If trees could talk, they'd have a million stories to tell -- stories of war and peace, life and death, seasons changing. In South Carolina's Upstate, one type of tree in particular, with a very curious bend, has a tale of human ingenuity.
Hundreds of years ago, before the advent of street signs, paved roads and personal navigation devices, Native Americans used trees to help guide their way. The guideposts, called trail trees, can be found across the eastern United States including parts of the Upstate.
Nancy Basket, a Native American storyteller and folk artist, and Dave LaVere, an educator and historian, recently took me to a trail tree located a couple hundred yards off Highway 28 just outside Oconee State Park. According to Basket and LaVere, the trail tree, and others like it, are the result of Native Americans taking small saplings, usually oak or elm, fastening them to the ground and allowing the trunks to extend and grow horizontally in a direction that pointed to specific points along a trail. The markers led those who could read them to neighboring villages, safe havens, fresh water and other important locations. With a horizontal trunk towering about five feet from the ground then rising to a 90 degree angle toward the sky, the 200-year-old trail tree located off Highway 28 is quite a sight to see.
The trail tree visit was one of several along Basket's and LaVere's newly formed His and Herstory Cherokee Mystery Tour. The Cherokee Lower Villages, which made up most of what is now present-day Oconee County, once served as the center of Cherokee country in South Carolina.
Basket, an artist-in education in basket making who also has been recognized by the McKissick Museum as a master basket-maker, knows a lot about the Cherokee culture. She sought out Cherokee tradition and oral history from her Cherokee grandmother and other elders. Today she excitedly shares her knowledge with the public and visitors to her art studio and gallery in Walhalla. Make no mistake about it, Kudzu Kabin Designs is not your ordinary art spot. If you're looking for proof of that, look no further than the gallery's kudzu covered front porch or the century-old barn made of kudzu bales in the backyard or even the gigantic Thunderbird, made of Kudzu vine, flying from the ceiling inside the studio. Basket's place, the first stop along our tour, was definitely a showcase of all things kudzu. What is kudzu you ask? If you don't know, chances are you're probably not from the South. The fast-growing vine, native to Japan, carpets powerlines, trees ... just about anything that gets in its way.
While most folk consider Kudzu to be a pesky weed, Basket holds true to her Native American heritage and respects the unruly plant. "Every plant has a purpose, just like people," she says. How did she figure out kudzu's purpose? She says she went straight to the source. "After talking to the kudzu vines when baskets made from them fell apart, I knew the proper respect was needed ... I went back to the kudzu and said I was sorry. I waited a long time, but finally heard the kudzu say, leave the trees alone, use us for paper instead.'' After taking the kudzu's advice to heart, she began making paper products from the plant's leaves. Most of Basket's handmade kudzu paper is on display in her gallery in the form of nature-themed folk art greeting cards and other paper art. Basket also has put the kudzu vine to artistic use. She makes beautiful kudzu vine baskets, lamps -- even an 8-foot long snake with wings and antlers called the Great Uktena, a serpent of Cherokee legend.
After checking out the gallery and Basket's artwork and Native American artifacts, we headed out back to the Kudzu Bale Barn. As the name implies, the 100-year-old barn has been refitted with kudzu bales. Inside, Basket works her kudzu paper making magic by blending kudzu leaves, water and paper scraps then allowing the pulp, which looks a lot like green grits, to dry on felt taken from a plastic screen.
After Basket's kudzu paper making demonstration, we loaded up and headed out to explore Native American sites in the area. The Oconee County Heritage Center was our next stop. There, we saw two ancient preserved wooden canoes -- one was pulled from the Chatooga River in 2002, the other from the Keowee River bed in the summer of 2008. I was amazed that they were in such good shape, especially since one of them is believed to be 250 years old. While archeologists aren't sure whether Cherokees or European settlers built the canoes, they are pretty certain their design is Cherokee-inspired. After our visit to the Oconee County Heritage Center, we walked down the street to check out the Museum of the Cherokee of South Carolina, which pays homage to the area's rich and colorful Cherokee history.
Oconee County, which takes its name from a Cherokee word which means land beside the water, was home to Native Americans dating back to as early as 300 A.D. The Cherokees were the last tribe of Native Americans to inhabit the county. Their villages, collectively known as the Lower Towns, were usually situated along large streams or rivers to ensure a steady supply of drinking water, food and transportation. In the late 18th century, there were more than two dozen Lower Town settlements located in the northwest portion of the state. Because most of those areas are currently overgrown with vegetation or are underwater, we had to use our imagination to visualize what the sites might have looked like.
Tamassee was our first Lower Town visit. The site, which is just a grassy tree-lined area today, was once a thriving settlement of skilled Cherokees who were master farmers, artisans, hunters and warriors. From Tamassee, we traveled east to the Keowee Lower Town site. Keowee Town, currently submerged beneath the waters of Lake Keowee, was once the main village and center of all the Cherokee Lower Towns. The Cherokee Path, a Native American travel and trade route that extended from Charleston to the Greenville area and into neighboring states of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, ran directly through Keowee. Looking out over the beautiful lake and at the boaters and anglers who were enjoying it, I wondered if they had any idea that the stunning, peaceful, pristine area was once a flourishing village of native people who governed themselves democratically, who were in harmony with nature, relied on mother nature for sustenance and healing, led balanced lives between work and play, developed sophisticated agricultural systems, honored their ancestors, and were the first people of Oconee County.
After Keowee, we visited Isaqueena Falls -- a 200-foot cascade supposedly named after a Native American girl. Our visit there was pretty interesting, not just because the place is gorgeous but also because Basket and LaVere debunked the myth of Isaqueena. The two say the myth of a Native American girl jumping from the falls to her death is just that -- a myth. While they say the story of Isaqueena isn't true, they do believe that Native Americans used the waterfalls and saw them as a sacred place, one to be respected.
As we left Isaqueena, finishing up the last leg of our tour, I thought back on all we'd heard and seen during the day. The pristine water falls, century-old trail trees, ancient canoes, entire towns submerged underwater. The unique art work and colorful stories handed down through the ages are all a part of Native American history -- a history that is intricately and beautifully woven into the fabric of Oconee County just waiting be discovered.
Click here for more information on Native American trail trees and to learn more about a nationwide effort to identify and map their locations.