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River cane helped keep Native flute-making alive. Arizona wants this invasive reed gone

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Grammy-nominated musician Aaron White, of Diné and Northern Ute ancestry, always loves making a flute sing. Whistling sounds echoed throughout a conference room in Central Phoenix as this talented Indigenous maker plays an improvisational melody on a newly fashioned flute instrument.

On this day, White offered tips in a masterclass on crafting traditional Native flutes, made from river cane, at NATIVE HEALTH of Phoenix in January.

“So, each one of you, when you leave this class today, you’re gonna smell like river cane,” said White, who shouted over a symphony of humming power tools. “If you get stopped by the cops, show them what you did.”

The Heard Museum and Musical Instrument Museum, through its artist residency program, also hosted White for recent workshops in the Valley within the last few months.

Born in Oakland and grew up in the Bay Area, he later ventured to his Ute homelands in Whiterocks, Utah, before relocating to Flagstaff.

During his upbringing, White admittedly never saw any Native Americans playing the flute until adulthood. And that’s when he decided to dedicate three decades of research to an ancient craft of his ancestors.

“Our ancestors figured out that you would get a bigger sound to make it either harsh, really loud, or you can do it really soft,” said White, “so you have different pitches that you can use just by having the air suppressed with a little bit of the cane on top.”

Now, White sells collectible wind instruments. He only worked with timber, walnut and cedar woods. But that suddenly changed when the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted supply chains.

That caused prices of lumber to skyrocket. So, his flute-making business pivoted, finding an alternative material, rooted along river beds in Arizona: Arundo donax.

“There are different common names for it,” said Willie Sommers, invasive plant program coordinator for the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. “It is a large perennial grass plant that is similar to bamboo.”

Also known as giant reed or river cane, it’s an invasive species, first planted during the 1820s in California for erosion control along the Los Angeles River and even for roofing materials, but later popularized as an ornamental.

“And a noxious weed, here in Arizona,” added Sommers, “and some of the reasons for that are its impacts on the landscape and on our desert river system.”

He said it’s found in several riparian areas around central and southern Arizona, including the Gila, Santa Cruz, San Pedro and Verde rivers.

It poses plenty of problems from growing rapidly, impeding access to the waterways, and even a fire hazard when it dries out during the summertime.

“Another concern is the water use that could be higher than our native plant species that grow along rivers,” said Sommers. “There’s a lot of need in our desert river systems.”

Tamarisk, or salt cedar. Russian Olive. Tree-of-heaven, or Ailanthus altissima. These other names were also immediately rattled off by Sommers. With more than 50 different noxious weeds listed by the state of Arizona, “Arundo is at the top of the list for invasive plant control and removal for our program.”

It’s such a priority that the Arizona state Legislature funneled additional funding to finance the removal of invasive species through grant projects.

Two nonprofits have been awarded a combined $250,000 from his department to specifically address the spreading Arundo problem since 2019.

The Tucson-based Watershed Management Group was one of them.

“This invasive species takes up three to four times more water than our native plants do,” said River Run Network manager Lauren Monheim, “which could be affecting the amount of surface flow that we're seeing, as well as the amount of groundwater.”

Flow365, a community science monitoring program organized by Watershed Management Group, has been tracking surface water flow data at least on a monthly basis, but even weekly or daily depending on changing patterns.

Monheim has overseen the removal of that reed with help from some 300 volunteers, finding that “the flow is coming back” in the absence of Arundo.

They’ve shipped an estimated 56 tons of chopped down reeds and roots from the Tanque Verde Creek to a green waste facility since late 2021.

Now, they’re chipping the cane, and turning it into mulch.

“There’s not a whole lot of uses for Arundo. Nothing wants to eat it. It's not great for anything,” added Monheim. “All it really does is privacy, because it’s very, very tall.”

Jesús García, a conservation research associate at the Sonora-Arizona Desert Museum in Tucson, suggests the opposite.

“I'm not saying it's not an invasive plant or it’s not causing problems in riparian areas,” said García, “but we have lost the cultural value of that plant because of the change of cultures that we had.”

Raised in the city of Magdalena de Kino, in Sonora, Mexico, García shared, “I grew up collecting this plant in the rivers, because everybody else did.”

“Right now, the ceiling of my house in Mexico is made with Arundo,” he added, “as part of the construction materials and has been there for over 50 years.”

