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Prehistoric canoe found in Cooper River brings Native tribes together

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Mico Gentle, a member of the Yamassee Indian Tribe, reaches in to touch a prehistoric Native American canoe at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston on May 20, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

NORTH CHARLESTON — Slim are the odds that a dugout canoe would survive 4,170 years.

Slim are the odds that anyone would find it buried in the pluff mud of the Cooper River.

Slim are the odds that the prehistoric canoe would find its way to conservationists.

And what are the chances that those conservationists would call upon the Native people of South Carolina to determine what should be done with this artifact?

So when people from various tribes — Pine Hill, Waccamaw, Eastern Cherokee and Southern Iroquois, Lower Eastern Cherokee, Yamassee, Wassamasaw, Edisto Natchez-Kusso, Catawba — came to Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center on the former Charleston Naval Base on May 20 to see the canoe submerged in a 12-foot container of water, and to gently touch its spongy, delicate remains, something extraordinary happened.

Appreciation, pride, regret and even some rage mixed together and found expression — and, within the smoke caused by this emotional friction, a new solidarity was forged. Soon it was apparent that this prehistoric canoe was not only an astounding treasure with an important story to tell but also a means to a larger end, a catalyst, a transcendent symbol for all.

Chief Lamar Nelson of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois and United Tribes extolled the collaboration, and took note of the Clemson team’s advocacy of the right of Native tribes to exercise control over their own heritage.

"This is a great opportunity," he said. "It bridges barriers."

The canoe, which predates all known Indian tribes in South Carolina, would bring the state’s Native people together in common purpose. It would inspire action and unity. This very old object would provide a new way to assert what is underappreciated by most people: that South Carolina’s Indigenous population is diverse, extensive, active and a vital part of our shared history.

The canoe

WLCC Director Stephanie Crette

Warren Lasch Conservation Center Director Stéphanie Cretté welcomed attendees of the Cooper River Canoe Project consultation event on May 20, 2021. Clemson University/Provided

The team at Clemson’s conservation center, run by Stéphanie Cretté, now is protecting the artifact. Lead archaeologist Nicholas DeLong is in charge of the research; chief conservator Gyllian Porteous is in charge of preservation; Native people are in charge of determining what to do with the canoe once it has been stabilized and prepared for public viewing.

The conservation center staff knows that this artifact is a common denominator among several tribes that have the right to decide how an important piece of their heritage — the dugout canoe — should be treated.

It was made of cypress during the late Archaic period in North America, around 2000 B.C. During this time, the post-glacial, nomadic hunter-gatherer groups along the coast formed subsistence economies based on sedentary farming. The enormous shell rings found in the Southeast, built over many years by Native people who gathered by the shore, were created by these societies.

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Mico and Kalani Gentle, members of the Yamassee Indian Tribe, touch a piece of the canoe's bow that broke off during transport from DNR's Fort Johnson facility to Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston. Lauren Petracca/Staff

As various communities began to concentrate their social energies on specific territories, they began to rely more on trade with others. Canoes were essential. They made everything easier, providing transportation along the riverways as well as cargo holds for collected shellfish, goods and building materials. They helped transform Native societies from nomadic to egalitarian.

Not all of the Cooper River canoe survived intact, only a big piece of the hull, a part of the bow and four smaller fragments. The recovered portion is about 10 feet long and 17 inches wide. The conservation team will estimate its original length and manner of use once the restoration work is completed, DeLong said.

Lamar Nelson

Chief Lamar Nelson of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois and United Tribes, voiced enthusiastic support for the conservation project and collaboration. “So much of our history has been lost,” he said. “The canoe gives us the opportunity to have a voice.” Clemson University/Provided

At the consultation event, attendees were invited to reach into the tank — and, in a sense, back in time — to touch the submerged remains.

It’s the oldest such artifact found in South Carolina. Signs of charring and scraping confirm that it was constructed in the traditional manner, using fire, hand tools, concentration and patience. These canoes were made with old-growth pine, chestnut, red oak or cypress. The work was performed by several people near the site of the tree they felled for this purpose.

The builders applied clay above the base to protect the wood, then constructed a fire to strip the roots. Controlled burning was key; it made it easier to hollow out the log little by little. Tools made of stone or shells were used to chip at the wood, scrape out the softened material, and form the boat.

DeLong noted that 25 dugout canoes have been found in the state, only four of which are prehistoric. “So this is rare.”

The reason it’s so spongy is because the wood has deteriorated to the point of collapse. Porteous now will oversee its restoration. It will be a tricky business.

The fix

Since iron anchors were used to secure the canoe in its tank after it was found, rust has penetrated some of the wood, and that accelerated its deterioration. So first up is to remove as much dissolved iron from the wood as possible in a process called chelation, which could take a few months.

Then comes the polyethylene glycol impregnation. Because the cellulose of the wood has broken down, leaving voids between the cell walls, the canoe is kept submerged in water, which fills the voids and preserves the artifact. That’s why it feels spongy. But you can’t simply remove the water. What’s left of the wood would collapse upon itself.

Pine Hill Chief Michelle Mitchum worried that this procedure would preclude the kind of analysis of the old wood that might reveal characteristics of the tree from which it came, including location. Besides, she said, it’s “infusing a once-living thing with plastic.” It's akin to embalming, which is not the Indian way.

