Faces of Rivers: Caleb Hickman, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Faces of Rivers is an ongoing profile series from American Rivers

Caleb Hickman | Photo by G. Peeples USFWS

Anyone who cares deeply about rivers has much to learn from the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples. Today, tribes across the country are using their sovereignty, knowledge and expertise to work for a future in which local communities and sacred river ecosystems can thrive. The rest of us should listen closely.

We spoke with Caleb Hickman, tribal member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina.

What does the river mean to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians?

There are three federally recognized Cherokee tribes and the Eastern Band is the only one that still exists in the aboriginal homeland.

Water is central to Cherokee culture. When you walk into a body of water, it’s a process that can clean you. It’s called going to water. Some people do it every day. Some people just do it when they need it. It means that you’re going to pray and let all your bad feelings go down the river. You know, let it wash over you.

What is unique about the Tuckasegee?

In these mountains, within the Smokies, rivers are clean and clear. You can see the bottom. It’s a biodiversity hotspot — we have 30 salamander and 42 fish species in our rivers. Like hellbender salamanders and a large suckerfish called a . I didn’t grow up with these animals, but my ancestors knew them. We are restoring species that have declined or may not even exist in some areas anymore. So, it’s a really neat sort of way to connect to something that was lost to my family.

Smoky Mountains | Photo by Caleb Hickman

How do you see your work creating change?

Historically, biologists managed systems as something we can control, enforcing our will based on needs. But the native perspective is that we’re part of the system. We don’t need to command change. You don’t manage the system the same way if you see that you’re a part of it.

We have a sovereign nation with the same governmental structure as the U.S. government. But the difference between what I can do here versus working for a federal agency is that I can talk to our version of Congress and president. I can talk to our tribal council, which is like talking with the U.S. Congress. A lot of ecologists or biologists at the federal level have trouble getting people to act. You know, you do all the science, but who’s listening? We have an opportunity because we are a tighter-knit community. We can actually have influence on environmental policy.

Photo by Caleb Hickman

What do you want people who are not Indigenous to understand?

I think it’s important that folks know that we’re still here, and not a historical footnote. The Cherokee and native folks are still around. And we have been part of the system for thousands of years. Ecologists and biologists are starting to listen to that indigenous knowledge because it taps into how people are part of the system. And that knowledge, that traditional knowledge that we’ve gained, could be really helpful.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, American Rivers and 25 nonprofits and federal agencies are partners in the — the first such conservation area in the country that works with communities to protect native species, such as the endangered Appalachian elktoe mussel and the sicklefin redhorse fish in this amazingly diverse ecosystem.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?