The Catawba People: Advocates of the River and Our Creeks

Before we get started

Catawba River is circled in red (Figure 1) and Mecklenburg Creeks (Figure 2)

The Catawba River and the Creeks of Mecklenburg County

The Catawba River is a 225-mile-long river that flows across both Carolina states (Catawba River Corridor Study, 1). As shown in Figure 1, the River begins in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, flows through the Charlotte metropolitan area, and continues to run throughout South Carolina until it reaches Lake Wateree, where it then becomes Wateree River (“Catawba River,” American Rivers). In the Charlotte Metropolitan area, the Catawba River also consists of several human-made lakes such as Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake, and Lake Wylie. The Catawba River is vital to Mecklenburg County for several reasons: it is a haven for aquatic wildlife, a provider of water utilities, and a major contributor to Charlotte’s economic growth, both historically and today (Catawba River Corridor Study, 1, 6-14, 69-74, 143-150). In addition to the Catawba River, Mecklenburg County also has 3,000 miles of creeks (as shown in Figure 2), which are also vital sources of water to the Charlotte area. Some of these creek names are familiar to residents of Charlotte, such as Irwin Creek, Little Sugar Creek, Briar Creek, McDowell Creek, and McAlpine Creek (Newsom – “UP THE CREEKS”). Additionally, the majority of these creeks are interconnected to the Catawba River. The Figure 2 map demonstrates that all creeks shaded in dark green eventually flow into the Catawba River or one of the human-made lakes.

Historic Catawba Culture along the River and Creeks

The Catawba River is named after the Indigenous Catawba tribe. However, since “Catawba” was a name used by the colonists, the Catawba people instead called themselves “Ye Iswa,” or “people of the river,” as they had lived along the banks of the Catawba River for at least 6000 years. Even today, the Catawba Nation is still located along the banks of the Catawba River in York County, South Carolina (“About the Nation” – The Catawba Nation). Nonetheless, it would be fair to also refer to them as people of the creeks, since the Catawba River also had a strong historical presence along Mecklenburg’s many creeks long before European settlers arrived in the area. Thus, both the creeks and the Catawba River have long helped to shape the Catawba people’s lifestyle and culture in various ways. For example, the Catawba people have long relied on plants growing along the river and creeks to make medicine and tools. The river cane was an especially important plant to the Catawba people due to its many purposes. On one hand, it could be used to make huts, woven mats, and flutes. On the other hand, it could be used to make arrows and spears for hunting small game and fish. Moreover, river cane was used to make basket fish traps, which allowed the Catawba people to more efficiently capture fish than with spears alone (Haire; Brown, 79; Harrington, 401). Interestingly, in folklore, the Catawba people tell of mythical creatures called the Yehasuri (translates to “Little Mischievous Ones”), who lived along creek banks as well as in dark areas of the wilderness. As a way of getting their children to behave, Catawba parents told stories about how the Yehasuri would come out at night to go after children who refused to stay inside after dark (Haire).

Lastly, the creeks and the Catawba River contain clay sites, which the Catawba people have long used to gather clay and make pottery. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Catawba culture had almost faced near-extinction due to the stresses caused by settlement and urbanization. Despite this, Catawba pottery makers resiliently preserved their ancient craft and earned a living by selling their pottery to outsiders who were willing to buy their crafts. Later in the twentieth century, Catawba pottery became the key to the nation’s strong cultural revival, as their pottery traditions proved to be their strongest connection to their ancestors. Even today, the Catawba people continue to travel to clay hole sites within South Carolina and Mecklenburg county to dig out clay. While they no longer cross the Catawba River with dugout canoes to access clay sites, the Catawba people still drive up to clay sites along Mecklenburg’s creeks and the banks of the Catawba River. Furthermore, they continue to make various forms of pottery like cooking pots, water jugs, Indian head jars/bowls, wedding jugs, and even pottery with effigies of turtles and snakes (Blumer, 1-2, 14-15, 29-30, 93-106, 119-145; Haire

Pollution Sources and Threats to Mecklenburg’s Creeks

In 2017, as part of a UNCC Urban Institute multi-year project, Mary Newsom developed a UNCC-based web article called “Up the Creeks: They Shaped Charlotte’s History, but the Creeks Haven’t Always Been Treated with Respect.” In her web article, Newsom mentioned how during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, locals and factories polluted the creeks by dumping chemicals into them, using them for sewers, and building their homes and businesses along creek banks and floodplains. During the second half of the twentieth century, stronger laws, such as the federal Clean Water Act of 1972, set strong limits on the waste that industries could dump into the creeks and the Catawba River. As of today, most industries send their waste into the municipal sewer system, thus preventing many harmful chemicals from getting into our streams (Newsom – “UP THE CREEKS”; Cleaning the Creeks).

