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Sacred Roots Rivercane - Saving a piece of history

By David Elliott, Tribal Liaison, NRCS Tribal Office, Atmore, AL


Poarch Creek Tribal Youth Council The Poarch Creek Tribal Youth Council help plant Rivercane on the PBCI tribal lands.


In August 2009, the Poarch Creek Tribal Youth Council brought back Rivercane, a sacred plant to their community.

When the Poarch Creek Cultural Education program began in 2006, it had one goal, to bring culture back to the community and ensure its presence for years to come. Today, language, stickball, traditional gospel hymns, dancing, finger-weaving, patchwork, and basket-weaving, are all part of the community once again.

Basket makers are having a hard time obtaining natural material for baskets.  They are traveling over 90 miles to a canebreak in central Alabama to gather supplies, even there, the cane is scarce. Creek basket makers are using a commercial substitute to weave most baskets.

When the Rivercane Restoration Project ensures the tribe will have access to this sacred plant for generations to come.

 The Poarch Creek Tribal Youth Council, an organization for Native youth to learn cultural values and history, leadership skills, community citizenship, and environmental protection, assisted in planting the one-hundred, three-month-old plants donated by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Jamie L. Whitten Plant Materials Center located in Coffeeville, Mississippi. The PMC works with other agencies and organizations in carrying out its function. The PMC produced the Rivercane plants at the request of Dr. William Puckett, Alabama NRCS State Conservationist. Dr. Puckett learned of the Rivercane Project from Tribal leaders and pledged his support to partner with the Tribe to make this project a success. David Elliott, NRCS Tribal Liaison coordinated the pickup and transportation of the Rivercane plants from the PMC to the PBCI Reservation and will be monitoring the success of the project with the youth council. The youth council plans to continue the restoration project around other locations of tribal property. These plants will be ready to harvest in ten years.

Rivercane once covered millions of acres across the southeastern United States. Native Americans, including Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Cherokee, Houma, Chitimacha, and many others, heavily depended on the plant for its many uses.  The needed the plant to make blowguns, thatching for houses, mats, fishing spears, arrows, baskets, ceremonial items and hundreds more. It was one of the most important utilitarian plants of the Southeastern Indians.

Not only was it important to Native Americans, Rivercane played a pivotal role in the environment as well. Over 60 species of animals, birds, and insects called the vast canebreaks (large area of Rivercane) home, including bear, bison, Elk, and panther. Two species of birds, the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet, which also used the vast canebreaks as shelter, are now extinct.

Rivercane also proves to be a valuable asset in improving ecosystems. The high culm (woody stems) density is responsible for slowing flood waters and collecting decomposing matter which then turns into nutrient-rich soil. The interwoven system of rhizomes, which are the stems of Rivercane below ground, holds soil together to decrease erosion near creeks, rivers, streams, and branches of fresh water. Ultimately, Rivercane greatly improves the quality of freshwater.

Since European arrival to the continent, the Rivercane population has decreased tremendously. Deforestation, over-grazing by European livestock, Cattle and swine, and urbanization has depleted the native plant population to only a fraction of its original population. The U.S. Geological Survey has listed the species as “Critically Rare” and the Nature Conservancy has it listed as “Globally Rare”.

The Rivercane Restoration Project's name, Sacred Roots, is based upon, not only what the plant does for the environment, but also the philosophy that we do not do things for our instant gratification, but instead for benefit of generations.