Two rangers look out from the mountains of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.


Smoky Signal

Big South Fork, Blue Ridge, Great Smoky Mountains, Obed

Smoky Signal is a show about the science behind Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In season one, we explore three stories on the theme of Collections. We learn about renewing traditional plant gathering practices in the park, a natural history museum with thousands of specimens, and even the collection of something pretty stinky (in the name of science, of course).

What can we learn about the Smokies—and ourselves—through these acts of collection?


Collections | Mysteries of the Museum


Antoine 00:00 The alcohol is slightly discolored as I peer into the glass jar that holds a mystery. Its reddish brown skin is full of wrinkles. Its eyes tell the stories of past ancestors and its fingers seem to reach out and touch us. Some call these creatures mud cats, Devil Dogs, snout otters, or the most well-known name, Hellbenders. No matter what you call them, this Hellbender specimen was collected by Park scientists over 90 years ago and falls in a long line of collected specimens in our natural history collections that are helping preserve and protect the park in the present and the future.

Alix 00:45 Wait a second. So you're telling me that the park has a Hellbender specimen dating back to the 1930s?

Antoine 00:52 Cue the scary music please (speaker clears throat). Yes, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, my friend.

Alix 01:02 Okay... and by tip you mean?

Antoine 01:04 Well, although intriguing this Hellbender is not the only specimen in the park's museum collections. There are 1000s of specimens and I mean, 1000s that have been collected since the park opened in the 1930s.

Alix 01:18 Wow. Well, I guess that makes sense. But, walk me through why it's so important to keep abundant or extinct specimens in our natural history collections. Or maybe an even better question is, why is it important to collect specimens at all?

Antoine 01:34 You know, that is a good question. And I think I have a couple of people in mind that can help us answer these questions. Welcome to Smoky Signal, a show about the science behind the Smokies, brought to you by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and produced in the depths of our natural and cultural museum collections.

Alix 01:54 This season, we'll be exploring three stories on the theme of collections. We'll be talking about renewing traditional plant gathering practices, a natural history museum that has collected 1000s of species, and even the collection of something pretty stinky in the name of science. I'm Antoine and I'm Alix stay with us.

Antoine 02:28 Although intriguing, this Hellbender is not the only specimen in the park's museum collections. Since the 1930s, researchers and scientists have dedicated countless hours throughout the depths of the park in the effort to understand the biodiversity of this living laboratory, leading our imaginations down to inquisitory, yet exploratory path to Smokies science from the Tennessee Madtom catfish that was thought to be extinct to the recovery plan of the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, the park has a myriad of specimens that continue to help us understand the past to protect the future. But why is it important to collect specimens in the first place? You know, Alix I think I have someone in mind that can help us jump start this adventure.

Baird Todd 03:16 My name is Baird Todd and I am the park curator. As the curator for the National Park Service, I am the custodial office.....(voice volume is lowered).

Antoine 03:24 Baird Todd defines himself as the custodial officer for the museum collections of the Smokies. His work is different from a curator, the formal art museum, where he would be known as an expert on a particular museum collection. But here's the kicker, Baird does not consider himself an expert. I know I know, you may be saying to yourself, that makes no sense. Well, let me let you in on a secret. It's kind of difficult to be an expert when you manage nearly 2 million objects.

Baird Todd 04:01 But what I do do is make sure that the collections are managed in accordance with federal law and NPS policy that they're preserved as well as can be with the conditions available and make them as accessible to the public as much as possible. And we interpret the public pretty broadly here. That could be researchers, it could be park staff, it could be the general public, all to make sure that the collections are available to that party in public for as long as possible because we do manage these collections, as we say in perpetuity.

Antoine 04:36 So Baird's work is definitely driven by policy and preservation. But what is the difference between natural and cultural collections?

Baird Todd 04:47 The cultural collections are the tangible evidence of human activity and the natural history collections of the tangible evidence of non human activity.

