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Reconnecting To Our Roots Through Pawpaws, And Revisiting Indigenous History Inside Appalachia

pawpaw baby
Baby Cai relaxes in his crib after a busy day collecting pawpaws with his dad Chuck Kleine, WVPB video producer.

The pandemic has made some people more eager to go back to food traditions like growing gardens and sourcing food from local farmers. It is possible that we’re discovering how fragile our food system is and how vulnerable we are if we can't sustain ourselves by growing and foraging foods.

In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll take a look at a fruit that is unique to Appalachia called the pawpaw. It was nearly forgotten but is coming back as some people are working to keep it alive. We also hear an interview with author Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle. Her new novel explores the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s history, and the push and pull to leave and return home. And we learn about a group of rock climbers who are trying to rename climbing routes that bear racist and sexist names.

Pawpaws

Zach Fowler is a biologist in Morgantown, West Virginia. He directs a 90-acre arboretum owned by West Virginia University where pawpaws grow along the Monongahela River.

If you’ve never heard of pawpaws, it might be because they don’t jibe with modern human food systems. This small, yellow and green fruit has a short growing season — from late summer to early October — and a really short shelf life. It’s often said that if you pull them from the tree they aren’t ripe and if they’re on the ground they’re over-ripe. You have to catch them as they fall.

Cultivation

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Michael O Snyder
The Pawpaw Cultivator Neal Peterson.

Neal Peterson is a plant scientist who is credited with helping bring the pawpaw back to existence as a cultivated fruit. Leah Scarpelli and Michael Snyder bring us that part of the story from The Mountain Traditions Podcast.

Tracing The Pawpaw’s Indigenous Roots

The pawpaw was important enough to the Shawnee people’s way of life that they even named a phase of the moon after it. “That moon would indicate that was the time the pawpaws were ripe and it was time to go pick them and probably also indicated, 'Hey, we're getting close to winter,'" said Joel Barnes, a language and archives director for the Shawnee Tribe, and also tribal member. Cut off from their ancestral homeland and the plants that grow there, Barnes says the Shawnee have seen some of the pawpaw's cultural relevance fade with time.

“Some of these old folk, they all had them, they've all ate them," Barnes said, but no ceremonies or dances connected to the pawpaw remain. “If there ever was, nobody knows."

Pawpaws were also important to the Choctaw nation. The Choctaw people were forced out of their homes in southern Appalachia after the Indian Removal Act of 1831. In this episode, we hear how members of the Choctaw and Shawnee nations are reconnecting to their roots — and tracing their family’s stories back to Appalachia, and to pawpaws.

Save The Seeds!

You can save your pawpaw seeds and replant them in the woods near your home, or even, in your backyard. There’s information about how to do that in a great book called Pawpaw: In Search of America's Forgotten Fruit by Andy Moore.

Eastern Band Of Cherokee In Fiction

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Courtesy University Press of Kentucky

Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in North Carolina. She’s just published the novel “Even As We Breathe.” The story is set in 1942 and the main character is a 20-year-old man named Cowney Sequoyah. He lives on the Cherokee reservation, but leaves to find summer work in Asheville, North Carolina at the Grove Park Inn. It was a temporary home for diplomats from the Axis countries and their families.

Clapsaddle spoke with Eric Douglas about why she thinks it’s important to examine this poorly understood time in North Carolina’s history.

Racism And Rock Climbing

Rock climbing brings people to the region to explore the natural beauty of the Appalachian Mountains. But some members of the climbing community are challenging the names of some climbing routes — like “Tar Baby” and “Slave Fingers.”

Reporter Zack Harold has been talking with folks about how these conversations are playing out among climbers. We’ll hear more of his story in next week’s episode. For a sneak peak, our associate producer Eric Douglas sat down with Harold to hear a bit of the backstory behind his reporting.

 

Sounds Of The Changing Seasons

Since the pandemic began, health experts have reported increases in people struggling with depression and anxiety. The worry over our health, and the health of our families, is compounded by economic stressors. Some of us have found solace through simple acts like taking a walk outdoors, hugging our dog, baking cookies.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Jim Lange, host of the music show Eclectopia sent us this ode to the cacophonous sounds of autumn.

Making Peace On The Curves

For some people, serenity and joy can be found on a motorcycle ride through the Appalachian mountains. Marie Bongiovanni lives in a cabin outside the town of Boone, North Carolina. She’s a cancer survivor, and news about the pandemic brought on new waves of anxiety. She shared her story about how she found a way to make peace with her new reality, taking one day at a time.

Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Dinosaur Burps, Spencer Elliot, and Kaia Kater.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.

You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Glynis Board hails from the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and is based in Wheeling at the First State Capital Building. She’s been reporting full time for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2012. She covers a broad range of topics but focuses on producing and hosting the West Virginia Public Broadcasting's daily news show West Virginia Morning.
Roxy Todd is a reporter and producer for Inside Appalachia and has been a reporter for West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2014. She’s won several awards, including a regional AP Award for best feature radio story, and also two regional Edward R. Murrow awards. You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Eric is a native of Kanawha County who graduated from Marshall University with a degree in journalism. He has written for newspapers and magazines throughout his career. He is an author, writing both nonfiction and fiction, including a series of thriller novels set in locations around the world. You can reach Eric at edouglas@wvpublic.org