By Catherine Clabby
On an Appalachian Mountains slope coated with trees and low plants, Tommy Cabe got on his knees to look for shiny black seeds inside a late-season ramp patch.
“Here there are five seedpods but no seeds,” the forest resource specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians pronounced, adding quickly, “Here’s one!”
As Cabe reported every wild onion seed or pod he spotted, Michelle Baumflek, an ethnobotanist at Virginia Tech, logged numbers on a clipboard. With help from a measurement grid that Cabe moved from one research plot to the next in the patch, Baumflek cited precise locations too.
The meticulous work on secluded land may help Eastern Band tribe members regain the right to forage for wild ramps in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a practice banned since 2007.
That would be momentous. Cherokee people have collected and consumed the plants for thousands of years. National park property bordering tribal land in far western North Carolina, the Qualla Boundary, were long a reliable source.
As important as it is, the ramp research is just one way the Cherokee tribe is working today to expand both access to and protections for native plants they treasure. Many new partnerships are cropping up along the way.
“Ultimately we’re talking about food sovereignty,” is the way Cabe explains the growing drive to help steer policy on these fronts. “Tribes have inherited rights to this.”
In addition to the ramps, the Eastern Band is seeking permission to harvest leaves from sochan plants, also called green-headed coneflowers, on national park land. Cherokee people collect the plant’s young leaves, the mineral contents of which can compare favorably to other health-food greens.
And the tribe has signed an agreement with the North Carolina Arboretum, the U.S. Forest Service Southern Research Station and the U.S. Geological Survey to share traditional knowledge and scientific findings to better monitor climate change effects on wild plants the Cherokee favor.
It has also commissioned botanist/chemist Joe-Ann McCoy, who runs the arboretum germplasm repository — a seed bank, to protect the seeds of the wild plants and to document their nutritional value.
“They still eat native foods. They want to collect those foods the way their ancestors did,” said McCoy, who also has a research project underway comparing Cherokee harvesting of ramps to other methods.
Expanding consumption of wild foods could have positive health implications as well. Cherokee people in North Carolina are three times more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, a potentially lethal condition, than other people in this state.
Wild foods that Cherokee Indians have traditionally consumed — greens, berries and nuts among them — are healthful alternatives to high sugar and carbohydrate-laden meals associated with diabetes, said Robin Callahan, a registered dietician with Cherokee Choices, an Eastern Band diabetes prevention program.
“Traditional foods are whole foods. They are not processed or refined,” Callahan said.
Multiple forces have prompted the expanding number of Cherokee partnerships focused on plants. Fundamental to it all is the Eastern Band’s ability to finance some research with profits from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, money that is subsidizing tribal public services in many arenas.
At the same time, federal agencies seem to be more awake to American Indians’ expertise in and connections to wild native plants.
In August, a new rule approved by the Obama administration allowed national parks to permit federally recognized Indian tribes to remove plants for traditional purposes. That paved the way for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to launch talks with Eastern Band members about ramp and sochan harvesting.
The southern Appalachian Mountains is a prime spot for foraging for diverse types of plants due to the land’s ecological heritage. It contains more plant and animal diversity than most temperate ecosystems in the world.
Cherokee people in North Carolina have had a long time to explore those natural treasures, contact many American Indians in the eastern United States lost in the 1800s they were coerced or forced to move from their traditional homelands to distant reservations.
When the U.S. government started its armed clearance of Cherokee from the Appalachian region, an estimated 10 percent stayed, some by hiding in the forest. Many eventually became part of the Eastern Band, enabling knowledge of local plants gained over thousands of years to stay put too.
“Now it’s a big issue. How does western science incorporate the traditional knowledge?” Baumflek asked.
The story of how the Cherokee lost access to ramps and other plants within Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a reminder of the importance of incorporating American Indian insights, Cabe said.
Decades ago many considered ramps a poor person’s fare in the Appalachians, eaten by impoverished Indians and whites alike. Cabe recounted how a public school teacher once kicked him out of a classroom after complaining that he did not like the smell of the pungent wild onions on him.
But by the 2000s, appetites for regional foods had swelled in the United States. Exotic and sharp tasting ramps became favorites at upscale farmers markets, on foodie blogs, and at high-dollar restaurants in Manhattan. To satisfy demand, more and more people had started picking them in the Great Smoky Mountains park.
That became a concern because a study by a park service researchers dating to the 1990s found that an extensively harvested ramp patch could take 20 or more years to recover to pre-harvest levels. As a result, the park started prohibiting most of the public from harvesting them in 2002. The Cherokee were exempt until 2007 after the park’s leadership said they didn’t have the legal authority to make that exception.
But the red-flag study’s conclusions were based on a harvesting method that yanks ramps out the ground roots and all, not the traditional Cherokee approach. The Cherokee way leaves a small portion of the plant’s bulb, its nourishment-storing rhizome, and its roots in the ground, a foundation for a plant to grow back.
The study Baumflek designed, enacted among giant basswood, poplar tulips and buckeye trees, is comparing the Cherokee technique to the more aggressive approach on research plots in three remote locations on preserve land. The study is tracking how plants fare at all growth stages, hence the early autumn hunt for the tiny black seeds.
Baumflek and Tyson Sampson, another Eastern Band tribe member, are also recording interviews with Cherokee people about how they find, collect and use ramps, accounts that are expected to reinforce the cultural importance of the food. All findings are expected to be published in academic journals.
Given the negative experiences Cherokee Indians have had with non-tribe members, people who long ago evicted so many ancestors from their land and banned Cherokee language from their schools, tribe members aren’t always keen to give anything to outside researchers, Sampson said.
But this time, many understand that talking about traditional plants may help protect them.
“This is us sharing our identity to preserve our identity. And that identity is the plants,” Sampson said.