Yancey County School Board member Norb McKinney talks with middle school students at the Cane River archaeological site along the river where river cane will be be planted for  Cherokee artisans to harvest. Photo courtesy of Yancey Common Times Journal.

This story and release originally appeared in the Yancey Common Times Journal and is published on Carolina Public Press through a content-sharing agreement with the newspaper.

When the ancestors of the Cherokee lived on the rich land bordering the Cane River in the eastern part of Yancey County, the riverbanks were lined with cane that these Native American inhabitants used for making baskets and other items necessary for daily living.

A project developed in partnership with the Cherokee, Blue Ridge Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) and Yancey County government will restore the river cane to benefit the county and the Cherokee people.

Blue Ridge RC&D, a local nonprofit, was recently awarded a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation to restore river cane along the county’s Cane River Park. The grants program is under the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR), an initiative of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“We are thrilled to work with the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and Yancey County government to restore river cane along the river bordering the park,” said Jonathan Hartsell, executive director of Blue Ridge RC&D.

“The Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources initiative is a grant-making program whose purpose is to assist the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians as the tribe works to restore the traditional Cherokee balance between maintaining and using natural resources like river cane, white oak and clay,” Hartsell explained.

Stand of river cane. Photo courtesy of Yancey Common Times Journal.
Stand of river cane. Photo courtesy of Yancey Common Times Journal.

The initiative was undertaken to teach, protect and promote Cherokee traditional art, resources and land care for present and future generations.

“Traditional tribal practices ensured that Cherokee people used natural resources with respect, but over the past century, development, agriculture and tourism in western North Carolina have taken a toll on the environment,” Hartsell said. “The imbalances that have caused modern-day shortages of natural resources have been especially apparent to Cherokee basket weavers, potters and carvers.”

The Cherokee Indians and their ancestors have a rich history in the southern Appalachians and in Yancey County. Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Cherokee had dwellings in Yancey County and used the area for agriculture and hunting. One of the larger and best-documented archaeological sites is located below the Cane River Middle School and was originally excavated in 1989.

This past year, Ashley Schubert, a graduate student from the University of Michigan, is continuing research at the dig site to find out more information regarding the early Cherokee village that was located there.

A less well known nearby site, Gardner Rock, contains Cherokee petroglyphs depicting numerous animal prints and designs and is being studied in conjunction with the Cane River village site.

“Excavations done around Gardener Rock yielded artifacts from 1,000 to 1,500 years ago, the same time period as the village site, and have gone a long way in interpreting the rock’s petroglyphs and associating it with the prospering people who lived in that area along the Cane River site,” said Scott Ashcraft, Pisgah National Forest archaeologist, who has been working with the project.

“The recent excavation ties to them directly,” he said. “The rock appears to have been integral in their ceremonial and religious systems.”

The importance of the two sites made the river cane restoration project an attractive link to Yancey County for the RTCAR in providing the grant.

River cane, Arundinaria gigantea, a native relative of bamboo, once was found ranging from Texas to New York. The Cherokee and other tribes used the cane for making baskets, blowguns, arrows, knives, mats, fish traps, flutes, pipes, furniture, and walls for houses. Canebrakes started to decline following European settlement as lands were cleared for agriculture, fire was suppressed, and Cherokee lands were lost.

“Today large canebrakes are far and few between, and the Cherokee artists rely on several small tracts to harvest materials for traditional crafts,” Hartsell said. “For this project we hope to establish a stand of native river cane that can be sustainably harvested by Cherokee artists.”

River cane is not only important as a resource for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians but is also an important streamside plant. River cane has a strong root system that anchors the soil and prevents erosion.

“Unfortunately, many of our stream and river banks are covered by the invasive Japanese Knotweed plant,” he explained. “Japanese Knotweed was introduced in the late 1800s from Asia and is now considered one of the worst invasive plants in the southeastern United States.”

Japanese Knotweed grows and reproduces very quickly and can out-compete many native Appalachian plants. Japanese Knotweed has a shallow root system compared to local plants and therefore doesn’t hold the soil as well.

“Large clumps of river cane often do not have many invasive species in them and the river cane may be effective at keeping out Japanese Knotweed and at the same time help save valuable bottom land soil,” Hartsell said.

Blue Ridge RC&D is hoping to successfully transplant native river cane to Cane River Park and help anchor the stream banks along the Cane River.

Once a stand of cane has been established, Cherokee artisans can sustainably harvest the cane for making traditional crafts.

“Educational signage will be developed for the project and we hope to expand our efforts throughout the county if successful,” said Hartsell.

Please feel free to contact BRRC&D if you would like to learn more about river cane, if you would like to help with the river cane plantings at the park in March, or if you are interested in establishing river cane on your property.

For more information contact Jonathan Hartsell at jhartsell@blueridgercd.org or call 828-284-9818.

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The Yancey Times Journal is a weekly newspaper in Burnsville with a circulation of 7,000 in Yancey and surrounding counties. The newspaper, in one form or another, has been serving the community since 1897. It an be found online at www.yanceytimesjournal.com (subscription required for most content).

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