Before the United States, before the Carolinas, before the Americas, thousands of years before our European and African ancestors landed, willingly and not, on the shores of this vast country, there was a woman kneeling on the bank of the Catawba River. She would have been wrist-deep in the riverbank’s thick pan clay, collecting source material to fire into the Catawba tribe’s signature pottery. The Catawba were farmers, and the woman would pass rows of corn and squash, perhaps, on her way home. The Catawba were hunters, and fishers, too. Maybe her son would return from the river with a string of bass, or catfish. He would walk up to his mother and say, “Tanache.” Hello.
What was once an aboriginal territory that spanned most of South Carolina, half of North Carolina, and part of Virginia and West Virgina is now a 1,000-acre reservation located in eastern York County, southeast of Rock Hill along the Catawba River. The Catawba Indian Nation is the only federally recognized tribe in the state of S.C., a designation the tribe did not gain until 1993. Their nascence, though, dates back at least 4,000, maybe even 6,000 years. The story alters drastically — from peaceful existence to tumultuous throes of change — when outsiders first discover this land of plenty. And, we’d be remiss, in an issue centered on the tropes of westward expansion, not to discuss the people made victims by this history.
“We can start with 1540 and Mr. de Soto coming through this area,” says Catawba Indian Nation Chief Bill Harris, referring to the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto. “They were introducing themselves to the Catawba people and we discovered that in our willingness to open our arms to those who were visiting our lands, we were greeted with … not favorable results.”
From 1540 on, the Catawba dealt with loss of land, loss of life, even loss of language. There were treaties reneged upon, promises broken, and, now, what remains — a reservation populated by about 550 Catawba tribe members. Despite the effects of war, of smallpox, of being displaced from their native land, the Catawba persisted. And they held onto that riverbank.
“I consider myself very fortunate,” says Harris of his deep-seated knowledge of Catawba pottery making. “[My grandmother] Georgia Harris was an excellent potter and teacher. She gave freely of the art form and with that I fell in love with it myself at a young age.” Harris’ grandmother received the 1994 National Endowment for the Arts award for her pottery and, in 2016, Harris himself received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, presented by the S.C. General Assembly.
“I am putting my hands in clay and having that experience knowing I have over 4,000 years of clay making [behind me] and there hasn’t been a generational stop in that period … we are digging clay out of the same clayholes,” says Harris.
And while Harris and the Catawba proudly carry on this tradition, the Chief is quick to point out, laughing, that no, the tribe does not reside in one big teepee.
“A lot of times people’s perception of Native Americans is still sitting in the 1700s or 1800s. We’re in the same time zone as the rest of the state — we recognize it is 2018,” says Harris. “We have cellphones, we don’t ride ponies to work, we live in the same society. And the teepee … that was a Plains nomadic home! That wasn’t even on the East Coast.”
The reservation currently has single family homes, apartments, plus a department of social services, a public works department, a highways and roads department, everything you’d expect to find, says Tribal Administrator Elizabeth Harris, in any town’s City Hall. Non-Catawba tribe members work on the reservation, too, and visitors are welcome. Those stopping by the reservation will find a cultural center featuring free exhibits outlining the history of the tribe, a craft store with work made by native artisans, and maps for three different walking trails. Visitors may even hear bits of the lost, and rediscovered, Catawba language.
“We started losing our language at an early time period … when we came to the modern day in South Carolina, we were discouraged from speaking our language,” says Harris. “But it just so happened in the ’30s and ’40s there were linguists and archeologists who were fascinated by our language — it’s a dialect of Siouan. So they recorded it.”
The tribe started to discover this archived material after the 1993 settlement with the federal government — there was a cultural renaissance, says Harris. “We are teaching fragments [of the language] at our Young Start program. Two good words to know are ‘tanache,’ which is a greeting of hello, welcome. And then ‘hawuh’ which means thank you. It speaks of the civilization, that before European contact, when they said they discovered uncivilized people, that thousands of years ago the Catawba had the word for ‘thank you.'”
To learn more about the Catawba Indian Nation, visit catawbaindian.net.