The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is seeking public comment as it considers a proposal to allow the Cherokee to harvest the sochan plant inside the park boundary.
The National Park Service wants your opinion on a proposal that would allow the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to gather the green spring leaves of the sochan plant in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The agreement would mark a historic change by allowing the tribe to harvest a culturally-significant plant inside the park boundary.
Road signs clearly spell out the park's longtime "picking plants prohibited" policy in the Smokies. Just outside the national park in Cherokee, North Carolina, Jarrett Wildcatt's family has been forced to travel long distances to continue a tradition of picking sochan.
"Sochan, I would consider it a native delicacy. I learned how to harvest it from my grandma and my mom. We usually would drive near Murphy (around 60 miles away) for a good place where we are allowed to pick the greens. We can't go to the park right beside us,"said Wildcatt.
"We inhabited that land for at least 14,000 years, but have not been able to harvest sochan there since the national park was created."
Sochan is recognized in late-summer and fall for its tall yellow flowers. The plant is found in abundance along rivers and trails, including the paved path to the observation tower at Clingmans Dome.
The Cherokee are not interested in the bright yellow petals of late-summer. They desire the tender young greens that sprout in the spring.
"For its raw flavor, I would maybe compare it to spinach or kale. You want to get the leaves when the plant is small because that's when it is at its peak,"said Wildcatt.
A ruling two years ago changed the policy of the National Park Service by allowing parks to enter agreements with federally-recognized tribes to allow culturally-significant harvesting.
The proposal for sochan harvesting in the Smokies includes an environmental assessment and comes with plenty of limitations.
Gathering would be limited to a three-month period of March, April, and May. Permits would be given to 36 individual members of the EBCI. Anyone harvesting sochan must use a specially-marked bag and is limited to one bushel per week. Sochan gathering would only be allowed in certain zones of the Smokies away from the busiest areas of the park.
Jarrett Wildcatt at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina.
"The agreement would allow enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to gather parts of the sochan plant, not the whole thing. They'd be gathering just the leafy green parts,"said NPS spokesperson Julena Campbell.
Jarrett Wildcatt says sustainability is engrained in Cherokee culture.
"The one thing I was told growing up is you don't take more than you need. I was always told to leave a little bit because that is for the next generation,"said Wildcatt.
The next generation is Wildcatt's concern when it comes to sochan gathering. He hopes the plan is approved to preserve a culinary culture that goes back thousands of years.
"I want young people to learn how to do this. It is what we did in the past. If we can harvest sochan at home, that means it is going to be here many generations. That would be great,"said Wildcatt.
The public comment period goes through December 13, 2018. Dana Soehn, spokesperson for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said the park would like to have a decision on whether to allow the EBCI to gather sochan by spring 2019.