Antoine 04:57 And that to run the gamut between vascular or nonvascular plants, insects, microbiota, and even those famous Great Smoky Mountain bears people come to see each year, the park has been able to have a diverse collection of specimens due to the research efforts dating back to the 1930s. But even the park the size of the Smokies can be limited on space. So where does all these specimens go? If they are not kept in the park for research?

Baird Todd 05:28 We have collections scattered across the country, what you see now is a much more sort of controlled and prioritized decision making about where those collections wind up, we may get one, we may send one off to the University of Tennessee, we may send another one off to a University in Chicago. And that way, specimens collected the same time as that original documented specimen can be scattered across the country, made more available for researchers. And the evidence of that original documentation can be preserved. If something happens to the collection of the Smithsonian, or my specimen here, they're still one in Knoxville, they're still one in Chicago. A lot of the collections go back to the universities where the researcher originally was. So we have a huge amount of material at the University of Tennessee in particular at the TENN herbarium. We're close by they've been doing research here for decades. We have a large number of collections at the New York Botanical Garden.

Antoine 06:33 So think of it this way. Rather you're in New York City to see a Broadway play, or you're in Chicago catching, a famous Cubs game, Smokies science is always around you. So, natural history collections in the park are not just for show. They are a vital collection of learning. Helping park rangers, scientists, and researchers keep updated data on factors such as species distribution and abundance throughout the park. But who started this important in-depth work? So my next question leads me to no one other than Park archivists, Mike Aday, he's going to be a tour guide to the Collections Preservation Center, located in Townsend, Tennessee, a facility that hosts a wealth of knowledge for the park.

Mike Aday 07:30 I am the parks librarian and archivist. I'm basically like the the memory for the park. As the librarian, I manage the library locations for the park. There's one at the collections preservation center in Townsend. There's one for Ranger and volunteer use and Oconaluftee and there's also one at Cades Cove. I also manage the parks collection of historic documents, all of the maps, plans, drawings, historic photographs, all of the oral history collections. Basically it's all of the historic records that the park has generated and collected over the years

Antoine 08:11 After introductions Mike takes me into the archives. There's hundreds of boxes, that are slightly lit by fluorescent lighting. But it's not the number of boxes that are important here. It's the stories within them and that really has thinking. So Mike, what are we looking for?

Mike Aday 08:34 Well, I wanted to show you the collection from Arthur Stupka, who was the parks first naturalist he was hired in 1934 When the park was just being established, and he was the parks naturalist until his retirement in the 1960s. And he was just he was a fascinating individual and I just wanted to share with you some of the collection items that we have from him.

Antoine 08:59 According to Mike, if we could stroll down memory mountain, we may discover that today's collections started with good old fashioned collecting, going out in the twilight of the spruce fir forests, the corners of Cades Cove or the Firefly fury of Elkmont and retrieving anything that will be helpful to understanding the biodiversity of the park. And a person that we would stroll alongside would have been no one other than Arthur Stupka. Like many park rangers, Arthur spent the beginning of his career working in exploring in parks such as Yosemite and Acadia, but it's mostly known for his work in the Smokies as the first naturalist of the park. According to the Webster Dictionary, a naturalist is an expert or student of Natural History. Well Arthur excelled it being a naturalist, do to his astute love for being a student of nature, which ultimately turned him into an expert of the park.

Arthur Stupka 10:07 For one thing, I was always a journal keeper from the time I was, in my early teens, I kept an nature journal when birds arrived, and when flowers bloomed and things of that sort, I kept that up right through my park service career, at least up to about 10 years before I retired, so that for all the years I was in Acadia, plus the first 15 or 16 years I was here, I kept up a nature journal in which these things were notified. In other words, I always had an altimeter with me in my knapsack, and if things were blooming at a certain date, a certain elevation why I would record it. And over the years, at the end of the year would index it.

Antoine 11:03 in the early 1930s, Arthur imagined what could he discover if he explored the back country of the park. Little did he know, he would have a group of civilian conservation corps members that will help him gain access to a treasure trove of new species.

