RIVER CANE, PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
By Ed Seeley
(First published GA CoHT Newsletter - August 2004)
For many years now I have wondered why we as ‘reenactors' of times past do not use river cane more than we do. As young kids back in the 30s and 40s we used whatever was available to make our ‘primitive' shelters (mostly sticks and grass). As we grew a little older our shelters became bigger and more sophisticated, but we still used what was available. Living in the North (Wisconsin) we didn't have river cane as it grew mostly in the warmer more humid climates. Now that I live in Georgia I have used river cane in many different ways. From spears, tables, to bed frames and platforms to making wickiups. River cane, I find, is light, strong, easy to work and splits well.
It is my intention to write a 3 part series on river cane and its place in history. I feel we are neglecting a valuable resource indigenous to our region. Upon doing some initial research, I found that the American Indians used cane, called "ihi" in Cherokee, for making things i.e. blowguns, chairs, baskets, flutes, pipe stems, arrows, spears, fuel and for shining clay pots, etc. etc.
William Bartram in his book on the "Southeastern Indians", Travels of William Bartram April 1773_October 1776, published by the University of Nebraska Press, copyright 1995, edited by Waselkov and Braund mentions river cane no less than 12 times.
Through previous research and reading I have come across several instances where river cane was mentioned as expansive cane brakes. Sometimes these were mentioned as an area to be avoided because of their size and density, other times as a place of refuge from either Indians or the white man. Common sense tells me that cane, because of it's characteristics and availability had to have been used by both Indians and Whites in construction of shelters, rafts, weapons, etc. While the large expansive cane brakes no longer exist, river cane is still abundant in many areas.
All bamboo/cane is in the grass (gramineae) family. We have 3 predominate sub species of cane in the Southeast. The largest is the Arundominate gigantea which grows to 30 to 35 feet tall and up to 3 inches in diameter. River cane grows to 8 to 10 feet tall and 1 to 1 ˝ inches in diameter. Switch cane is the smallest, growing to 5 to 6 feet and ˝ to 3/4 inches in diameter. The characteristics and uses of these canes will be discussed in later articles.
For those of you who might be interested in making a shelter frame out of cane, I will briefly describe how I built my wickiups. My first wickiup was made from various types of wood, i.e. sweetgum, oak, hickory, elm, and dogwood. Needless to say each type of wood had different characteristics. The sweetgum and elm were more supple while the hard woods were stiffer. I found that it was necessary to use the same type of wood for each "bow". Although the end result of making the frame was good, making it was more labor intense.
My next attempt at making a wickiup was using cane. It was only necessary to obtain cane of equal size and length. Of course it was necessary to remove all branches insuring that no sharp ends were left to poke holes in the canvas. First it was necessary to determine the overall size of the shelter, both height, width and length. Once this was done I paired up each 2 pieces that would be lashed together to form the bows for the frame. Before this step can be done it is necessary to determine how you will secure the frame to the ground, either by driving long stakes into the ground and lashing the bows to the stakes, or if the ground is soft or sandy you can drive a solid stake into the ground to act as a pilot hole. This method works very well. Before making the holes, lay out the ‘foot print' first, then you can determine the overall lengths the bows need to be, including the lap on the small end and the distance the bow will go into the ground. Once this is done and the 2 poles (small end) are lashed together, simply stick or lash all the bows on one side and push or lash them to the other side. To make the ‘bell' sides of your shelter select poles long enough to be lashed to the bows. To keep the bows from moving sideways, lash stringers horizontally as needed. When done your frame will be strong enough to stand on. The enclosed picture will show you the finished product.