CHEROKEE, N.C. — Years before he attended Maryville College, then-8-year-old Tommy Cabe’s mother took him into the woods and taught him how to gather sochan, a bitter and kale-like green that has been central to the traditional Cherokee culture and diet for thousands of years.
He learned to look for its long stalks growing in clusters at creekside, and to carefully pull only the very ends of the leaf — known as the “turkey foot” — while leaving the rest of the plant intact.
But there was a problem. Because the town of Cherokee, the tribal community where Cabe and his family grew up, is just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where picking the plant is prohibited.
That changed Monday.
Cabe, now the Eastern Band’s tribal forest resource specialist, was one of many tribal members present at the historic signing of an agreement between the park and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians to allow the gathering of sochan by select tribal members.
The process toward the agreement was long, thoughtful and based on science, park Superintendent Cassius Cash said at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where the signing took place. “With those three factors, we feel that today’s agreement will strike a good balance in allowing us to honor the traditions of the Cherokee Indians while also preserving this precious resource for generations to follow.”
Cherokee Principal Chief Richard Sneed called the agreement a “first in Indian country, and a first in the nation.”
The deal is the first to result from a new park rule passed in 2016 that provided for recognized Indian tribes to petition for the right to gather traditional plant harvests, as long as that gathering does not cause an impact to the park’s ecology.
The agreement allows 36 permitted tribal members to gather the plant under specified conditions. To receive the permit, members must be trained and then are permitted to gather a maximum of one bushel of sochan leaves per week from March 29 through May 31. Harvesters are limited to groups of six. Only the leaves may be harvested, and those leaves must be within a certain size.
The park will monitor populations in harvest zones and non-harvest zones to assess sochan abundance, sochan population health and incidental impacts of harvesting, such as trampling.
So far, 24 members have signed up to be harvesters. Cabe said they skew toward older members of the tribe.
Cabe said the tribe next could petition the park for permits to gather ramps, an onion-like plant that also is traditional to the Cherokee diet. There also are ongoing efforts to introduce sochan and ramps to the Cherokee High School.
But doing so would require growing the crop on a larger scale, he said. Like spinach, the plant dramatically shrinks when cooked. A plastic grocery bag full of densely packed sochan will yield a small canteloupe-sized amount after it is blanched — a process that involves rapidly boiling and freezing — and fried in oil.
In the end, Cabe said he hopes the results gathered by the park’s monitoring will create a new appreciation for the sensitivity with which the Cherokee traditionally have harvested the plant.
“Aboriginal groups anywhere have a definitive reason for their relationship with ecology,” he said.