Phillip Bell is a volunteer, tribal leader, and instrumental voice in the Coharie Tribe. After traveling around the country working as an inspector and ecology program coordinator for the United States Department of Agriculture, he retired in 2012 and moved back to Sampson County, NC, to reconnect more deeply with the tribal community. Asked by Greg Jacobs, the tribal administrator, to sit in on a forestry meeting, Phillip sparked a conversation about cleaning up and revitalizing the river. He has been using his ecology expertise, tireless work ethic, and passion for the Coharie people to champion the Great Coharie River Initiative ever since. I sat down to talk with him about his story and his efforts.


On the River

“For our generation, for my day and all, this was our home. This is our river. This is where we fished, where we hunted, this is where – someone mentioned this morning – our recreation department. I guess this was our cornerstone, yeah, to say the least. Because we’re an agricultural group – I mean, you know, the Coharie Indians have always been, historically, agricultural. I mean, things are changing now. People are various jobs – teachers and administrators and business-holders and very few are farmers or have gardens anymore, and so we have this community gardens program here for our folks. And because the river is in the situation that it’s in, we don’t have people that go and utilize it like they did back in ‘53.”

“I remember as a young boy – well I was a teenage boy – we used to back our trucks up to the river and we would – we would sit here and the river was right there and we could fish right there.  Now you can’t get within 200 yards of that point because it’s flooded, because of the beaver backup and the water and all. And I don’t know if I’d want to eat the fish out there or not because of all the crap that’s in the water. But places like that that we could enjoy, that people could be using, we can’t now and uh to me from where I sit, and for a lot of people in our community, it’s a travesty.”

On the River and Healing

“There was another instance, another young man – and then I’ll stop because I could just go on all day – and this young man who came from a troubled background. His mother was killed; his mother shot his daddy when he was trying to cut her throat with a butter knife. And after his daddy was gone, this little boy went through all kinds of problems. You know, drugs, and just mental issues. Anyhow, when we cleaned out the river this past winter, when it was so cold, you’d see him and others in the community down in the river, and you’d think he was down there smoking pot or something because it was cold as crap. I wouldn’t be out there. But anyway. He was here talking to the tribal administrator one day and the tribal administrator was asking him, he said, man, what are you doing down by the river? Have y’all found gold by the river? And he said no, Mr. Jacobs, I’ve found myself. Well since then, this young fella has teamed up with our drummers. When you see him, you can talk to him. When you used to see him, he’d shy away from you and he wouldn’t look you in the eye. You’d think, has this young man gone crazy? Now, he acts like a good young man. He’ll come to my house to borrow kayaks to go down the river and it’s always Mr. Bell. I mean, just as nice a young man as you could ask for. Now, you tell me where that came from. It didn’t come from a therapy or a therapy session, it didn’t come from him talking to somebody at the school; it was the power of the river.”

On the Recovery Project

“We’ve got an opportunity with the Mountain-to-the-Sea Trail that’s in place now. And with that, the Appalachian Mountains… Back in ’84, I was out in California, working on a emergency program, but anyway. I was watching television, they were advertising for houses out in Cary, North Carolina. This was in California. And I came home and I told my wife, you know, I said, we’re the next California. Think of California, it’s got two things: it’s got the mountains and the sea. We’ve got the same thing, we’ve got the mountains and the sea. Only thing we don’t have is the earthquakes to go along with it. We’ve got green grass and the greenery to go along with it. So everybody is coming here. So what greater showcase can you have than the river here? And that’s what they’re doing with the Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail, and that’s what it does, it gives people the opportunity to walk and exercise and see North Carolina.”

“The first time we went in the river cleaning, we had them drum group with us. Them boys, there’s about 12-15 of them. And one of them had written a new song, and he was in the water beating with what he called a beaver stick. We got to a point where we would take out and we were all just standing around, and he started pounding in the water. Well, another one grabbed a stick and he started pounding. Well, directly, the whole group was there, pounding in the water. Well, they started singing that song, pounding in the water, singing – I have goosebumps right now. Literal, goosebumps on my face and my ears, oh my God, and I told those boys, you have awakened the spirits right here because that was amazing. Well, I was in a meeting with a man a couple weeks later, well, maybe a month later. He was telling – he was in the river – and he could hear this chanting. And he said the more they chanted, the more they could hear the spirits coming through the river. He said it was awesome. And it was. It was just something that you’d have to experience to see.”