Arthur Stupka 11:21 And the CCC means the park much more available not only to the ordinary visitor, but to the scientists, because you cannot get off the trails very well. Unless you're risking being lost.

Antoine 11:38 And this access to the back country play it to a trail of legacy.

Arthur Stupka 11:43 As I say, I was honored by having eight critters named for me. Six were insects. One was a sub glider. And one was a mite which is related to spiders. People who had found them came to the Smokies and collected that group of animals. And among those that they found that were new and had never been described before. Some of them honored me by putting my name on them.

Antoine 12:28 Deep in a southern part of Appalachia, the weather is cool and sunny with a slight breeze that moves across the native goldenrod. It's fall, but not just any fall. It's fallen the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, one of 17 research learning centers that is helping science become possible by supporting researchers who study our national parks at 4900 feet of elevation. I meet Paul Super.

Paul Super 12:58 My name is Paul Super. I'm the Research Coordinator for the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center and for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Anyone who wants to conduct research in the park on biological or geological processes needs to apply for a research permit.

Antoine 13:19 As much as we enjoy having researchers help us learn more about the park, there's always a process before they start to canvass the mountains for new information. This is where the permitting process comes into play. For instance, if you are interested in collecting specimens within park boundaries, you will consult with Paul and then Paul will consult with a curator to ensure that we can take care of the specimens that you collected. Also, it is important that Paul reviews the applications with our subject matter experts.

Paul Super 13:52 And then most permit applications we find a way to, to permit the work to go forward because we learn a whole lot from research even if it may not be research that we started off thinking was going to be useful, it may end up being very useful in the long term.

Antoine 14:12 So can you explain how current researchers are helping us learn about the parks present and future, especially when it comes to you know new species in the park?

Paul Super 14:26 Well, right now we still have a number of researchers working in the park who are helping us with biological diversity inventory. We have a researcher staying in our field station right now who's studying lichen diversity, and has discovered all sorts of previously undescribed species of likened in the park is also giving us an idea of distribution through the park and what species might be rare. What's species might be suffering from decline and air quality or other sorts of stressors. So all of that's very useful for protecting the whole park. The the ecosystem out there is not just the bears and the salamanders and the elk. But also, a lot of these little things help keep the environment of the Smokies beautiful and healthy.

Antoine 15:27 So what about, we've heard stories about, you know, new species such as the Smoky Mad Tom, can you tell us a little bit about, you know, discovery of that species and you know, where it was discovered and how that really changed? You know, I wouldn't say changed, but it definitely is important to the research of the park.

Paul Super 15:51 Certainly, the Park Service has a mission to protect the natural resources and the wildlife they're in and to provide for the general public to enjoy these resources as long as they do not damage them do not impair them. Sometimes in the past, we have had one part of that be more important than another. A long time ago, the park had this idea that we would create a world class trout fishery rainbow trout fishery in lower Abrams Creek. And to do that we would remove all the non sport fish, the trash fish, and then be a great place for the introduced rainbow trout. Well, the Park went through with this and killed off poisoned out the fish below Abrams Falls. And thankfully for us, some folks from the University of Tennessee, were looking through the dead fish that washed along the shore and found these little catfish that turned out to be a previously undescribed species the Smoky Mad Tom. And, you know, we were in a position where we might have indeed been the cause of the extinction of a species that was under our care. Thankfully, there was one other stream outside the park that was found to have the same species of catfish and we've been able to work with people who know how to breed fish in captivity. And they've helped us to reintroduce the Smokey Mad Tom back to Abrams Creek and the populations recovering but if we had not had somebody looking through what washed up, we wouldn't have known that we had come so close to causing the extinction of a species.

Antoine 18:06 So this is one incredible instance of identifying an important species that was not discovered in the park before that this instance ignite a conscious effort with the park and community to start a program dedicated to find any species.

