By Rachel Carr, Diocesan Missioner for Communications
A patch of special native grass along the bank of the West Fork of the Pigeon River signals a growing partnership with Cherokee artisans and hope for greater ecological diversity at Lake Logan.
With help from the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources, West Wilson College, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, Haywood Waterways Association and a spark from a local parish, Lake Logan brought the rivercane in with hopes to provide artisan materials to Cherokee neighbors and ecological security for the stream bank.
Rivercane (ih-ya in Cherokee) is one of three varieties of bamboo native to the United States, and along with its boon to the environment comes a cultural significance for the Cherokee people.
The tough grass is woven together by indigenous artisans still today, as has been done for
centuries, to make baskets and mats, although many are now smaller than they once were because of the declining availability of the resource. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other indigenous peoples traditionally used cane for weapons, fishing, weaving, and building for hundreds of years.
“It’s one of the most durable resources for indigenous folk in this area. Other resources like white oak just don’t last as long when things are made with them,” said Jessi LeFiles, director of Camp Henry at Lake Logan.
The once-vital resource was severely diminished by European settlers cutting it down to make way for agricultural advancement. Now, only about 2% of the historic range remains.
“All of the land that was Cherokee land here at one point was taken to give to folks who had done honorable things like fight in the Revolutionary War, and they would cut the cane down to grow other things on the land. So now there’s just not much rivercane left, definitely not very many big stands of it like there once were,” LeFiles said.
A mature stand of rivercane is called a canebrake, which becomes shelter for wildlife and a strengthener for the banks of streams and rivers.
“It’s great for retaining sediments. Rivercane doesn’t grow into the river; it grows on areas just alongside the river. Once it’s in place it pretty much holds the ground steady,” LeFiles said.
Though it’s now rare, rivercane grows easily. As a grass in the bamboo family, rivercane will grow in thick patches, reaching more than 20 feet tall with a one-inch diameter stalk at maturity.
Adam Griffith with the N.C. Cooperative Extension helped Lake Logan with the rivercane project by acquiring rivercane from West Wilson College.
“He knew of a few places that grew rivercane and when he started going to purchase it, he found that none of them were actually growing the southeastern variety of rivercane. Some of them were other big grass varieties, some of them were straight up bamboo, but he worked with an environmental science professor to teach his class about rivercane,” LeFiles said.
The class helped LeFiles, Griffith, and a handful of others transplant the rivercane from the ag fields at the school to the bank of Big Creek.
It will take about ten years for the rivercane to be mature enough for Cherokee artisans to harvest it for weaving material.
“It gives us a generational connection to our neighbors in the Qualla Boundry. This was originally Cherokee land and the least we feel we could do is come kind of returning of that,” LeFiles said.