Watchers of the Watershed
TVA, Native Tribes Collaborate on River Stewardship
He held the bright green, slender river cane up to his eye and squinted at the sky.
The boy, a sixth-grader from the New Kituwah Academy in Cherokee, North Carolina, listened intently as Tennessee Valley Authority archaeologist and Tribal liaison Marianne Shuler explained how the plant is essential for creating healthy habitats.
“River cane help cleans the water,” Shuler said. “Its roots
stretch out under the ground and it’s good for water quality and soil.”
It has also been a vital part of Native American culture, serving as a foundation of life for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and other Tribes by providing material for house frames, baskets, food and weapons.
Yet it has mostly disappeared.
Now, the Tennessee Valley Authority is partnering with tribal experts to bring it back.
The work is part of a larger collaboration to support river restoration efforts. They include year-round river stewardship through plantings, educational programs and sicklefin redhorse fish restoration.
“TVA wants to learn from the Cherokee people,” Shuler said, nodding at students from the New Kituwah Academy who attended a day of service at the Oconaluftee River. “You all have knowledge that we don’t.”
Honoring the River
The annual day of service began a few years ago when Cherokee youth noticed trash in the water, Juanita Wilson, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians training and development manager, said.
To the Cherokee, the Oconaluftee River in North Carolina is a long man – a body of water with his head in the mountains and his feet in the valley.
“His purpose is to provide navigation, food and medicine. We go to the water to heal,” Wilson said.
When she saw that the river itself needed healing, she turned to the community for help.
She coordinated the first Honoring Long Man River Day three years ago with colleagues. That day of service has since blossomed into an annual gathering for education, celebration and connection.
At the event this fall, as Cherokee elementary schoolers visited educational stations organized by TVA and federal and state agencies, about 300 volunteers waded into the Oconaluftee River to clear litter.
As the event continues to grow, TVA team members are working hand in hand with Tribal representatives.
“Our purpose is to take this (river restoration) to the Gulf of Mexico,” Wilson said. “It’s a way of being. Everything goes downstream.”
Back to the Roots
River cane is a big part of the restoration efforts.
On the banks of the Tellico Reservoir, where the Oconaluftee River eventually flows, TVA specialists have worked with Cherokee experts to restore river cane stands to TVA lands.
The goals? Create habitat, strengthen riverbanks and provide regular access to the resource for all Tribes.
River cane, a native, slender bamboo relative, once grew tall at the edges of forests and fields throughout the Southeast. Its stands created habitat for bear, bison, deer and other native animals.
And the cane was vital to the river itself. Its thick stalks, interwoven like a basket on the river’s edge, slowed raging floodwaters, held sediment and filtered out pollution.
Yet most people have never seen river cane in the wild.
“Over the years, people have cut it down,” Shuler said. About 98% of river cane disappeared as farmers cleared and plowed fields.
The most fertile farmland is also prime river cane habitat, Josh Burnette, senior specialist in TVA Natural Resources, said.
“There were stories of cane breaks a mile wide and 3 miles long,” Burnette said. “What we see now are just little clumps … here and there along the field edge.”
Restoration can mean replanting river cane rhizomes, or roots. But most of all, it means letting existing cane stands grow and spread.
And it means bringing back disturbance that river cane loves, Burnette said.
In the past, bison grazed cane, Native Americans cut it for harvest and fire threaded through the stands.
“It was a mosaic,” Burnette said.
With Tribal guidance, TVA Natural Resources experts are experimenting with a mosaic of management.
They mapped the TVA-managed Telllico Reservoir to find out where cane could – and already does – grow. Now, they’re experimenting with fire, mulch and fertilizer.
“We’re learning from Tribes and incorporating their knowledge into the work we do,” Shuler said.
“Indigenous knowledge is extremely important to TVA.”
If the cane grows on this and other sites, TVA can help put it back in the hands of Tribes as part of the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resources program.
While laws and treaties guide TVA’s relationship with federally recognized Indian tribes, Shuler said, the agency’s responsibility goes beyond that.
“As the caretaker of thousands of significant Native American sites and many natural resources that are important to Native American culture, TVA has a moral obligation to Tribes,” Shuler said.
“In the future we hope to create more opportunities for Tribes to come to our land and collect plants for traditional crafts, food, and medicine.”
To help ensure success, TVA is learning from the people who know river cane best – Tribal experts.
“Tribes have been land managers way longer than we have,” Shuler said.
“We definitely wanted to work with them closer, hand in hand,” Burnette said.
The Native Plant Partnership, formed in 2016, invited all 23 Tribes that historically lived in the Southeast to consult, plant and harvest traditional plants of all kinds.
This past fall, a TVA Natural Resources grant covered the cost to transport participants in the Cherokee Language Master’s Apprentice Program to the Sumter National Forest in South Carolina.
There, as part of a partner project with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, participants learned about artifacts and traditional river cane from archaeologists, Cherokee language specialists and rangers from the Chattooga Conservancy and U.S. Forest Service.
As Tellico and other river cane sites on TVA land grow, they will be open for TVA specialists to learn and Native communities to harvest.
“TVA wants to be a source for all Tribes connected to the Tennessee Valley,” Shuler said. “They will all have the chance to use it in the future.”
Saving the Sicklefin
Restoring the river means bringing back its animals, too.
TVA specialists have been critical in the restoration of another rarely seen species: the large sicklefin redhorse fish.
The sicklefin only lives in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Silver and shimmering, it has a dorsal fin that stands tall like a frilled crest. It led the Cherokee to call it Ugiidatli, meaning “it is feathered.”
At the Honoring Long Man River event, students acted out the fish’s spawning migration, sprinting between obstacles as they pulled their cheeks in to make fish faces.
“This was once a really important food source for the Cherokee people, and thousands of fish would migrate upstream,” Bryan Tompkins, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said.
On the obstacle course, children followed the sicklefin’s journey upstream, dodging native yona – Cherokee for bear – while jumping up natural cascades along the way.
Most of the kid-fish made it upstream. Until, that is, they couldn’t.
“A hundred years ago, the Ela Dam was built,” Tompkins said. The dam blocked fish navigation and successful spawning.
The sicklefin population plummeted.
“Many years of attempts at stocking have failed,” said Mike LaVoie, Natural Resources director for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, referring to work to raise and release baby fish.
Now, agencies have collaborated to remove the dam altogether.
Although TVA wasn’t involved in the dam construction or removal plans, its support in the project has been critical.
“TVA is a huge partner in leading the sicklefin restoration … (and) has been a strong partner in helping with fish monitoring on Tribal lands,” LaVoie said.
These efforts add up to a hopeful future for the Oconaluftee River, as well as the people, plants and animals that depend upon it.
“So many things we worry about don’t really matter,” Wilson said. “But this does. This is our duty to nature that gives us things that we need to live. If we didn’t have plants … we wouldn’t be here.”