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Cherokee Nation, National Park Service agreement protects culturally significant plants

Land photo
The Cherokee Nation
Medicine Keeper Land

Sage, hickory, bloodroot and cane are four of the 76 identified culturally significant plants to the Cherokee Nation in Buffalo National River Park in Arkansas.

To protect the plants and land, Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Chief Bryan Warner signed the region’s first agreement between a tribal nation and the National Park Service. Hoskin and Warner also signed an executive order designating almost 1,000 acres of deciduous forest near Bell in Adair County as the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers Preserve.

The acreage is conservation lands for traditional gathering and cultural activities. Cherokee Nation medicine keepers are elders in the nation’s reservation who preserve traditional knowledge like gathering plants, and are fluent in the Cherokee language.

“This order signed today acknowledges that the current generation of Medicine Keepers hold important traditional knowledge, and it needs to be revitalized, protected and shared with younger Cherokees,” Hoskin said.

Medicine keepers worked with the park service officials to identify the plants before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ryan Mackey, a medicine keeper and manager of the Cherokee Nation Language Master Apprentice Program, said this agreement could lead to transplanting some medicinal plants to Oklahoma, potentially in the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers Preserve.

“The ideas that this medicine is a living thing, and we have a relationship with it and even if we can’t go there ourselves to gather it, we still want it to prosper just like we would want somebody in our family, another loved one, to be well and taken care of,” Mackey said.

In 2016, the National Park Service changed their regulations to allow federally recognized tribal nation to gather and remove plants for traditional and ceremonial purposes.

Cassie Branstetter, NPS public information officer, said national parks have custom policies for visitors to follow. Branstetter said Buffalo National River Park had about 1.5 million visitors this past year, and the agreement provides an education opportunity.

“Sometimes the prominent narrative of the cultural history of this space is that, really important, but also very well known, landscape of homesteading, landscape of, you know, westward expansion, but it’s also a landscape of Indigenous peoples who have been using these lands for thousands of years,” Branstetter said.

Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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