In Cherokee Country, Reviving a Tree's Deep Roots

Lori Valigra
for National Geographic News
November 7, 2005

Davy Arch can't remember a time when he didn't have a pocketknife for carving a bowl from butternut tree wood or for splitting river cane for baskets.

Nowadays, however, the 48-year-old Arch and other artists in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are facing shortages of these native Appalachian trees and plants for their traditional crafts.

The fungus Sirococcus clavigignenti-juglandacearum has ravaged butternut, or white walnut, trees. The fungus causes canker sores and ultimately can kill the trees.

Probably borne by imported plants, Sirococcus is thought to have spread quickly once it entered the United States. Over 70 years ago, it is believed to have infiltrated the U.S. South.

Sunshine Brosi is a graduate research assistant in natural resources at the University of Tennessee's Tree Improvement Program. She said that about 80 percent of the butternut trees have been killed in North Carolina.

As for river cane, which looks like bamboo, it has been overused or pulled out by farmers or land developers who consider its growth too aggressive.

Arch, a master artist and member of the board of the North Carolina Arts Council, says 95 percent of the large butternut trees are dead near his home in Cherokee, in the Qualla Boundary area of western North Carolina, which is home to 13,000 Cherokee Indians. He adds that river cane occupies only about 2 percent of its original territory.

In addition to basketry, river cane is also used to make blowguns for some traditional hunters—who still use the weapons to kill small game, like squirrels—and for tourists, who buy them as souvenirs.

"High-quality material is getting harder and harder to come by," Arch said.

The demise of the butternut tree came to the public eye when Eastern Band Cherokee activists purchased about 300 acres (120 hectares) in North Carolina. The real estate included the sacred "mother town" of their tribe, Kituhwa (pronounced gah-DOO-ah), located about three miles (five kilometers) from the Qualla Boundary area.

Since the 1700s Kituhwa had been burned by British and U.S. soldiers many times and was eventually abandoned. When the Eastern Band purchased it in 1995, Kituhwa was known as Ferguson Fields and had served over the years as a dairy and an airstrip.

Today only three large butternut trees remain in Kituhwa.

Continued on Next Page >>


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