Paul Super 18:23 Oh it certainly contributed. The park is now over 20 years into a program called the all taxa biodiversity inventory. And basically what this is, is an effort to figure out what we have in the park if you are running a store a business you want to know what supplies you have, what stock you have in the back in the warehouse. So we're trying to protect this national park and we can't protect what we don't know is there. It's the all taxa biodiversity inventory is an effort to document all of the plants and the animals and not just the the fish and mammals and birds but all kinds of things that most people have never even heard of tardigrades which are water bears these wonderful eight legged things that are living on moss or, or slime molds or gastrotrichs or all kinds of things that you know you really ought to look these up and figure out what they are because they've got great stories. But we have more than doubled the number of species that are known to be in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in these 20 years plus. And we have found over 1000 species that scientists did not realize were there. And some of them have been named after all sorts of people, senator from Tennessee, Dolly Parton. A lot of them are named after the Smokies in one way or another. And some of these new species are named using Cherokee language, since they're from the hills that are important for the Cherokee.

Antoine 20:24 So I have to agree with Paul. Not only does research permits help us collect important information about water bears, Smokey Man Toms, or even species that have cultural ties and native peoples. They also help us collect stories, stories that will inspire our next-gen scientists. Reflecting on my conversations where Paul really has me thinking, or really has me thinking about a particular question. How does the constant collecting of specimens help us manage the park? Or simply put, so what? Why do we do this? I think I know two people that can help us with this question.

Becky Nichols 21:10 My name is Becky Nichols. I'm an entomologist in the park. And I've worked here for 24 years, and work primarily on aquatic insect monitoring, and biodiversity studies.

Janie Bitner 21:22 My name is Janie Bitner, and I am a curatorial assistant here at the park in the Natural History Collection.

Antoine 21:29 Alright, so Becky, we've been learning about the importance of the park's natural history collections. But how does collecting specimens help us manage the park? Or simply put, so what?

Becky Nichols 21:44 The Natural History Collection documents are biodiversity so that we can utilize it for various research topics and learn more about species distributions, how environmental factors might impact their distributions. Various types of research questions that we can answer by looking at the data associated with specimens that we have in the collection.

Antoine 22:13 Now, the thing is, you talked about data a little bit. And so you know, my question for you is, you know, can we utilize the data from collecting specimens to help us with preservation or recovery of a certain species?

Becky Nichols 22:31 Well, I think a great example of that would be the newly federally endangered. Rusty Patch Bumblebee...

Antoine 22:39 Rusty Patch Bumblebee. I've never heard of it.

Becky Nichols 22:43 Bombus affinis is its scientific name. And it was just listed in 2017. And the data that we have from the park, it used to be very common in the park from low elevation to high elevation in various types of habitat. And we don't find it anymore. It the last specimens we have is from 2001.

Antoine 23:08 Right. So all of a sudden, this is like the whodunit mystery of the century. Like what happened to the Rusty Patch Bumblebee, right, like what's going on? So how can we figure this out? Right,

Becky Nichols 23:19 Well, it's declined throughout its range, it used to range throughout the Eastern US. And it is only in just a few locations now. Probably numerous factors are involved with its decline, including climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use outside of the park, of course. And, and various other factors could be contributing to his decline. But we still go out and search for it. Hopefully, we'll find a little population tucked away somewhere. But we utilize the data that we have from specimens in the collection, to figure out where to target our efforts to look for it. So we know where specimens from 1939 were collected, and we can go back to that spot and see if potentially, there's still habitat there that it would likely be in.

Antoine 24:13 So you know, you get this coalition together to look for the rest of the Rusty Patch Bumble Bee, you know, in Becky's mind or because of the data. Where do you go? Where do you start? What elevation? You know, tell us a little bit about that.

Becky Nichols 24:29 Well, for example, the summer we had a collecting expedition, I shouldn't say collecting because we're not going to collect it if we find it. But we did go out to Andrews Bald, high elevation site where once used to be common. We went out there deliberately when lots of things were blooming so that bumblebees would be more likely to be found. And so we had about six people up there with nets looking around at all the blooming azaleas. And unfortunately didn't find it. But we did find five other species of bumble bees. So that was a good, a good find for that day.

