NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH: Celebrating and preserving Native American heritage in SC

Updated: Nov. 28, 2019 at 6:17 PM EST
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YORK COUNTY, S.C. (WIS) - November is Native American Heritage Month in the United States.

It's a time to reflect on the history of the first Americans and be reminded of the preservation of their people, ways, and culture. In South Carolina, the native population is estimated at around 50,000 people. There are nine tribes recognized by the state:

  • The Beaver Creek Indians
  • The Edisto Natchez Kusso Tribe of SC
  • The PeeDee Indian Nation of Upper SC
  • The PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of SC
  • The Santee Indian Organization
  • The Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians
  • The Waccamaw Indian People
  • The Wassamasaw Indian People of Varnertown

The Catawba, the largest in our state, are recognized by the federal government.

Recently, on the Catawba Indian Reservation at their Cultural Center in Rock Hill, the Catawba people gathered for the Catawba Fall Harvest Festival. Members of the public were also invited. Traditional food, art, and customs were on display including native dancing and songs.

"The natives are still here. The indigenous people are still here, practicing ... we're still here living our traditional ways but also in our modern society," said Kristine Carpenter, Cultural Center Educational Programs Director. "It’s a time that everybody kind of is focusing in on the importance that the Native Americans played in the settlement of this country."

Catawba Nation Assistant Chief Jason Harris said his people have been around for over 6,000 years.

In the mid-1700s, the Catawba population was estimated between 15,000 and 25,000 people. In 1763, the Catawba made a land deal with the English called Treaty at Augusta. It gave the Catawba claim to 144,000 acres of land in present-day York County. Under pressure from settlers who had leased land from the nation but wanted it for themselves, the state of South Carolina negotiated the Treaty of Nations Ford with the Catawba in 1840.

The Catawba gave up their land to the state and the state paid them to buy land elsewhere. This ultimately led to the Catawba being left with no land or home because other tribes who moved west did not want to share land and they did not get along with the Cherokee Nation. The Catawba were thought dissolved just a few years later in 1847 as declared by then South Carolina Governor David Johnson.

According to the Catawba Nation, in the 1940s, President Roosevelt's administration worked to improve conditions for tribes under the Indian Reorganization Act. The Catawba Nation created a constitution to help govern themselves, but policy toward Indian Tribes changed in the 1950s. In 1959, the Catawba Nation's federal status was terminated, as was the federal status of other tribes during that decade.

In 1973, the Catawba Tribe petitioned Congress to regain that status. A 20-year court battle ensued. In 1993, the land claim dispute between the Catawba and the state of South Carolina and the federal government finally came to an end. Based on the Treaty of Nations Ford, the Catawba’s agreed to give up claims to the land taken from them by the state of South Carolina and were in turn granted federal recognition and millions of dollars for land purchases and economic development.

"The history, the long history that goes into the relationship of Indians in the state of South Carolina has not been good. We live with that history and we're just trying to, in today's environment, make our relationship better with the state although we haven't forgot that. We're just trying to build a better relationship with our government that we have here and show them that we are a part of this community," said Assistant Chief Jason Harris.

Today, about 2,800 Catawbas live on around 1,200 acres in York County, the assistant chief estimated.

This month, in a Native American Heritage Month proclamation, current South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster acknowledged the contributions of Native Americans to our state and country vowing to maintain their history, culture, lifestyles, and unique heritage. The University of South Carolina is working to do that, too. Roughly 15 miles from the Catawba Reservation, you'll find the state's only Native American Studies Center at UofSC Lancaster. It houses 6,500 square feet of gallery and exhibit space highlighting all of South Carolina's Native American heritage with art, pottery, traditional garments, and other items from various tribes.

"We are the only part of the USC system and any college in South Carolina doing Native American studies," said Assistant Director, Chris Judge. “We’re trying to preserve the traditions that are current today and through archaeology were looking into the past and digging out of the ground in writing history for those that are not well documented."

Judge went on to say, "...we're .... trying to tell that story to the public so people in South Carolina can appreciate these cultures, understand these cultures, and realize these folks are still here."

Due to colonization, much was lost, from the language to traditions. Since then, much has also been recovered and Assistant Chief Harris said preservation is key.

“We want to make sure that we instill that in our next generations, that this stays alive for them, that’s our job as individuals, as tribal leaders, as parents,” Harris said.

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