The people who manage Indiana Dunes National Park value and protect the great diversity of plants within its borders.
Soon, small groups of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians – descendants of the area’s original occupants – may be allowed to pick a few plants from time to time in certain areas of the park for traditional or ceremonial purposes.
The National Park Service is accepting public comments on its draft Pokagon Band agreement through July 28.
A 2016 national policy established requirements to allow members of federally recognized Indian tribes to gather plants in national parks.
Dan Plath, head of resource management at Indiana Dunes National Park, said Indiana Dunes has been working on the policy with the Pokagon Band for about three years.
“We are very supportive of that,” he said. “We think this will hopefully improve their tradition and our park.”
Only a few members of the Pokagon Band at a time were picking plants, he said.
Jennifer Kanine is Director of the Department of Natural Resources for the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, based in Dowagiac, Michigan. She expects less than a dozen members of the Pokagon gang to take advantage of the opportunity to pick plants at Indiana Dunes each year.
Participants would need to obtain a permit from the Pokagon Band DNR, notify the national park, and then report to the Pokagon Band DNR what they collected, she said in an email.
“So it’s kind of a process that sort of deters anybody from just going out and congregating at INDU,” she said, using an abbreviation for Indiana Dunes National Park.
The proposed policy would allow members of the Pokagon Band to gather plants in four units of Indiana Dunes National Park: Miller Woods in Lake County; and the Bailly, Cowles, and West Beverly Shores units in Porter County.
Ordinarily, visitors to the national park are not allowed to collect plants from the park, which is notable for its great diversity of vegetation.
A hiker who notices berries growing near the trail can pick a few for a snack while walking, and beach walkers can pick up empty shells.
But picking mushrooms is not allowed in the national park, and the park prosecutes people who pick orchids, ginseng and other rare plants there.
Indiana Dunes National Park takes its protection mandate seriously.
“We’re in business forever here,” Plath said.
The national park and the Pokagon Band have worked together to protect and enhance the growth of wild rice in the park, which Plath says supports one of the largest wild rice populations south of the Great Lakes.
“It really is a great partnership,” he said. “We help them, and they help us.”
Kanine explained, “Mnomen (wild rice) is a native food source that many wildlife species take advantage of, and it is considered a keystone species when present in the ecosystem.
The park contains two species of mnomen, Kanine said.
She added: “Mnomen is linked to the history of migration and how some indigenous people decided where to live. …Native Americans use wild rice as a food source because it can be parched and stored for use during the winter when other wild food sources are not as plentiful.
Areas where humans once thrived, such as the Greater Kankakee Marsh, have been dredged and drained. Even in natural areas like the national park, Kanine said, men aren’t as abundant as they could have been because so much has been wiped out historically.
“We are always monitoring and researching mnomen within INDU, so we are always learning about INDU mnomen beds,” Kanine said.
“There have been good years and bad years for the deposits since we have been monitoring them,” she said, “but the mnomen deposits within INDU are gems and we hope to help the park continue to preserve the two species of mnomen throughout the park.”
For more information on the proposed policy for national parks, see http://parkplanning.nps.gov/INDUPlantGatherEA.
Tim Zorn is a freelance journalist for the Post-Tribune.