Antoine 25:07 And of course, this is where Becky's sidekick Janie comes into the story. While Becky's story led us down the wonderful world of pollinators in their recovery. Janie's story leads us to the soil where the lifecycle and recovery of ginseng is under a microscope.

Janie Bitner 25:26 I fell in love with ginseng when I first discovered that it needed a great deal of protection here in the Smokies. It's a slow grower. It mainly propagates by dropping berries which the plant doesn't put on typically, until it's four years old. Wow. And at the rate it's being harvested, and the rate of survival. When we do get it back in the ground. If it has been poached. There's a 50% survival rate. It's a beautiful plant. When you come up on mature ginseng which can grow and age to be 50 plus years. It's a beautiful thing.

Antoine 26:14 Earlier in the episode, I asked a simple question. So what why do we do this? And I believe I have my answer. Imagine what we would lose if we did not have museum collections. We would lose the voices of past naturalists, cultures with history ingrained in old growth forests. And one should never leave out the wonderous variety of life that has been discovered and yet to be discovered I'm Antoine and this is Smoky Signal.

From hellbenders to Smoky madtoms to rusty patched bumble bees, Antoine explores the natural history collections of the Smokies. Where do these collections come from? What can we learn from them? And how can studying decades-old specimens inform how we manage the park?

Featuring: Baird Todd, Mike Aday, Arthur Stupka (archival), Paul Super, Becky Nichols, and Janie Bitner.

For more information, visit

Collections | Gathering Sochan



Alix: It’s springtime here in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I’m walking down a wide, flat river trail. The river is to my left, and it’s clear and calm. I’ve only walked a few minutes before I find what I’m looking for: it’s in a flat, sunny patch of woods between me and the river: a tightly packed cluster of light green leaves.

I kneel down to be sure, to examine the shape of one of the soft leaves. I find the tell-tale ‘turkey foot’ or three lobed leaf that confirms my ID. When I look back up, I realize I’ve found an entire patch of it: sochan, or green-headed coneflower.

I close my eyes, and picture spending the morning here, hand-picking enough young leaves to boil and cook up in a cast iron skillet seasoned with bacon, the way many greens are cooked traditionally in this region. I imagine the nourishing taste of the warm, earthy greens. I picture how the ancestral knowledge of how to find, harvest, prepare and cook sochan has been passed down for generations through oral tradition.

Today, we’re going to be digging into a story about the relationship between people, land, and this particular plant called sochan—and how that relationship has been sustained for millennia.


Antoine: Right, because Great Smoky Mountains National Park has only been around since 1934, but this area has long been, and remains, the traditional homelands of the Indigenous Cherokee people.

Alix: That’s right. The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is one of over 600 federally and state recognized tribes throughout the US. Citizens of the tribe are descendants of a small group of Cherokee individuals who remained here, despite forced removal by the US government during the 1830s-era Trail of Tears. The Cherokees’ ancestral homelands span eight states in the southeastern US, including what we now call Great Smoky Mountains National Park. For millennia, Cherokee people have hunted, fished, gathered, and stewarded the land here. Their knowledge and connections to the land run deep.

Antoine: Today, members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians reside in the Qualla Boundary—a tribal land trust in and around Cherokee, North Carolina. The Qualla Boundary borders the park to the southeast.

Alix: In today’s episode, we’re exploring how some Cherokee people are staying connected to their homelands in the Smokies—with the help of sochan. Whether you’re listening here in the park or from home, we hope this story about peoples’ connection to this land—past and present—can help you better appreciate and understand that land—wherever you are.

Welcome to Smoky Signal, a show about the science behind the Smokies. Brought to you by Great Smoky Mountains National Park and produced on the traditional lands of the Cherokee.

Antoine: This season, we’ll be exploring three stories on the theme of Collections. We’ll be talking about renewing traditional plant gathering practices, a natural history museum that has collected thousands of species, and, even the collection of something pretty stinky in the name of science.

Alix: I’m Alix.

Antoine: I’m Antoine. Stay with us.


Alix: One crisp day last fall, Tommy Cabe drove up and over Newfound Gap Road to meet me at Twin Creeks Science Center. Tommy is a Forest Resource Specialist for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians and a citizen of the tribe.

I was there to learn more about sochan, a plant Tommy has thought a lot about lately. A member of the sunflower family, sochan is a tall, yellow-flowered herbaceous plant that grows throughout the park in sunny, wet areas and along stream banks.

Tommy: [speaking Cherokee]--Tommy Cabe--[speaking Cherokee]. I said, 'Hello, my name is Tommy Cabe, and I am from Birdtown community.

Tommy: The first time I was taken to the sochan patch, I was probably about anywhere from five to seven years old.

And so would go down below my grandmother's house along the creek bank. And at that time of the year, sochan starts to come out in these little clusters. That's when my family would like to pick it the most.

Alix: Tommy spent those early spring mornings gathering the young, tender leaves of sochan by the creek with his extended family -- aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents. He remembers peering over the creek’s edge, watching schools of little red and blue fish swim by, and peeking between river rocks and cobbles for Yunwi Tsunsdi—the ‘little people’ he’d heard about in Cherokee legends.

Tommy describes this time of year—with winter coming to an end and the earth waking up—as ‘magical’. For him, collecting, cooking and eating sochan—that first spring green—was a treat; something to re-awaken the mind and body.

Today, Tommy still collects sochan each spring. But now, he brings his own children with him.

He teaches them how to pick the last three lobes of each leaf—the ‘turkeyfoot’—off young sochan shoots and demonstrates how to say a prayer thanking the Creator, his ancestors, and the plant, before picking the first leaf. He also reminds his kids to never harvest from the first sochan plant they find, because, he says, “you never know what kind of day it’s going to be.”

Tommy: Yeah, it's important because it's generational knowledge, right. And, of course, I want to continue the cycle of passing that knowledge on whether, you know, my kids actually pick it up and run with it, or they don't. But every time I go out, they do get curious and want to tag along. And so, I try to teach them as best I can, in this world of screens and technology to where it makes sense. And it's important for them to know that they're Cherokee, that they're a part of this ecosystem for millennia. And that, what they do, and what they learn—how they apply what they learn—matters to us as having this relationship with the ecosystem, and these mountains. Page Break

Alix: Great Smoky Mountains National Park allows limited collection of nuts, berries, and certain mushrooms for personal consumption. But until recently, federal law has prohibited Cherokee people from collecting sochan and many other culturally significant plants within the boundaries of the park.

In 2016, new National Park Service regulations established a framework for federally recognized tribes to gather certain plants or plant parts within national park units for food, ceremonial, medicinal, and cultural purposes. This rule paved the way for Indigenous people to renew cultural practices and connections to their homelands.

At the time, Tommy was several years into a collaboration with the US Forest Service and the North Carolina Arboretum to study the sustainability of sochan harvest in the region. Data available from these studies, combined with sochan’s cultural significance, meant it was the logical plant to focus on first.

In 2019, after an Environmental Assessment, public comment period, and Finding of No Significant Impact, tribal and park leaders entered into a historic agreement enabling Cherokee people to once again gather sochan in the park.


Alix: Joshua Albritton is a Biological Science Technician in the park and has been involved with the sochan gathering program from its beginnings. He told me about the permitting and monitoring processes outlined in the Environmental Assessment that aim to ensure the program is sustainable.

Joshua: So each season, there are 36 harvest permits issued. And in order to get one of those permits, first of all, the person has to be a member of the EBCI—the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And then, every season or every year from sometime between January and March, we hold several joint workshops between the EBCI leadership and us in the Smokies.

