Expedition maps prehistoric Cherokee fishing weirs

Lamar Marshall had been canoeing the Little Tennessee for years before he knew what a fish weir was. In retrospect, the low rock walls spanning the river are too symmetrical and too uniform to be a naturally occurring rock vein. But for years, Marshall paid them no heed other than reveling in the small rapid they created.

That was before Marshall started spending time on the river with Brent Martin, an outdoor friend in Macon County who works for the Wilderness Society. Martin introduced Marshall to the hidden world of fish weirs, ancient stone walls placed in the river to corral fish into traps.

Marshall knew what fishing weirs were, of course, but like most, he didn’t realize the community fishing practice was once used in the mountains by Cherokee. To Marshall, the ancient weirs are a symbol of a time when man lived in harmony with nature.

“The lifestyle of the Native Americans was self-sufficient. Nature provided everything. It was an intense form of freedom,” said Marshall, who works for the environmental organization WildSouth.

A few weirs in the region are so pronounced they show up in aerial photographs and are even obvious when viewed from the shore. But the vast majority are only visible from the river itself, and thus have gone uncatalogued. It was astonishing to Marshall that there had been no systematic effort to map the weirs so far.

“These weirs are national treasures,” Marshall said. “Every stone you see in that weir was picked up and placed there by a Native American. They are historical landmarks. More than that, these are relics, traditional places where people can connect to their heritage.”

So when water levels in the Little Tennessee dropped to record lows during the height of severe drought last August, Marshall called Martin and pitched the idea of a scouting trip to plot all the weirs they could find. Low water would render any weirs that are typically obscured much easier to spot.

“We were seeing weirs everywhere,” Marshall said of their trip. “They are so defined, once you know what you are looking for there is no missing them.”

The team counted 13 weirs in a single seven-mile stretch of the Little Tennessee. Marshall’s GPS unit was broken at the time, so the best he could do was sketch their location in on a map as they paddled downstream. But Marshall knew he would one day have to repeat the exercise and capture their exact coordinates.

That chance came last week, thanks to a break in the rains that had dominated the summer so far. Marshall set out on a downriver expedition, this time with a GPS unit in hand.

Marshall’s expedition came at the perfect time for Dan Perlmutter, a professor at Southwestern Community College and a long-time fish weir enthusiast. This month, Perlmutter is leading a week-long field course on fish weirs for middle and high school students, many of them Cherokee.

His goal is to give students hands-on experience using surveying instruments to map the rocks of a single weir, hopefully inspiring the students to pursue math and science fields. The project is funded in part by Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“When the students have a concrete product and one with community significance, it automatically interests them,” Perlmutter said. “In school, when someone talks in the abstract about research they will have a practical knowledge of it. They’ll say ‘I’ve done some of that.’ They aren’t just passive observers.”

Among those cashing in on the chance to spend a day on the river with Marshall was Mo Moody, who put aside reservations about never being in a kayak before and joined the expedition. Moody, a recent graduate of the surveying program at Southwestern Community College, will lead the technical aspects of surveying with the students in Perlmutter’s program.

Moody will show the students how to use surveying instruments to capture the shape, size and exact location of the rocks in a weir. If the weir was vandalized or disturbed by flooding, it could be reconstructed based on the survey work.

“It’s important to be able to put them back in the exact same spot,” Moody said. “Surveying is going to lock it down on the map.”

Moody, a recent convert to the circle of fish weir enthusiasts, finds it hard to believe this work hasn’t been done already.

“It’s like an ancient find right here for us to see,” Moody said.

The fish weirs are one piece of what Marshall and others have come to call the “cultural landscape” — essentially what the landscape would have looked like during the time of the Cherokee. The broad rivers served as highways for trade and communication, with a network of Cherokee towns along their shores. Large mounds marked the political and spiritual centers for the villages. Cleared fields radiated through the flat river bottoms, while forested mountainsides served as hunting grounds.

“This was the Garden of Eden for the Cherokee Nation, right here in the Cowee Valley,” Marshall said.

Saving the cultural landscape has become the rallying cry of preservation groups in recent years, including the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

Another unmapped piece of that landscape is the myriad Cherokee trails that moved trade and foot traffic. Marshall is currently engaged in a year-long project through WildSouth to map those Indian routes, thanks to funding by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

For a man who’s spent his entire life outdoors — alternately making a living as a fur trapper, outfitter and environmental advocate — Marshall calls his current job the best he’s ever had. He holds a deep respect for the Cherokee.

“I love everything to do with the Indians and their way of life. They lived independently of this corporate-dependent system that now seems to be failing us,” Marshall said.

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