The ethics of wildcrafting


Thoreau once said, “The woods and fields are a table always spread.” Apparently the National Park Service agrees.

In blatant noncompliance (or perhaps misinterpretation) of its own leave no trace policy, national park managers have been allowing Native Americans to harvest wild plants and roots from parks, according to a letter from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) submitted to the Department of the Interior in August. The letter, which requested Interior conduct a formal investigation into “extensive violations to federal regulations,” cited several cases of illegal wildcrafting – the practice of gathering wild plants from their native habitat – in Zion, Bryce and Pipe Springs national parks. It also pointed to a 2009 incident in Yosemite, where the acting superintendent told some Indians that they could “take any plant they wished and did not need either a permit, or to report what or how much they had taken.” (If only Monsanto were so generous.)

Park Service regulations prohibit “possessing, destroying, injuring, removing, digging, or disturbing plants from their natural state” within all national parks, yet permissions in the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) grant Native Americans the right to gather plants from public lands for cultural and religious practices. Confusion over which law supersedes the other is partly to blame for the current uproar. Some park managers believe AIRFA maintains authority. PEER, however, considers this interpretation a slippery slope, and contends that NPS law holds court.

The group claims the Park Service's “ ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ " attitude amounts to irresponsible management. As stated in their letter: “Any decision made by the Park Service to completely reverse course on protecting plants has direct implications for park wildlife, minerals and cultural artifacts.”

While PEER’s concern for the ecological impact of Indian wildcrafting appears genuine – many experts believe fewer and fewer Indians know how to sustainably harvest wild plants, and more, what’s stopping someone from mass-harvesting for profit? – the conclusion of their letter reveals a more fundamental philosophical disagreement:

The notion that the “first peoples” have an unbroken connection or claim to the land reduces the last five centuries of history to a footnote. … The parks belong to all – aboriginal and new residents equally … Appalachian mountain folk, high country ranchers, loggers of Redwoods also have such historical ties. How can we accommodate traditional ties and preserve the integrity of our national parks?

Of course, equating Native Americans' land claims to loggers' ignores another big chunk of history – one NPS Director Jon Jarvis doesn't seem willing to sweep under the rug. He's called the agency’s restrictions on Indian harvesting “wrong,” and vowed to repeal them. “It became a mission of mine to fix this,” he told Cherokee officials during a meeting in July. “Now that I’m director, I’m in a position to fix it.”

And so Thoreau lives on.

Adam Petry is an HCN intern.

I side with PEER
Socratic Gadfly
Socratic Gadfly
Sep 02, 2010 12:07 AM
Most Native Americans, outside of perhaps Alaska Natives, even in the Southwest, have lost most their skills. (As David Roberts notes in one book of his, Puebloans have lost their ancestors' pre-Columbian pottery firing techniques, for example.) Besides that, surely, the same plants exist on BLM on National Forest land adjacent to or in the near vicinity of just about every western national park. And, per the link on Jarvis' comments, the same is true of larger eastern national parks as well.
Land ethics
Sep 02, 2010 01:43 PM
I recently read a book about the Tohono O-odham lore related to native plants and animals in Arizona. They have some pretty far out lore (like the plume feather on a quail's head gives you an eye infection) but they also have a lot of other notions that seem very credible. Like tea from creosote bushes to calm you (the leaves evoke the smell of rain on the desert and the tea may lower blood pressure). And there seems to be an intrinsic respect for nature - a native land ethic you could call it. I like the tradition of turning an the cup of an emptied saguaro fruit upward and leaving it at the base of the saguaro, like a grace note and a prayer for rain. Seems to me we should look for ways to preserve this kind of connectedness.
PEER is off track
Sep 02, 2010 05:50 PM
First, I find it incredibly offensive that PEER is reducing Indian religious practices to a place where they are equal to the "traditions" of ranchers and loggers, as if practicing one's indigenous religion is a mere vocation. Never mind that PEER completely ignores the fact that these people's "traditions" are made off the land from which tribes were forcibly and violently removed. Further, ranchers and loggers (and many others) destroyed many of the traditional gathering or hunting sites that Indian people used for tens of thousands of years before white people needed some place for their cattle to graze.

The passage you've quoted is telling. First, how does PEER know what religions used to be and what they are now? Is there some sort of standard that tribes should use to determine if their religions are legitimate? Should they call PEER to make sure it fits their romantic idea of what tribal religions are? Second, it's clear that PEER believes legitimate religions are only those that go unchanged over time and use their tenets in the exact same way they did hundreds of years ago. Are the Catholics no longer Catholics after Vatican II? What about when the Mormons decided to abandon polygamy? Shouldn't they be the exact same they were when they started? If not, shouldn't we just do away with their rights? If that sounds crazy, why are Indian religions different?

The National Parks and other protected lands are some of the last places that tribes can find the natural items they need to practice their religions, or to get them to help preserve their religions or find new ways to use what they know is culturally important. Tribes were forced onto reservations that were intentionally removed from the places they find sacred - it should be no surprise that these same areas are the same places we find to be so impressive that we protect them as well. PEER is attempting to cut tribes off from some of the last resources they have to protect, preserve, and practice their religions. It's sad that employees of the government that in the last 40 years has promised to uphold and protect the rights of the Native Americans are instead acting like the employees of a government from 150 years ago.