Seeds of Native Knowledge Grow in North Carolina

Countless generations of Cherokee Indians have cultivated lands in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains. More people want to learn from them.


Amy Walker, an elder with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, collecting wild mushrooms.



We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. Cherokee, N.C., is a town steeped in Native American history, and a draw for outsiders in search of connection.

By Jacey Fortin

Photographs by Mike Belleme

Oct. 21, 2023

There is a mushroom whose beige caps grow wild in the mountains of western North Carolina. When plucked, their broken stems well up with milky droplets.

To untrained eyes, the edible fungi can be tough to spot. But Amy Walker and Tyson Sampson have years of experience. One sunny fall afternoon, Ms. Walker spotted a few in the forest underbrush.

“We call them milkies,” she said. “Tyson can tell you the scientific stuff. That’s not important to me.”


These mushrooms, called slicks, are abundant in the mountains around the Qualla boundary.


Ms. Walker has years of experience finding both slicks and milkies in the forest underbrush.


A view from Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. A campaign is underway to change the mountain’s name to Kuwohi, which means “mulberry place” in the Cherokee language.

Ms. Walker, 82, and Mx. Sampson, 49, who uses “they” pronouns and identifies as a two-spirit person, are among about 16,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, many of whom call this mountainous corner of North Carolina home. And milkies, which are good breaded and fried, are one of the foods that they have learned to prepare in generous batches.

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