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  • The Case of the Wild Onions:The Impact of Ramps on Cherokee Rights
  • Courtney Lewis (bio)

"[T]he Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and Cherokees have been harvesting ramps in this area for over 10,000 years. You're going to hear testimony, your honor, about this particular land—this land where the park is presently located where these incidents occurred—which was part of the traditional Cherokee homeland . . . And you're going to hear about the ramps [and] the traditional method that [the Cherokee] use to harvest these particular plants . . . So, your honor, I believe that when we're through, I'll be able to make to you the legal argument that the Cherokee have an easement that allows them to take [ramps] and that they have not just a legal right, but a moral right to do so as one of their inherent cultural rights as native Cherokee people."

—Excerpt from defense attorney James Kilbourne's opening statement in U.S. v. Burgess, November 23, 20091

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One might have imagined that this trial was for drug trafficking or a violent crime, but it was about something that had much more profound implications: picking plants—specifically, wild onions, also known as "ramps." At the annual "Ramp It Up! Festival" in Cherokee, North Carolina, 2009, courtesy of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Travel & Promotion,

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We had been sitting on the hard wooden pews at the federal courthouse in Bryson City, North Carolina, for hours on November 23, 2009, the Monday before Thanksgiving. We stretched our legs during the small break we were given for lunch and made sure to leave enough time to get back through the security screening at the building so that we would not miss any of the case as it continued well into that afternoon. At least half of the courtroom was filled with American Indians, mostly from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (also known as the EBCI or "Eastern Band") of North Carolina, along with a few from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma (the "Western Band"). This was an unusual sight even for this town that borders the Qualla Boundary, the current homeland of the Eastern Band. Professors, elders, and even the Eastern Band chief attended both as witnesses and, like me, to offer moral support. Finally, the defendant, George Burgess, who is an Eastern Band citizen, was called to testify. The air in the room went from lighthearted post-lunch chatting to dour and intense. Judging from the sudden solemnity, one might have imagined that this trial was for drug trafficking or a violent crime. But it was about something that had much more profound implications: picking plants—specifically, wild onions.

Burgess and three other men had been charged with illegally harvesting ramps in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) of North Carolina earlier that year. Although this may seem like a trivial charge, this case would transcend its modest beginnings to become a story about mislabeled national boundaries and the rights of indigenous peoples to continue to practice traditions that are millennia old. This case was a touchstone for the continuation of Native Peoples' rights and the willingness of the federal government to acknowledge those rights. As a Cherokee Nation citizen, I watched the proceedings with intense interest and crossed fingers.

The Case

"[M]ost importantly, you're going to hear that the Cherokee take these particular ramps from this particular place and will do so over the course of generations."

—Kilbourne, opening statement

This story, of course, has its beginnings far before the trial started that day. For seventy of the seventy-five years since the park's opening in 1934, the National Park Service (NPS) had quietly consented to Eastern Band citizens harvesting ramps once per year in the early days of spring, occasionally digging through the snow to do so. The establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was both welcomed and contested in its time, and these new governmental stewards of the [End Page 105] Park have recognized the deep attachment displaced Appalachian communities have to this land. The Qualla...