Alix: Each gatherer attends one of these workshops, where they learn about the program’s specific guidelines, which were informed by gatherers’ preferences in harvesting. Each year, harvest season runs from March first to May thirty-first, when sochan leaves are still new and tender. Using traditional hand-picking methods, gatherers can collect up to a bushel of sochan—enough to fill about two cloth grocery bags—each week.

Some Cherokee families traditionally collect just the ‘turkeyfoot’ (the final three lobes of a leaf) while others like to collect the entire leaf—and gatherers can collect whichever part they prefer. Because sochan gathering is traditionally a communal, family practice, each permitted gatherer can bring up to five additional gatherers with them each time they harvest.

The program has grown since it began in 2019—when only 10 of the 36 permits were filled. This past year, in 2021, all 36 were filled.

Joshua told me that, each time a gatherer comes to the park to collect sochan, they submit a harvest report to him. He uses these reports and additional monitoring to assess any impacts of sochan gathering through time.

Joshua: So in the springtime, we ask for the harvest reports. And I go out behind each report, I locate the spot where the person or group harvested...

What we're looking for is location, we're looking for, how much did you harvest? How many people came out with you? How long did you spend in the field, and are you going to come back to the same spot again?

Alix: Joshua returns to these areas again in late summer, to collect additional information when sochan is flowering.

I went out with him to one of these sites—a flat, open area near a flowing, rocky creek, to learn more about this phase of monitoring.

Joshua: So, back in the spring, in April, we got a couple of reports from this site from harvesters. So we know this site was harvested before this year, possibly the year before as well. We came out. Based on that report, we came out we check the site, we did see where they harvested, we checked a few of the plants then just to make sure that everything was it was within the specifications. And the usage permit it was, which is excellent. Now, we've come back out in the summer to look at: are there any changes to the community or to the sochan plants themselves, based on this kind of harvest history of this site?

Alix: Joshua lays out a sampling area using forestry tapes and square-meter PVC plots. Then he marks each plant with a stake flag, assesses how many stems it has, how tall they are, and how many of them are flowering. He'll return to this site in subsequent years to collect similar data and to see if anything is changing through time.

Joshua: Through time we're looking at, are there any possible stressors? And are they affecting the plants, in terms of, is the abundance going down? Is the average height going down? Are they not flowering as often? Or conversely, maybe harvesting has a positive effect. Maybe stem abundance is going up, maybe height is increasing slightly, maybe flowering is greater—maybe they're producing more flowers.

Alix: In addition to monitoring the areas where gatherers have been, Joshua also collects data from two other areas: ‘control’ sites and ‘research harvest’ sites. The control sites are so-called ‘off-limit’ areas, where no sochan gathering occurs. By comparing the harvested sites to these control sites, Joshua can tease apart any potential impacts of harvesting relative to other ‘normal’ variations in sochan growth or flowering through time.

Next to each control site, Joshua and Tommy also established a ‘research harvest’ site. Each spring, Tommy returns to these sites to harvest sochan following traditional methods. He ends up collecting a lot of sochan during the process and shares it with his Community Club, his mother, and with other families that can't gather sochan themselves.

Joshua: And so [Tommy] comes in and he harvests; we know exactly where he harvests and how much he harvests. Then we go in behind him and do all the monitoring. So we can, in these specific spots, we can actually look at, okay, this is how much he's harvested. And then in turn, we collect our summer data. And we can see, what are the impacts of those harvests? And we know that nobody else has been there.

Alix: After each season of monitoring, Joshua analyses the data to look at any potential impacts of harvesting—negative or positive.

Joshua: The latter example is what we're seeing in the numbers through time. Just a little bit at some of the harvest sites here in year three—we're seeing a slight increase in abundance, a slight increase in flowering. So harvesting may actually benefit these communities.

Alix: Joshua’s findings confirm what Cherokee sochan gatherers have long understood: just as grass grows back thicker after being mowed, harvesting sochan leaves seems to stimulate new growth. Cherokee gatherers understand that harvesting a sochan plant can help ensure that it will be healthy and lush when they return again next spring to harvest.

