Roger Cain

To promote better growth of the river cane at the Cherokee Nation Seed Bank Garden, Roger Cain, lead river cane researcher for the Cherokee Nation, cuts out stalks that are dying or have fungus.

Although one of the founders of the Cherokee Nation River Cane Initiative said he was laid off from the program, tribal officials say they plan to continue its mission of preservation.

Cherokee National Treasure Roger Cain was principal investigator for the River Cane Initiative, when it began in 2013. It was established after Cain began researching the plant's viability and its abundance in the southeastern U.S., and he reached out to see if the tribe would be interested in a project to sustain the cultural crop. He also helped it get placed on the Cherokee Nation's Culturally Protected Species list in 2012.

"That was the first step," said Cain. "Then the tribe realized we don't even know where the river cane is on our tribal land, so we started the River Cane Initiative by going out and mapping river cane."

Cain said mapping where river cane is located was the first step, and out of 55,000 acres, he found 75 acres of cane on tribal land.

"So we're talking about a very small percentage of river cane on tribal land," he said. "Of that, 95 percent of it is located in Adair County."

Another part of Cain's job was to start developing conservation practices and education activities. He has held programs with different schools around the area and has helped other tribes learn more about the plant species.

When he first mapped out the 75 acres of river cane, it was a baseline to determine its growth. Cain said for the past two weeks, he has been remapping the tribe's river cane. However, Cain said he won't be able to finish the second part of his research now, because his boss, CN Administrative Liaison Pat Gwin, told him he could no longer be involved with the project.

"The first one is our baseline, which is where the cane starts," said Cain. "The second one is to go back and measure those cane breaks. We haven't looked at them in like five years. We're wanting to make sure they're there, if they've grown, if they've increased or decreased, but they're cutting off the program before we can finish that up."

Cain said he wasn't told what would happen to the program, and although he says he was "fired," he wants the program to continue. He is also worried he won't receive his final paycheck.

The Cherokee Nation released a statement regarding the program, indicating that a contract with Cain had expired, but the program itself will continue.

"The Cherokee Nation river cane conservation effort will absolutely continue because we know how valuable river cane is to our culture," said Chad Harsha, general counsel for Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources. "Having this traditional plant not only helps our artists, but it is also part of our identity. The Cherokee Nation did have a contract to survey river cane, and work under that contract has concluded. We can assure our tribal citizens and the public the river cane conservation efforts will continue well into the future."

District 8 Tribal Councilor Shawn Crittenden, who serves Adair County where the majority of the tribe's cane is located, said he's been trying to make sure the program can continue - with Cain on board.

"As a council member going forward with the new administration, I've got hopes that, in the next few days, the administration will work with me on this and leave it the way it was with Roger and let him finish up this study he's doing," said Crittenden. "Make it a complete study, and then that opens it up to big, big grants for the Forestry Department, that I'm told."

The Cherokee Nation River Cane Initiative began under former Principal Chief Bill John Baker. Cain said he was very vocal in his support for Crittenden during this year's tribal election and tried to "stay out of the chief's race," but he blames his job loss on "a very political vendetta." Either way, he said "it's fine," as long as the program continues. He will also continue his own work to preserve and grow the Cherokee crop.

"I'm for river cane, no matter what," he said. "It's great for the environment, it's culturally important to southeastern tribes, and we need to have it around for our next seven, 20, 100 generations."

Recommended for you