Starting in 2015, volunteers have been working on the Great Coharie River by removing fallen trees, beaver dams, and other debris. The volunteers come from several tribes (Coharie, Waccamaw Siouan, Lumbee, Haliwa-Saponi, Eastern Band of Cherokee, and others) along with non-tribal affiliated locals. The tribe currently utilizes various chainsaws, winches, a work boat, and other assorted tools to carry out the rugged work involved in this initiative. On a typical workday around 5 volunteers participate in operations expecting no financial reward to dedicate their time and efforts towards the beloved spirit of the river. These volunteers are rewarded by seeing themselves as stewards of a treasured natural resource and do not seek more.
The Great Coharie River once was a calm place to relax, a fun place to swim and a significant source of subsistence for the Coharie people. It was the heart of a resilient and close community of Native Americans. It was a tradition and a cleansing energy. Refreshing, Restoring, and Reminding. That’s a primary goal of the Great Coharie River Initiative.
Storms of the 1990’s were devastating to the River’s water flow, leaving fallen trees and debris throughout. It became a swamp entangled with beaver dams such that one couldn’t walk to the edge of the river bank anymore. The once secure, running stream surrounded by shading trees became distant and evaporated from the everyday life of the community.
Attempts to obtain help to restore the river lead nowhere and the work that needed to be done seemed too huge for the tribe’s abilities. Almost 20 years past. Now, the Coharie People have decided to bring their heart back. They are clearing their river, cleaning their river, and loving their river. Most importantly, they are exercising stewardship of their river.
Young adults who have never been on the river speak of the magic they feel there today. This magic has affected visitors in various ways, particularly acting as a healing medicine. People who have traveled down the river speak of finding peace of mind and a sense of belonging they’ve never experienced before. One tribal member says that when the river was brought back into his life, he realized his mood had been negatively affected during its loss.
Elders speak of the vivid memories of fishing with their parents and how they can still feel and taste the delicious fish in their mouths today. Fishing also served as a supplement to their grocery expenses. These elders reference the memories of the river being their favorite place for fun and recreational play, given they were not allowed in many stores, buildings, and public areas as Indian children. A primary objective of the Great Coharie River Initiative is to allow elders an opportunity to return to their place of sacred memories and provide today’s youth with similar experiences.
The Mission of the Great Coharie River Initiative is to restore a lost tradition and return access of the river to the people. The tribe’s goal is to clear a 13 mile stretch making the river banks available for public access. The Coharie Tribe hopes to gain partnerships with governing agencies in order to accelerate these efforts and provide a beautiful gift to all people.
Beginning: The River was open and flowing freely for community members to access.
1970: Beavers migrated into Sampson County, NC.
1980s: Beaver populations were managed by trapping and hunting. Beaver dams would trap water, which would collect fish. These patches of water made excellent fishing holes.
1996: Hurricane Fran and Bertha came through leaving the river clogged, swampy, and unusable. The beavers thrived and became over populated.
1996-2000: Government subsidized beaver mitigation and clearing efforts were unsuccessful in controlling beaver population and damage to the water system.
2000-2010: Some beaver mitigation efforts continued along the Upper Great Coharie River.
2010-2014: Beaver mitigation was limited and state policies restricted access to the river.
2014: The Coharie Tribe received a small grant from the NC Forest Service to start a river restoration project.
Summer 2015: The Great Coharie River Initiative began following permission from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources to clear logs and implement beaver mitigation practices. With over 500 hours of work from over 15 volunteers, a 4.5 mile stretch of the river was cleared.
American Indian Center: The American Indian Center at UNC Chapel Hill (AIC) assists all tribes of NC with their programs utilizing UNC’s resources and opportunities. The AIC has connected the GCRI with Resourceful Communities, NC Growth, and a Capstone course at UNC. The staff assist the Coharie with coordinating and planning the initiative’s efforts.
The Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities: Originally funding the project in conjunction with the Coharie Community Gardens through the AIC in 2014-2015, Resourceful Communities has become the initiative’s primary provider of resources. Resourceful Communities’ purpose is to assist in the economic development of underserved communities, specifically supporting services that protect natural resources.
Friends of Sampson Co. Waterways: This group is a cooperative nonprofit that protects, preserves, and paddles all waterways in Sampson County. They lend kayaks and paddles to the tribe for excursions on river systems, and they also organize tourism trips with interested groups.
NC Growth: NC Growth is a program though the UNC Kenan Institute, UNC’s business school, with the purpose to help communities create sustainable economic opportunities for their people. NC Growth provided a summer intern in the summer of 2016 to research the beginnings of a for-profit business around the river restoration skills learned by Coharie tribal volunteers.
Conservation Trust for North Carolina (CTNC): CTNC is a nonprofit with the goal of conserving the beautiful land of NC, and providing opportunities for people to connect with the land and nature. CTNC provided an on-site summer intern in the summer of 2016 to assist with coordinating and marking the initiative.
UNC Capstone: UNC students who conduct research projects primarily focusing on recording oral histories of the river from the tribe’s most revered elders and comparing them to current river conditions.
Special friends who have contributed their time and knowledge:
Christina Theodorou, Dr. Amy Locklear Hertel, Randi Byrd, UNC American Indian Center
Melanie Allen, CTNC
Ryan Emanuel, North Carolina State University
Gavin Thompson, Conservationist for Sampson Co.
Dianne Reid, Dragonfly Resources
David Salvesen, UNC Capstone Professor
Ralph Hamilton, Joe Warren, Cebron Fussell, Friends of Sampson Co. Waterways
Ronald Ellis, Sampson County Rescue
Download the brochure here: Great Coharie River Initiative Brochure
Check out the latest video highlighting partners in the American Indian Center’s NC Native Asset Coalition to support the Great Coharie River Initiative. Students participating in a capstone course offered by Dr. David Salvesen of UNC Chapel Hill’s Institute for the Environment, collaborated with the Coharie Tribe to document oral histories related to the tribe and the Great Coharie River and research environmental impact and management strategies that would assist the tribe in river restoration and environmental stewardship efforts.
Read the full article here: http://www.unc.edu/spotlight/taking-classroom-beyond-stone-walls/
Insert video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=belt4-cZLiM
For more information about the Great Coharie River Initiative and how you can get involved, contact Phillip Bell, Volunteer Coordinator of the Great Coharie River Initiative, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Coharie Tribal Administrator, Greg Jacobs, at email@example.com or (910) 564-6909.