Children of the Sun

Spring-Street-Style-Military-Chic-buttefliesWe thought we’d seen just about every possible application of economic development funds in the name of job creation–until we came across this item from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: the USDA recently awarded the largest grant it has given out this year in a program to develop emerging businesses in rural areas–the $500,000 grant will help an Oklahoma town raise and sell butterflies.

You read that right. The Tulsa World reports that the grant money was awarded to the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town to support a partnership between the tribe and the Euchee Butterfly Farm called the Raising Natives project.

We were about to grab our butterfly net and chase down some Ag Dept. bureaucrats so we could deliver a lecture on wasteful government spending, but after reading up on what the folks in rural Oklahoma (near Okemah, OK) are doing, we put down the net so we could applaud them with both hands.

This project is all about rebuilding–an endangered species and an ancient culture as well as the economy of a rural community–and it sets an example worth following.

As detailed on its website, the Euchee Butterfly Farm was established in 2013 by the heirs of Neosho Parthena Brown, a Native American woman of Euchee and Creek descent, on the original 160-acre allotment deeded to her in 1899 by the U.S. Government. It is one of the last intact allotments in Oklahoma and stands as a reminder of the tragic history of what was once known as Indian Territory.

Neosho was the daughter of Samuel W. Brown, Chief of the Euchee Tribe. The Euchees, also known as the Yuchis, are one of the most ancient cultures in North America. Historical records show that when the Cherokee and Creek people first arrived in the southeastern United States, the Euchee were already well-established.  When asked where they originated, the Euchees would answer, “We come from far away. We are Children of the Sun.”  Adding to the mystery was their completely unique language, which bears no resemblance in vocabulary or linguistic structure to any other language in the world and is today preserved by just five remaining fluent native speakers.

The Euchee Butterfly Farm specializes in the rearing of butterflies native to Oklahoma. It is operated by citizens of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the butterflies it raises are sold to zoos and butterfly houses around the country. They’re also used for butterfly releases at weddings, funerals and special events.

According to its mission statement, the goals of the farm are:

  • To create economic independence for the tribal people of Oklahoma through ecologically sustainable butterfly faming
  • To promote conservation of native species of butterflies and plants
  • To use butterflies as a hands-on educational tool to get youth excited about science.

The Raising Natives Project will provide 100 tribal members in Oklahoma with all of the necessary training, supplies and equipment to raise native species butterflies on their own land. The Euchee Butterfly Farm will process the sales–with payments going directly to the farmers–providing employment which is otherwise scarce in economically depressed rural areas.

It turns out the butterflies need all the help they can get: there are more than 20 butterflies and moths listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of these species are found in the United States and may become extinct due to loss of their habitat. Some butterflies from other countries, such as rare birdwing butterflies from New Guinea, are endangered by loss of habitat and by collection of specimens for international trade. Several states post lists of declining butterflies and moths in their state and encourage protection efforts.

Here’s the beauty part: butterfly farming not only is incredibly eco-friendly–it’s also one the fastest growing industries in agriculture today. The supply of commercially raised butterflies cannot currently keep up with the exploding demand.

At the Euchee Butterfly Farm, they only raise butterflies that are indigenous to this area. The plants grown in local fields, used as food for the growing caterpillars, are plant species  that will be most helpful to local butterflies, insects and wildlife. Cultivating indigenous species of plants helps to preserve all of the creatures that rely on this fragile ecosystem. Butterflies in the wild have only a 5 percent survival rate from egg to adult, while butterflies that are raised in captivity have a 95 percent survival rate.

So the next time a pair of newlyweds celebrate their vows by releasing some of the most beautiful creatures on Earth, don’t forget to thank the Muskogee Nation for making that happen, with an assist from some forward-thinking folks at the USDA.