Oklahoma Stories

Keeping tradition sacred

By Heide Brandes May 2023

Cherokee Medicine Keepers gain access to culturally significant plants

John Ross Cherokee Nation Medicine Keeper | Courtesy Photo

Deep in the rolling plains of Adair County in northeastern Oklahoma, a group of Cherokee elders gather to prepare the land and protect plants that have long played a role in the cultural health and history of the Cherokee Nation.

Named the Cherokee Medicine Keepers, the roughly dozen elder Cherokees are fluent in the Cherokee language and have taken on the role of the keepers of medicinal and sacred plants. They are the knowledge-keepers, but removal from traditional homelands and ongoing climate change has created a challenge for preserving, collecting and continuing the cultural flora that play an important role for the tribe.

Now, thanks to a new agreement with the National Park Service (NPS) and the Buffalo Nation River in Arkansas, Cherokee Nation citizens will be able to gather plants that have cultural and medicinal significance. Under this first-ever agreement for the Cherokees, the NPS grants the tribe an annual permit for collecting 76 different plants within the park’s bounds.

In April 2022, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner entered into the agreement with the National Park Service, the first of its kind in the region between a tribe and NPS.

Who are the Medicine Keepers?

Black cherry bark, shown above, is one of 76 culturally significant plants used in traditional Cherokee medicine | Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Clint Carroll is an assistant professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and facilitator of the Cherokee Medicine Keepers.

As an advisory board to the National Secretary of Natural Resources Office in ethnobotany or Cherokee plant knowledge, the Cherokee Medicine Keepers are also passing on that knowledge to a new generation of Cherokee youth. In the past, tribes were displaced from what is now known as national park land and climate change has also affected access to plants and the health of the plants themselves.

“Our people have been noticing that decline in recent years and so we look to the east,” Carroll says. “A lot of the parks that were created that we know and take for granted today involve the dispossession of indigenous peoples from those lands to make the parks or to establish the parks. On the flip side, parks are protected areas and a lot of the plants that Cherokee people know and use and recognize are found within that park boundary.”

While removing plants from national parks is typically illegal, a 2016 rule allows park superintendents to enter into plant-gathering agreements with Native American tribes.

“All of the tribes that were federally recognized that had a cultural affiliation with any specific national park unit were asked in accordance with this federal regulation to submit a written request to enter into the plant gathering agreement,” says Melissa Trenchik, chief of resources stewardship, science, interpretation and education for the Buffalo National River.

Preserving Cultural Knowledge

The Cherokee Nation also set aside 1,000 acres in Adair County as a preserve to protect “culturally significant plants and natural resources for conservation and supporting the advancement of cultural preservation and education.”

“We see it as an eco-cultural insurance policy, to go further to the east into areas that still contain these plants that Cherokee people recognize and have used since time immemorial,” Carroll says.

The Cherokee Nation will provide the park with the names of citizens who will gather traditional plants in certain areas of the Buffalo River National Park for the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers Preserve.

Today, the NPS is reaching out and inviting other recognized tribes to be a part of the agreements as well.

“The other thing we really want to be clear on is that all of the tribes that are federally recognized who have cultural affiliation to the Buffalo National River are welcomed to enter into this same type of agreement,” Trenchik says. “So we don’t want to just single out our valued partners at the Cherokee Nation, but they were the first ones to do it.”

Category: Oklahoma Stories

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