, complicating the Indigenous-led effort to preserve this rare cultivar (Atlas Obscura).