Much like García, the Pascua Yaqui and Yoreme tribal communities, both native to the Sonoran Desert, have relied on this foreign plant to build fences, roofs, cages, chicken coops, baskets and bridges.

“And at the same time, it has a strong, bad reputation,” García admitted. “In some cases they even consider it sacred because it’s a plant that is very useful. It’s something that surrounds their everyday life.”

Even music.

Friends of the Verde River, the Cottonwood-based nonprofit, also received state funding. The Yavapai-Apache Nation partners with them, along with 30 agencies and 250 private landowners through the Verde Watershed Restoration Coalition.

“Giant reed is a major problem within the Verde watershed, especially along Oak Creek,” said restoration project manager Elaine Nichols. “That’s a big focus for this project, and why we’re calling it Arundo Free Oak Creek, to kind of build some community around it.”

She said corps crews are contracted to remove that plant from over 11,000 acres along the watershed during the wintertime when it's dormant. They cut, then spray it with an aquatically-approved herbicide.

A wood chipper is brought to the work sites. And depending on landowner preferences, reeds are mulched or hauled off in dumpsters, added Nichols, “but we try to make use of it.”

That’s also where White typically treks out, twice a week, to forage reed he uses for flutes, in 12 spots around Cornville, Oak Creek Canyon and even on the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

While nonprofits continue cutting and clearing, White’s wife, Marilyn, worries about river cane and the future of flute-making in Arizona. “If there would be a scarcity, then it would be sad for the next generation.”

García advises that the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management should consider becoming more “sensitive and flexible enough” to engage with tribal communities when it comes to figuring out how river cane can be utilized differently.

“Let’s create a cultural event, and something good out,” said García. “A learning experience that, at the same time, is making a conservation effort in the process.”

“We haven’t really touched on that yet, here at the department,” admitted Sommers, adding that it's only been his department’s fifth year focusing on invasive species through funding nonprofits.

But culturally-centered progress has been made at the Mission Garden, an ethnobiological agricultural museum in Tucson. García has invited Yoremes to build fences and roofs for ramadas out of giant reeds from locally-sourced “Carrizo,” the Spanish word for river cane.

“We go to a golf course in Tucson, and they give us permission,” García elaborated. “We take tools, and everybody sees how to harvest it, and bring a truckload to the Mission Garden. We’ll learn to process it. That’s an example of engaging youth, engaging community members, where you can then create an event to explain what this plant signifies to them.”

Despite the sheer abundance of this invasive, natural resource, there’s only so many fences and roofs that could be built, or even hand-made flutes.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to solve the problem,” said García, “but that’s the best way to incorporate those communities that value this invasive evil species different from your average Ph.D. and Anglo-educated person who is worried about conservation and riparian areas.”

Tribal communities, like nonprofits, are also elligible for the state’s invasive plant grant program.

“If there’s an invasive plant project proposal for a tribal community in Arizona, we welcome those applications,” said Sommers. “We have worked with tribal entities, so we have some of those already in the works.”

“That’s certainly something we're open to,” added Sommers. “We’re always looking, again, the plant material, what’s the value of it? Is there a value? How was it removed and disposed of? And, are there other opportunities for that resource to be used?”

But both nonprofits have also shown interest in collaborating with tribal communities, and learning how they utilize this invasive species with purpose.

The Watershed Management Group has even partnered with students from the University of Arizona’s School of Music to source reeds along the edges of the Tanque Verde river beds for green instruments, according to Monheim.

So, why not White and other Native flute-makers?

Hearing about these creative alternative uses for river cane has inspired her to ask around.

“We haven’t done a whole lot with that,” said Monheim. “The San Xavier District, of the Tohono O’odham Nation, is the tribe closest to us here in Tucson, so that would be definitely interesting to explore and see if they feel like they could use it in some way.”

Although the Yavapai-Apache Nation hasn’t expressed any interest in this plant and its possible applications to Friends at the Verde River, Nichols shared that “if our biomass could be used for something,” with Indigenous groups around the state, “that would be awesome.”

“We’re definitely open to new ideas, new uses, instead of just chipping and using for trails, ground cover or sending them to the landfill,” added Tracy Stephens, program director at Friends of the Verde River. “Anything we can do to reuse that biomass is something that we’re interested in exploring.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.