By Lauren Stepp
Mountain laurel is an icon of the southern highlands. It crowds sunless forest floors, splashes hillsides with blushing blooms and, allegedly, swallows grown men in one verdant gulp. Laurel thickets—also called hells—even garnered a mention in Horace Kephart’s 1913 travelogue Our Southern Highlanders. Despite this fame, the evergreen is relatively impractical, especially when compared to rivercane—what some historians call the “plastic of southeastern Native Americans.”
A species of bamboo endemic to the US, Arundinaria gigantea has long been used by tribes to make creel fish traps, sleeping and eating mats, blowguns, knives, spears and, most notably, baskets. Fragments of rivercane baskets found in southern Appalachia date back to the 1400s, though some believe the practice predates 600 A.D.
“Rivercane was the original basketry material of choice for many southeastern tribes,” says Pam Meister, director of Western Carolina University’s (WCU’s) Mountain Heritage Center (MHC). “The Cherokee were particularly well-known for their exquisite double-weave rivercane baskets.”
On Monday, March 22, MHC will unveil an online tour of their newest exhibit, Rivercane Renaissance. The exhibit explores the flora’s rich history and, with that, the consequences of its mass eradication.
Before Europeans carved logging roads in mountainsides and cleared riparian bottomlands for farming, rivercane grew wild and abundantly. When naturalist William Bartram passed through the southern highlands in 1791, he came across “perhaps the most extensive Canebreak that is to be seen on the face of the whole earth.” In fertile soil along the French Broad River, the plant grew for miles uninterrupted, reaching heights of 30 feet. Some canebreaks, or large colonies of rivercane, occupied hundreds of acres.
For Native Americans and early pioneers, the presence of rivercane signaled ecological vitality. As Adam Griffith, director of the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources (RTCAR) initiative, explains, the bamboo species works to support a healthy ecosystem by acting as a buffer between farmland and bodies of water, filtering out excess nutrients like phosphates and nitrates. Its burly system of rhizomes, or underground stems, also stabilizes riverbanks, abating erosion. But more saliently, rivercane supports life, providing habitat for animals both large and small.
“Standing in a rivercane break is an immersive experience,” says Griffith, a project adviser for the Rivercane Renaissance exhibit. “There is less light and sound; you become increasingly aware of nature.”
In 2005, while pursuing his graduate degree in biology at WCU, Griffith began mapping and analyzing soil where rivercane grows. Now, as director of RTCAR, he works to preserve the heritage of traditional Cherokee resources like rivercane, white oak and clay, all of which are used on the Qualla Boundary to create traditional crafts.
Collaborating with area nonprofits like Mainspring Conservation Trust and Conserving Carolina, RTCAR prioritizes the restoration of canebreaks on public land, leveraging a memorandum of understanding so that Cherokee artisans can later harvest the shoots. In that way, ecological preservation and cultural preservation go hand in hand.
“It is critical to support native people and their rights,” says Griffith. “Though celebrating Native American heritage may call to mind a dark part of American history, their craft demands respect.”