Joshua: What we’ve seen so far is, there have been no negative impacts from harvesting on plant communities thus far that we can see in the data that we've collected. So, at least from my perspective, we're really in good shape to continue with the program moving forward.


Alix: Tommy told me about an initiative in his community called Cherokee Choices that promotes culturally significant, healthy lifestyles. Part of that initiative is to bring traditional Cherokee foods to the forefront of modern meals.

Tommy: And, so thinking about what that plate looks like, you’ve got for instance, sochan and ramps. And you probably had the three sisters, which are corn, beans and squash. From the landscape, you probably had some type of fish or wild game, and you had mushrooms, right.

How you would prepare a Cherokee traditional meal would be 90% of it coming from the landscape, if not all of it.

Alix: Sochan leaves, which are rich in vitamin A and minerals like iron, calcium, and potassium, rival the nutritional potency of other so-called superfoods like kale and spinach. Tommy hopes that this gathering program will get sochan, and other healthy, wild-harvested foods, showing up more often on the plates of Cherokee people today.

Some gatherers have expressed frustration with Tommy over the program’s cumbersome permitting and reporting process. And he says he can relate to their frustration sometimes when he’s navigating government paperwork and policy. But he said that, overall, he’s heard mostly positive feedback.

Tommy: We're living in an age where we have access, and our relationship with these plants and this ecology is starting to matter. And what matters is that we we're still here, and we still live off this landscape. And this is a part of our landscape that we could get access to. We're moving in a direction of being Cherokee stewards for generations unborn.

Alix: Joshua also recognizes the role that this program, and the Smokies in general, can play as development continues to increase in many areas surrounding the park.

Joshua: This is a long-standing tradition that they've had... it was something they did well before the park was the park, as we know it today. But moving forward, there's been a lot of development in our area, and it's becoming harder and harder for them to do this as they once did. The park is this protected area where these folks can come in, and they can harvest sochan anywhere they really want to be, just like their ancestors did before...

...So it Yeah, it gives them the opportunity to do something that their grandparents did, you know, and and keep that tradition alive. And, you know, teach folks that are that are younger that maybe, that maybe didn't know about it before.


Alix: There’s a term you may have heard before: traditional ecological knowledge, or specifically, Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge.

It’s a broad term that describes a way of knowing based on observations, oral and written knowledge, practices, and beliefs acquired over hundreds or thousands of years by indigenous people through their direct interaction with the environment. This body of knowledge promotes sustainable relationships with, and stewardship of, the land and water around us.

Tommy: I think that, as these projects move forward, I think that you're going to see a lot of different types of engagement with our tribal members. And I'm hoping that we'll see more sharing of what traditional ecological knowledge means, not only to us, but what it can mean being applied to the landscape.

Alix: And there’s some indication that this is starting to happen. On November 15, 2021, President Biden released a memorandum committing the federal government to elevating Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge in our policy and scientific processes.

The memorandum explicitly recognizes the contributions of Indigenous knowledge to “scientific, technical, social, and economic advancements of the United States and to our collective understanding of the natural world.”

...Here in the Smokies, Cherokee gatherers have long understood what scientific studies are now confirming about sochan: harvest it thoughtfully and with respect for the land, and it will go on thriving for generations to come.

As I listen to Tommy—a direct descendant of the original stewards of this land—and Joshua—a current steward of the land—I realize we’re being given an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to re-imagine our own land management and science practices to draw on multiple ways of knowing. To inform how we manage the park through both scientific inquiry AND traditional ecological knowledge.

Embracing this opportunity won’t always be easy, and it certainly won’t always be straightforward. But, as I think Tommy and Joshua would both agree, it WILL be worthwhile.

Alix explores how citizens of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians are renewing connections to their traditional homelands in the park, with the help of a certain plant species.

Featuring: Tommy Cabe and Joshua Albritton.

For more info, visit: