Cherokee Nation Members Can Now Gather Plants on National Park Land

A new agreement between the tribe and the National Park Service allows Cherokee citizens to collect plants with cultural and medicinal significance

People kayaking on Buffalo National River
Cherokee citizens can now collect wild indigo, river cane, wild onion, hickory, bloodroot and other plants at Buffalo National River. National Park Service

Cherokee Nation citizens will be able to gather plants that have cultural and medicinal significance along the Buffalo National River in Arkansas under a new agreement with the National Park Service (NPS), reports Bill Bowden for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Under the agreement, signed on Wednesday at a ceremony in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the NPS will issue the tribe an annual permit for collecting 76 different plants within the park’s bounds. Cherokee Nation will, in turn, provide NPS with the names of citizens who will be gathering the plants.

Wild indigo, river cane, wild onion, hickory, bloodroot and sage are among the species that members of the tribe can now gather at Buffalo National River, which was established in 1972 as the country’s first national river. Cherokee people have long used these and other plants for food, crafts and traditional medicine, according to a statement from the tribe.

“Buffalo National Park is remarkably botanically diverse and contains a number of plants that are important to Cherokee culture,” Chad Harsha, Cherokee Nation’s secretary of natural resources, tells Molly Young, who covers Indigenous affairs for the USA Today Network.

Cherokee citizens and NPS superintendent
Per a new agreement with the National Park Service, signed at a ceremony on Wednesday, members of the Cherokee Nation can now gather plants along Buffalo National River. Cherokee Nation

Though the plants are difficult to find in Oklahoma, where the tribe is headquartered, they grow abundantly along the Buffalo River a little more than 100 miles to the east, according to Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, as reported by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“Modern pressures such as climate change threaten medicinal plants across our reservation, as they do for native peoples around the world,” Hoskin said at the signing ceremony. “It's important that Cherokee Nation takes steps to protect, in particular, medicinal plants because the knowledge of those plants is something that is in scarce supply these days."

Removing plants from national parks is typically illegal, however, a rule created in 2016 permits park superintendents to enter into plant-gathering agreements with Native American tribes.

Overhead view of Buffalo National River
Under a new agreement, members of the Cherokee Nation can now gather plants with cultural and medicinal significance from Buffalo National River. National Park Service

Cherokee people began arriving in the region along the Buffalo River in the Ozark Mountains in the early 18th century, when they started moving from their ancestral homelands because of pressure from white settlers, according to Clint Carroll, an ethnic studies expert at the University of Colorado Boulder and a Cherokee Nation citzen, who wrote a paper about the agreement for the journal Parks Stewardship Forum.

A group of Cherokee people known as the “Old Settlers” opted to begin moving west of the Mississippi River in an effort to avoid conflict with white settlers and the federal government, per Carroll. Nevertheless, the federal government forcibly removed tens of thousands of Native Americans, including Cherokees, from their ancestral homeland in the southeastern United States during the early and mid-19th century.

In 1838 and 1839, federal soldiers wielding bayonets confined an estimated 17,000 Cherokee people in stockades, ransacked their homes, separated families and, ultimately, forced them to walk more than 1,200 miles to what is now the state of Oklahoma. Some 5,000 Cherokee people died during the journey, which later became known as the Trail of Tears, because of starvation, dysentery, typhus, whooping cough, cholera and other causes.

Though federal officials initially promised land to the Native Americans they forced into the Oklahoma territory, they later went back on their word and opened up the area for settlement. In the early 1890s, tens of thousands of white settlers stormed into the territory to claim the Cherokee’s land.

Ceremony signing Cherokee Nation agreement with NPS
Per a new agreement with the National Park Service, signed at a ceremony on Wednesday, members of the Cherokee Nation can now gather plants along Buffalo National River. Cherokee Nation

Today, the Cherokee Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the U.S., with more than 390,000 citizens around the world; roughly 141,000 Cherokee citizens live in northeastern Oklahoma within the boundaries of the tribe’s reservation.

Members of the Cherokee Nation first began talks with Buffalo National River officials in 2014, per the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the two groups had planned to sign the agreement in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic delayed that progress.

Discussions initially arose from the 2008 formation of the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers, a group of elders who wish to “revitalize land-based ways of life among younger Cherokees with the hope that they be continued for generations to come,” according to Carroll. To that same end, Cherokee Nation leaders also on Wednesday set aside nearly 1,000 acres of land within the reservation to help protect significant plants. They named the swath of deciduous forest the “Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers Preserve.”

“Numerous elders stressed that if the people do not use the plants, the Creator will take them away,” Carroll wrote in the journal article.