Tommy Cabe pulled a pipe from the leather pouch attached to his belt, lit it and crouched close to the ground. Silently, he prayed that he might be nourished by eating the green-headed coneflower plant, or sochan, growing all around him. To close his prayers, Cabe sprinkled a pinch of tobacco over the land of his ancestors.
Cabe, a forest resource specialist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and an enrolled tribal member in his 40s, grew up gathering sochan—a traditional Cherokee food akin to but milder than spinach that is rich in vitamin C and folic acid. For years, sochan gathering was relegated to small backyard plots, or along back roads.
But one day this past May, clutching an official hunter-orange harvest bag, Cabe stood on a forested hillside in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where his tribe became the first in generations to legally collect sochan within national park boundaries. Because of a new federal policy, 11 tribal members, as of now, are free to forage for sochan in tens of thousands of acres inside the park. The lifting on the prohibition of such foraging marks a reconciliation of sorts, with the federal government finally acknowledging American Indians’ claim to their ancestral homeland.