Agreement allows Cherokees to harvest 76 species of medicinal plants in Buffalo River National Park

An agreement signed Wednesday will allow citizens of the Cherokee Nation to gather 76 culturally significant plant species from Buffalo River National Park in Arkansas for traditional purposes.

The list includes a wide variety of vascular plants, from “Arkansas Tumble Weed” to “Wild (Possum) Raisins”.

Normally, removing plants from a national park is against federal law. But a 2016 rule, 36 CFR 2.6, allows park superintendents to enter into such agreements with Native American tribes.

Cherokee Nation Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said climate change threatens the availability of the tribe’s traditional herbal medicines in Oklahoma.

But some of the plants are abundant three hours east of the Buffalo National River.

“There’s been so much pressure on Cherokee culture over the centuries since European contact,” Hoskin said at a signing ceremony in Tahlequah, Okla., on Wednesday. “This certainly includes pressure on our language and culture which has eroded much of our ways of life. indigenous peoples from all over the world, so it is important that the Cherokee Nation take steps to protect, in particular, medicinal plants because knowledge of these plants is something that is rare these days.”

The agreement states that the tribe will establish a process for its citizens to gather 76 traditional plants in certain areas of Buffalo River State Park, including the Lost Valley, Tyler Bend, Buffalo Point and Rush areas.

Only members of the Cherokee Medicine Keepers are allowed to pick plants in the Arkansas park at this time, according to the agreement. The Medicine Keepers is a group of tribal members who help preserve cultural traditions and pass them on to younger generations.

Chad Harsha, natural resources secretary for the Cherokee Nation, said individual tribesmen will be allowed into the park in Arkansas to pick plants once the process is in place. He said that would require filling out an application through a Cherokee Nation computer portal.

“The Cherokee Nation will provide the names of registered members authorized to pick plants or parts of plants in the park prior to any picking activity,” according to the agreement. “These authorized plant gatherers will be identified on the annual special use permit issued by the park for the gathering activity. During gathering activities, authorized plant gatherers will be identified by a nation-issued tribal identification document Cherokee, together with a copy of the special use permit issued by [Buffalo National River] and received by the Cherokee Nation.”

Arkansas Park Superintendent Mark Foust also spoke at Wednesday’s event.

“It’s very fitting, I think it’s Buffalo National River’s 50th anniversary year,” he said. “But we know in the National Park Service that many have come before us as stewards of this land. So our ability to partner with the Cherokee Nation and steward the land that you care about, and that the Medicine Keepers know so well, is truly our honor.. So thank you and look forward to many years of working together and hard work to protect the ecosystem for the next generation and generations after.”

Along with the Buffalo National River Agreement, Hoskin also signed an executive order setting aside nearly 1,000 acres of land inside the Cherokee Nation Reservation as the Cherokee Medicine Keepers Reservation.

Clint Carroll, an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, said talks between the Cherokee Nation and Buffalo National River began in 2014. He and others took a field trip to the park in 2017 to study the plants there. It was planned to sign the agreement with the park manager in 2020, but the pandemic put things on hold.

Carroll, who is a member of the Cherokee Tribe, said the first trip up the Buffalo National River to pick plants is scheduled for October. He said five students from the Cherokee Environmental Leadership Program will accompany the Medicine Keepers and learn from them the traditions associated with gathering the plants.

Carroll said tribesmen are somewhat cautious about their medicinal plants as they are collected and used in sacred rituals. He said it’s to protect people who don’t know how to use plants.

“Cherokee plant medicine includes not only the chemical properties of plants that act as ‘medicine,’ but also the faith and spirituality of both patient and healer,” Carroll wrote in 2020 for “Parks Stewardship Forum,” a journal of conservation. “This is why it is especially important to revitalize the knowledge of Cherokee plants – because, in turn, this revitalizes a way of life centered on spirituality and relationships with the earth and the cosmos.”

Regarding climate change, in the same publication, Carroll wrote: “The Cherokee Nation is located at the confluence of two very different climatic zones – to the west, a semi-arid zone of tallgrass prairie, and to the east, an eastern hardwood forest Documented and projected rising temperatures, along with fragmentation of the landscape caused by human activities, are placing significant stress on native plant habitats in the Great Plains and Southeast.

According to a 2019 environmental assessment, the 76 species “would be harvested at different times of the year as the targeted plant parts reached their optimum time for harvesting.”

Based on 36 CFR 2.6, the agreement automatically expires in five years.

“Prior to approval of a renewed agreement, this agreement will be reviewed by the Cherokee Nation and BNR to identify any potential areas for improvement,” according to the environmental assessment.

A paragraph in the agreement noted the Cherokee Nation’s relationship with Arkansas.

“The traditional association of the Cherokee Nation with the Buffalo River region dates back to the early 18th century, when the Cherokee were migrating westward due to increasing encroachments on their southeast homelands by Euro-American settlers. “, according to the agreement. “This group of Cherokees, often referred to as the Old Settlers, sought to avoid conflict with the Euro-American people by establishing new settlements west of the Mississippi River. During this time, the Cherokees continued lifestyles that included the use of wild plants for food, tools, utilities and medicine.

“Due to the similarity of the Ozarks to their southeast homelands, the Cherokee were able to use many of the same plants they once knew and cherished. Today, the Cherokee use these plants to maintain our connection to the earth and to perpetuate cultural ways of life that are inseparable from the natural world.These uses include food from green vegetables, nuts and wild berries; crafts from bushes, trees and cane; and medicine from the many leaves, barks and roots of forests and fields.”

In his journal article, Carroll wrote that “the agreement represents an acknowledgment of the National Park Service’s troubled history, and can be seen as an attempt to redress historical grievances.”

“As scholars have increasingly pointed out, the early conservation movement in the United States often involved removing Indigenous peoples from their original lands to create what are now called national parks,” Carroll wrote. “This process, known as the ‘conservation enclosure’, coincided with the establishment of Indian reservations across the country and marked both a physical and philosophical separation between humans and ‘nature’ in the States. Although this period is generally celebrated for its protection of national lands and resources, seen through the eyes of Indigenous peoples, the park system embodies another story of dispossession.

“Nevertheless, national parks have played an important role in protecting lands and resources from exploitation. This points to a particularly happy paradox: although the creation of many national parks has led to the forced displacement of indigenous peoples from their original lands and their ancestral areas, the park system has ensured that these lands remain relatively untouched by the adverse effects of development and environmental contamination that plague many tribal lands today.”

Buffalo River National Park

Alvin J. Chase