Yet as of today, there are still other forms of pollutants that continue to harm Mecklenburg’s creeks, most of which have to do with Charlotte’s poor urban construction and planning. For the past two centuries, our city has been constructed along the creeks. And if you’ve lived in Charlotte for long enough, you know that the city is always under construction. As a result, sediment and debris from construction easily work their way into our contaminated creeks. Another prevalent pollutant that enters our creeks is sewage, which contains harmful bacteria. Mecklenburg has five sewer plants, all of which are located along large creeks. Two of our plants, located along the Sugar and Irwin Creeks, were built in 1927, making them almost a hundred years old. Every year, hundreds of sewer lines end up overflowing, resulting in sewage spilling into the nearby creeks. Yet in recent years, officials at Charlotte Water have been working hard to reduce the number and amount of overflows by installing “larger pipes less prone to blockage” and by “more regular and systematic cleaning of pipes” (Newsom- “UP THE CREEKS”). However, sewage can also make its way into our creeks through storm drains, which, unlike other cities, flow into creeks rather than into sewer systems. When it rains, water carries mud, sediment, chemicals, plastic, and feces from dogs and other animals and then flows into the creeks (Newsom- “UP THE CREEKS”).

Figure 7 – Creeks of Mecklenburg County. All creeks shaded in dark green flow into the Catawba River.

How does Creek Pollution Affect the Catawba Nation?

But how does pollution within the creeks affect the modern-day Catawba Nation? Well, if you look at Figure 7, you can see that all the creeks highlighted in dark green flow into the Catawba River. This means that pollutants from these creeks flow into the Catawba River and eventually flow through the modern Catawba Reservation, affecting the Catawba people in several ways. For instance, the fish that tribal members eat from the Catawba River have high concentrations of mercury or PBA. Additionally, pollution in the creeks and the river threatens the existence of some of the plants that tribal members use for medical or cultural purposes. River cane, for example, is very sensitive to the environment, and water pollution can be quite harmful to the river cane growing along our waters. Therefore, if these plants were to go extinct, the Catawba Nation would not only lose important sources of medicine, but an entire aspect of their culture (Haire).

Figure 8 – Sections of the Catawba River in South Carolina. Also shown are Sugar Creek and the modern-day Catawba Nation lands.

How the Catawba Nation Took Action!

However, the Catawba Nation were not and are still not passive victims within this historical narrative. For the past several decades, the People of the River fought against water pollution by bringing greater awareness to the problems our rivers and creeks face while also offering potential solutions to cleaning them up.

The Catawba River Task Force

In 1991, the Catawba River Task Force was created “to coordinate studies on the health” of the Catawba River (Snipe – Charlotte Observer). The Task Force was made up of a coalition of concerned citizen groups, community leaders, and government agencies. This included two influential members of the Catawba Nation: Gilbert Blue, Chief of the Catawba Indian Nation, and Wenonah George Haire of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Council (Huntley – Charlotte Observer). For several years, members of the Task Force coordinated multiple studies on the health of the river and held meetings to discuss their results as well as potential solutions. In 1994, the Task Force published its findings and recommendations into a published booklet called, “The Catawba River Corridor Plan” (Henderson – Charlotte Observer).

Figure 9 – The Cover Page of the 1994 Catawba River Corridor Plan (Photo by Will Barnes).

One of the most noticeable problems discussed by the Task Force was how many urban and suburban developments were built right along the river, thus allowing runoff pollution to easily enter the river (O’Brien – Charlotte Observer). Therefore, the Task Force recommended that riparian “buffer strips consisting of native trees and shrubs should be established…along both banks of the river.” (The South Catawba River Corridor Plan, 55-57). The buffer strips would help keep the water clean in two ways. First, the vegetation and roots of the buffer would stabilize the banks and prevent soil from eroding into the water. Second, the riparian buffer would filter both stormwater and pollution runoff, thus preventing them from entering the war. Yet for the buffer to properly do its job, the Task Force recommended that the buffer had to be at least 100 feet wide to protect water quality (The South Catawba River Corridor Plan, 55-57; NC Division of Water Quality).

Fortunately, policymakers and local agencies did act on this recommendation. In April of 1998, Chester County, SC, adopted an ordinance for a 100-foot riparian buffer along its section of the river. By 2002, both York and Chester counties had forested buffers along the river. The Charlotte Observer wrote that paddlers were seeing the river “much as it looked centuries ago” (Henderson – Charlotte Observer). And in August of 2004, the state of North Carolina adopted water-quality regulations for the entire Catawba River and its chain lakes. These regulations included a permanent 50-foot wide riparian buffer from Lake James all the way to the South Carolina border (Theresa and Cavanaugh). However, it is important to remember that our buffer zone is only permanent if our leaders care enough for the health of the Catawba River. In the Spring of 2017, the N.C. Senate passed a bill that sought to eliminate that buffer from all the areas of the river within North Carolina. Fortunately, the main reason why the bill did not pass within the house was that environmentalists, who cared enough for our waters, lobbied the State Congress to not pass such a potentially damaging bill (Marusak – Charlotte Observer).

Additionally, the Task Force recommended expanding current parks and green spaces along the River, such as Landsford Canal State Park, while also developing new parks, such as the “proposed Catawba River Park in Rock Hill” (The South Catawba River Corridor Plan, 43). Fortunately, these recommendations were also implemented in later years. By 2002, Landsford Canal State Park had grown from about 200 acres to nearly 1,500 acres, whereas Rock Hill had also opened up its waterfront River Park by the late 1990s (Henderson – Charlotte Observer). As of today, the River Park covers 70 acres of the Catawba River (“River Park”).

Unfortunately, the establishment and expansion of parks do not necessarily tackle the real issues that the River is facing. Parks do not stop sediment and sewage from escaping construction sites and decaying urban areas, nor do they stop anti-environmental legislation from being proposed. However, parks such as these tend to attract more locals to the River, and it is through their close interactions with the River that people become more aware of the need to protect and preserve our waters.

Figure 13 – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Stream and Lake Buffer Requirements

How the Lessons of the Task Force can be Applied to Our Creeks!

Although the Task Force made its recommendations almost 30 years ago, we can still apply them today to some of the problems being faced by our creeks. For example, Figure 11 demonstrates the current legal buffer requirements for the streams (creeks) and lakes of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. As shown within this graph, the width of a buffer is not in unison for all bodies of water and all locations within the county. Charlotte and Pineville, for example, have no buffer requirements for streams that drain less than 50 acres but have 35-feet buffer requirements for drains between 51 and 100 acres (Overview – Charlotte-Mecklenburg Stream and Lake Buffer Requirements). This is problematic because 35 feet is hardly suitable for a proper buffer, and does not properly protect the creeks from runoff pollution. Our creeks should deserve proper buffer protection because runoff pollution will not only affect us but will eventually affect the Catawba Nation as well. Therefore, we, as residents of Mecklenburg, need to push for greater awareness and action toward implementing proper buffers for our creeks.

Little Sugar Creek Greenway

Additionally, our County has also been implementing its parks and greenways along the creeks, with the most notable greenway being that of Little Sugar Creek. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many sections of old Charlotte developed along this creek, which is why Little Sugar Creek still has close contact with some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. However, the problem is that these old neighborhoods and buildings had been built along the creek long before activists pushed for buffer zones and stricter environmental laws. Therefore, Little Sugar Creek was not only polluted by the dumping of industries and civilians of the far past but continues to be polluted today by the runoff of buildings and structures located too close to the water’s edge. Ironically, it was because of the city’s pollution that the city labeled Little Sugar Creek as a “smelly” creek and a “Death-Dealing Nuisance” (Newsom – “Little Sugar”).

Additionally, beginning in the late fifties, businesses within Midtown Charlotte, such as the Charlottetown Mall, covered entire sections of the creek with concrete parking spaces, leaving those areas to remain in darkness for more than 40 years (Newsom – “Little Sugar”).

Yet with the demolition of the mall in 2005 came the introduction of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway, which officially opened in 2010 (Newsom – “Little Sugar”). And since then, the Little Sugar Creek has been significantly extended: from 24th St. in Villa Heights (Northeast of Uptown Charlotte) all the way to the Polk Historic Site in Pineville (1.5 miles away from the South Carolina Border). The greenway has become an attractive hot spot for walkers, joggers, cyclists, tourists, and nature lovers alike (Little Sugar Creek Greenway –; Partners For Parks). Most importantly, all these people see the beauty and value that Sugar Creek has to offer, thus making them aware of the need to protect this creek.

Public awareness is needed, as there is still work to be done to clean Little Sugar Creek and the other creeks. Runoff continues to pour from urban areas and construction sites close to the water. Sewage lines continue to overflow and discharge bacteria into the streams. Additionally, thousands of styrofoam cups and plastic bottles/bags work their way into the creeks, whether accidentally or purposefully (Newsom – “Little Sugar”). Eventually, this pollution flows into the Catawba River and through the Catawba Reservation. Our problems become theirs because our water systems are interconnected. We all have a responsibility to care for our creeks, and restoring them to their natural state would be a major step within that process.

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