WCU helps sustain
traditional Cherokee art
But these aspiring craftspeople also found it increasingly difficult to find the natural materials the tribe has been using for generations, such as river cane for baskets and the butternut for fabric dye.
That's where the Revitalization of Traditional Cherokee Artisan Resourcesan initiative operated through Western Carolina University's Cherokee studies program, steps in.
RTCAR was established in 2004 to help ensure craft materials are available to Cherokee artists and that these crafts are promoted through education and exhibitions.
The two-person office on U.S. 19 near Bryson City receives its funding from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and has distributed $1.2 million in grants.
“There's a serious need” to preserve and study these materials, said David Cozzo, project director. For instance, river cane grows in endangered ecosystems known as cane breaks.
“The estimation is that is down to about 2 percent of the former range,” Cozzo said of river cane habitat.
Cozzo noted ecologists can learn about the best way to manage the plant through Cherokee practices.
The tribe has said that harvesting actually improves the quality of the cane, Cozzo added. The program recently applied for a grant to study the effect of harvesting river cane in the area.
In October, RTCAR used a 60-year-old agreement to grant craftspeople access to river cane. Cozzo and Beth Johnson, a community development specialist, turned to an existing river cane harvesting agreement between the Eastern Band and a Kentucky festival.
A 1948 “cane treaty” created by organizers of the Daniel Boone Festival in Barbourville, Ky., guaranteed Eastern Cherokee access to “cane for as many baskets as they can make.”
After learning of the cane treaty, Johnson and Cozzo contacted organizers of the annual event and scouted areas for the material.
“We found some on property that belonged to the city, and other stands that were on privately owned farmland,” she said. The group harvested several bundles and plans to return for more.