It’s not ideal, Porteous agreed, but it’s the best way to save the canoe. A small piece can be withheld for analysis.

Porteous would replace the water with the polyether compound in a slow and methodical process that could take up to two years. It will darken the wood, but at least it will prevent collapse or shrinkage during the subsequent phase of conservation.

Once reinforced, the canoe can be dried — vacuum freeze-dried to be precise. This allows for sublimation rather than evaporation, reducing the risk of collapse. The Clemson team, which doesn’t have its own expensive vacuum freeze-dryer on the premises, will deliver the artifact to the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory for this purpose. It could take half a year or so, after which the canoe can be returned to South Carolina and the Clemson team can put the pieces back together.

If all goes smoothly, the conservation work will be completed by the end of 2023.

The find

But how did the canoe happen to end up with Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center? It took some doing.

The story begins on July 13, 1997, when a Mount Pleasant man diving somewhere in the Cooper River discovered the buried treasure, recovered it and took it home. He was not licensed. He did not consult an archaeologist. And he removed the canoe from state public lands. This was an illegal act.

Hoping to sell the artifact, he called someone at The Post and Courier to inquire about a finder’s fee. When the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology was informed of his efforts, the state’s protective bureaucracy kicked into gear. SCIAA’s Lynn Harris contacted the man to lay claim to the find. The man threatened to destroy the canoe rather than turn it over to the state. Department of Natural Resources officer Angus MacBride was deployed to the home to confiscate the boat, and a team from SCIAA removed it to DNR’s Fort Johnson facility where it was placed in a fiberglass tank, submerged in fresh water, and covered with a tarp for safekeeping.

And there it remained for 23 years.

SCIAA had no budget for conserving an object like this so, finally in December 2019 custody was transferred to Clemson. In August 2020, it was moved from Fort Johnson to the conservation center on the former Navy base.

The diver who pulled the canoe from the Cooper River refused to reveal its original location. Knowing where he discovered the boat could aid DeLong and other researchers seeking to add historical context, cross-reference information about Native people in the area, or search for other prehistoric objects nearby. It’s possible that more of this canoe is buried in the mud at that site, but the team has given up hope of finding anything more.

The conversation

After DeLong and Porteous finished their presentations, emphasizing that the Clemson team is seeking to engage Native communities as full partners, attendees of the meeting went to see the artifact. They gathered around the tank, submerged a hand and gently touched the ancient wood. For a short while, the symbol became real: a physical object, utilitarian in purpose, ancient to be sure, but comprehensible. Here once sat a paddler in search of something along the waterways.

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Yamassee Indian Tribe member, Marquitta Gentle, holds her son Ilanli, 4, as Chief Sekhu Hadjo points at a part of a Native American canoe being restored at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston on May 20, 2021. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Dexter Sharp, a Cherokee, described how he has made two canoes from the wood of a hickory tree, scraping and scraping until the correct form emerges.

Andy Spell, an Edisto Indian, makes paddles. The old-growth cypress is best because the paddles float better, but he has started to use pine because of its abundance. He created the basic shape using power tools, then reverts to hand scrapers, he said. It takes about five hours to make a paddle this way. If he only used hand tools, it might take up to two full days.

After lunch came the dialogue, and the tangible slowly gave way again to the symbol.

Porteous and DeLong

Conservator Gyllian Porteous and archaeologist Nicholas DeLong explained the status of the dugout canoe and the proposed research and conservation efforts, inviting input from representatives of several Native American groups. Clemson University/Provided

Sekhu Hadjo, of the Yamassee Indian Tribe, said this gathering to discuss the canoe conservation effort is “a small part of a bigger dialogue.”

“I’m hoping this turns into a conversation piece that delves into the fuller history,” he said.

The bigger story. That’s what came to dominate the discussion. Chris Judge, professor of archaeology at the University of South Carolina Lancaster, said it’s up to researchers, scholars and tribal people to build context around the canoe so it can be a catalyst for wider understanding of the Native experience in the state.

Cheryl Cail, vice chief of the Waccamaw Indian People, said the canoe is the hub of the wheel to which all Native tribes can connect, adding their stories to a larger narrative.

Lisa McQueen-Sterling

Lisa McQueen-Sterling, a member of the Wassamasaw tribe, spoke of the challenges faced by Native American people in South Carolina. The canoe project, while a welcomed chance to celebrate Native cultures, opened some wounds. Clemson University/Provided

Lisa McQueen-Starling, of the Wassamasaw Indian Nation, noted with emotion that the canoe seemed close to her people, who lived along the Cooper River, and she raised deeply rooted concerns about the autonomy most South Carolina tribes lack, the erasures of Indian history and culture over time, the complications (and internecine divisions) caused by racial and tribal mixing, and the potential difficulties in reconciling this project with the realities of Native life in the state today.

McQueen-Starling stepped away and the room hushed in thoughtful deliberation. Then Hadjo chimed in.

“You need to understand the pain you are dealing with,” he said. “This is not just a piece of wood.”

It is a crowbar that pries open the lid containing centuries of heartache. But it’s also a salve that can mend wounds.

“Our people have suffered enough, but there’s a 4,000-year-old canoe that can bring us together.”

Video provided by Clemson University shows the careful process of transporting the remnants of a 4,100-year-old canoe to the Walter Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com.

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