As Choctaw families traveled the Trail of Tears, a deadly route Native Americans endured when they were forcibly moved from their ancestral lands, they held onto more than survival—they safeguarded their culture by sewing tiny seeds in their garments.
Today, these seeds, passed down through generations, carry genetic material for some of America’s oldest agricultural varieties that thrive without artificial or chemical intervention and embody the resilience of a people who faced unimaginable challenges.
A new project that blends this cultural heritage with science education and space exploration recently sent five varieties of Choctaw heirloom seeds to space through the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory. The seeds launched on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission during Native American Heritage Month in November. The experiment will expose the heirloom seeds to microgravity and space radiation to understand how they adapt and might one day grow in these conditions.
With funding from Boeing, the project is a collaboration between the ISS National Lab, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State University. Its goal is to set the stage for food production using Choctaw crops on extended space missions and future space stations, said project leader Kathryn Gardner-Vandy, a Choctaw Nation citizen and assistant professor of aviation and space at Oklahoma State University.
“Our ancestors were skilled farmers and resilient survivors who safeguarded our agricultural heritage,” said Gardner-Vandy. “Today, we are still here, and we are thriving. Sending our seeds to space is a way to show native sovereignty and bridge our history with the future of space exploration.”
The project is part of Growing Hope, a Choctaw Nation program encouraging Choctaw citizens and youth to learn about traditional gardening and foods. After the seeds return to Earth, Growing Hope will work with educators and students at Jones Academy, a no-cost boarding school for Choctaw students in Oklahoma, to grow the space-flown seeds and study whether space exposure affects their growth.
Traditional crop varieties, such as maize and squash, have long symbolized unity and interdependence for the Choctaw people. Five varieties of Choctaw seeds were selected for the mission: a leafy green similar to spinach that the Choctaw call Tvnishi, a sweet potato squash called Isito, two types of peas (Tobi and Chukfi), and a type of corn used to make corn flour (Tanchi Tohbi). Beyond preserving cultural heritage, the project intends to contribute to future space exploration by providing fresh, nutrient-rich food for astronauts. Although challenges lie ahead in adapting the crops to space conditions, the potential benefits are significant, said Jacqueline Putman, a Choctaw citizen and program coordinator for Growing Hope.
“We’ve had nutritional testing done, and these varieties are chock-full of nutrients like magnesium, zinc, vitamin A, and iron,” said Putman. “These superfoods have so many vitamins that can help prevent colds and other illnesses on space missions.”
The project is designed to converge tradition and education in an experiment contributing to the scientific understanding of space-based agriculture rooted in cultural heritage. However, its importance to students at Jones Academy goes beyond cultural heritage. It’s an opportunity to introduce Choctaw students to space industry careers they didn’t previously dream possible, says Putman. It was not so long ago, she emphasized, that the United States government did not see the value of native people in society. Still, native people persevered with an ingrained understanding of their beauty and strength, enduring to change those views.
“These seeds are life to us and were for our ancestors—now look at where they’re going for the future of our kids and exploration,” she said. “We’re no longer left behind. We’re not substandard. We’re not secondary citizens. We’re Choctaw Nation people, and we’ve taken our rightful place. That’s what this project shows our kids.”