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FIRST ON THE WATER


Today may be "Black Friday" for many of us, the unofficial opening of the Christmas gift shopping season, but a less commercial designation also belongs to this day after Thanksgiving - Native American Heritage Day, proclaimed in 2008 by President George W. Bush to commemorate the role of pre-European peoples in shaping American history.


Here in the Lowcountry, evidence of pre-Colonial and prehistoric peoples are still present in the shell rings and middens scattered among the barrier islands (see our earlier post on shell rings), while more fragile traces of these early peoples are occasionally discovered, including a 4,000-year old dugout canoe found buried in the pluff mud of the Cooper River. As reported last year by the Post & Courier's Adam Parker, the canoe became a rallying point for Lowcountry and Upstate Native Americans from the Wassamasaw, Catawba, Waccamaw and Yemassee Indian Nations.


The canoe was discovered in 1997 by an amateur diver who illegally removed it before it was confiscated under state law and put into storage for nearly two decades before serious restoration efforts began at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston (where the CSS Hunley is also undergoing preservation).

Members of the Yemassee Indian Nation touch part of their history, Photo courtesy The Post & Courier

Only fragments of the canoe remain, mostly pieces of its bow and stern, but even with these few pieces radiocarbon dating has yielded an age of about 4,200 years, known to archeologists as the Late Archaic period, contemporary with the dating of shell rings like Fig Island. Fashioned from a hollowed-out cypress log, the fragments show clear signs of scraping and firing to create a watercraft that was the common means of transportation for these early peoples, who migrated seasonally between the Upstate and the coast.


The preservation process will be a long one. The canoe has been residing in a trough of fresh water at the conservation center and is now soaking in a solution of glue-like polyethylene glycol to stiffen the wood, a process that can take up to a year to complete. The canoe will then be freeze-dried before consultations with southeastern Indian nations for a permanent and respectful display site. As Chief Lamar Nelson of the Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois and United Tribes of South Carolina told the Post & Courier, "Any Native descendants in South Carolina, or North Carolina, could be related to the people who built that canoe."

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