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Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance


Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance by Clint Carroll. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press; 2015. Paperback, 251 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8166-9090-9. $25.00.

Clint Carroll’s goals for Roots of Our Renewal are threefold. The book tells the story of how the Cherokee in Oklahoma have developed material, spiritual, and political relationships with their new lands; it examines resource-based versus relationship-based approaches to indigenous governance; and it discusses the interaction between Native American studies and political ecology. Challenging goals at that level of complexity do not make for light reading. However, as Circe Sturm, the book’s reviewer writes: “This book is perfect for the classroom and for anyone interested in political ecology as it relates to indigenous struggles for self-determination.”

The book contains five chapters. The “Notes” section, which is at the end of the book before the comprehensive bibliography and index, includes explanations and comments for each chapter. The book begins with a “Note to the Reader” and a preface that gives readers a context to Roots of Our Renewal. This book is an expansion of Carroll’s doctoral studies, and it reflects both his commitment to the development of a strong Cherokee Nation and the policies, practices, and structures that ensure accountability for that community.

In the introduction, Carroll introduces the Cherokee elders who play a major role throughout his book. He worked with this group while conducting ethnobotanical research for the Cherokee Nation Natural Resources Department from 2004 to 2013. The goals of his research and the premise of this book are discussed in this section, which also provides helpful definitions and an introduction to the Cherokee, indigenous concerns, and ecological and governance theories and practices. The rest of the book weaves these themes together and combines history, theory, and research.

A member of the Cherokee Nation himself, Carroll provides a broad overview of Cherokee pre-colonial history in Chapter 1. This chapter also sets out a number of important myths, discusses the pressures created by settler-colonial forces, and describes the impact of removal on his nation. Particularly insightful and moving is his account of the Cherokee Trail of Tears, a dark chapter in American history but, sadly, not a unique colonial treatment of indigenous peoples.

An important theme of the book, introduced in Chapter 2, is the dissolution over time of the original structure of the Cherokee Nation. Once a community of independent towns linked by trade and culture, surrounded by tilled fields and healthy fishing, hunting, and gathering territories, the Cherokee Nation was broken and reassembled by outside forces into smaller landscapes in a few generations.

In Chapter 3, Carroll documents the devastating impact on the Cherokee community of loss of their current homeland through land grabs and environmental degradation, and of restrictions on fishing, hunting, and gathering due to federal and state policies on allotments, fencing, fire suppression, tourism, and water management. Under the pressure of these challenges, the Cherokee Nation developed a governance structure that is uniquely their own, a rejection of federal and state jurisdictions, and a powerful reassertion of political autonomy.

The collection, recording, and application of traditional knowledge, and its sharing within the community and with the outside world, raises a wide range of ethical and cultural dilemmas. In Chapter 4, Carroll describes his experience conducting research in his own community, and how he developed relationships so that he could gather and document the knowledge he sought. From the outset, the elders and the Cherokee community were aware of the need for cultural revitalization, but they were also mindful of cultural appropriation, ownership of knowledge or intellectual property, and the safety of knowledge transmission. These issues are of critical interest to researchers in any field seeking to consult with indigenous communities, and Carroll’s observations are both insightful and useful.

Carroll’s final chapter, aptly titled “The Spirit of the Land: Terrains of Cherokee Governance,” examines the link between the Cherokee view of and relationship to the land, the concept and structures of environmental governance, and the relationships between the tribal bureaucracy and the people, specifically the rural community members. The elders believe that maintaining and sustaining their knowledge and practices honors the spirit of the land; that vision can find itself at odds with “modern” governance structures, Western science, and contemporary legislation and regulation. Carroll deftly uses the elders group and the dilemma of “gathering” rights and regulations to explain and argue for open communication and building trust as key elements of effective, appropriate, and sustainable environmental governance.

In his conclusion, Carroll summarizes and reaffirms his argument for self-determination based on a relationship approach to governance, citing the writings and insights of many noteworthy American and Canadian indigenous authors on community development and self-government. At the time of this book’s publication, Cherokee resource management was still driven by an economic, resource-based approach. Nevertheless, Carroll is optimistic about the elders group’s continued influence on tribal decision-making, and the eventual adoption of a more community-focused model.

Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance may not be an easy read for those unfamiliar with the fundamentals of ecology or indigenous studies. However, Carroll’s personal experiences during his nine-year research effort and the stories of the development of the elders group make this book more appealing than other reference books. Carroll argues persuasively for a relationship-based approach to indigenous environmental governance, and this thorough review of the 300-year Cherokee governance process is a compelling and worthwhile addition to an important and timely discussion. I recommend this book to anyone interested in sustaining traditional knowledge and practices.

—Valerie Assinewe, PhD
NVision Insight Group Inc.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada