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  • A Cherokee tribe member holds a white sage smudge stick and eagle feather.

    A Cherokee tribe member holds a white sage smudge stick and eagle feather. | Photo: Creative Commons / DoD News

Published 1 August 2016

Critics argue that new rules allowing limited gathering on national park lands include a rigid approval process that undermines Native American sovereignty. 

For the first time in more than a century, Native Americans in parts of the U.S. will be able to legally gather plants and natural medicines for traditional use on lands where they historically foraged for generations before the U.S. banned the practice.

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But the deal doesn’t come without strict limitations, signaling a continuation of the colonial relationship despite the official U.S. narrative that the policy shift is intended to improve nation-to-nation relations with Native American groups.

The new National Park Service rule, approved at the end of June and scheduled to take effect August 11, claims to “provide an orderly and consistent process to allow limited gathering and removal of plant parts for traditional purposes” from national parks. But only by federally recognized tribes that have an ancestral relationship with the geographic area predating the establishment of the park.

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According to the law, gathering must meet sustainability requirements and will only be authorized for traditional cultural purposes.

But even if Indigenous groups and their practices fulfill those criteria, they won't necessarily be allowed to resume their traditional practices.

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Instead, the law requires Native American tribes to “submit a written request,” reach an agreement with national park authorities, and undergo an environmental assessment of the potential impact of their proposed activities before the NPS can greenlight park gathering.

The revision represent a departure from the current laws governing national lands under the Parks, Forests, and Public Properties chapter of the Code of Federal Regulations, which states that removing plants or plant parts from such lands is prohibited, unless otherwise regulated in treaty agreements. But the new NPS is not without critics.

Many have argued that the bureaucratic process straitjackets what has traditionally been an informal cultural practice grounded in family rather than paperwork.

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A statement last year from the Indigenous Elders and Medicine People's Council argued that “by creating defined parameters and designated individuals, the federal government assumes control over those practices by determining who is allowed to engage in a cultural way of life and what that way of life might be.”

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Critics have also argued that Native American tribes themselves, not the NPS, should be responsible for overseeing and monitoring traditional plant gathering on park lands. But the NPS claims that such an approach would be illegal, suggesting that the new rules’ much-promoted commitment to recognizing Indigenous rights to self-determination and sovereignty are half-hearted.

In their statement, the Elders and Medicine People said that recognition of Native American sovereignty would mean abolishing rules that limit Indigenous use of federal lands.

“This does not undo the earlier harm, it only furthers the United States destructive actions to Indigenous Peoples and their way of life,” the council argued. “The appropriate step would be to remove the prohibitions placed on Indigenous Peoples completely, not to create new rules that allow restricted access that defeats traditional purposes.”

Agreements between Native American groups and the NPS under the new rules could allow the gathering of various berries and herbs for medicinal purposes, grasses and cedar bark for weaving, and dozens of other plants at national parks across the country.

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