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News | Nov. 18, 2021

Commentary: Catawba Indian Nation keeps Native American traditions alive

By Patricia Hampton  Native American/Alaskan Native Special Emphasis Program Committee, DLA Land and Maritime

The final article in recognition of Native American/Alaskan Native Heritage Month introduces the Piedmont area of South Carolina, North Carolina and parts of Virginia representing the ancestral lands of the Catawba Indians who have occupied the region along the Catawba River dating back 6,000 years. The Catawbas – known as fierce warriors but most notably identified as “people of the river” – have a strong heritage that emphasizes working together. The spirit of this tenet is evidenced in the relationship between early American settlers and King Hagler, who led the tribe from 1754-1763. Under his leadership and partnership with the English, the Catawba were one of three tribes to fight alongside the English seeking to gain their independence during the Revolutionary War. King Hagler, regarded as a friend to the English, was also a strong defender of the right of the Catawba people. Through partnership and working together, his leadership helped both the early settlers and the Catawba survive. 

Today the same spirit of working together has enabled the Catawba to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. As an example, in 1763 the Catawbas received title to 144,000 acres from the King of England. Due to the complexity and difficulty in protecting the land from colonists, renting land to settlers became a solution. The first tenant was Thomas Spratt who leased several thousand acres of farmland. Settlers would eventually petition the government to negotiate a different arrangement. The Treaty at Nations Ford was negotiated and enacted, resulting in the Catawba relinquishing the 144,000 acres of land to the state of South Carolina and in return the Catawba received a new tract of less populated land and payments. Later in 1951 the Catawba lost federal recognition status.

However, the fighting spirit combined with a cultural predisposition toward working together persisted. In 1973, the Catawbas filed their petition with Congress for federal recognition. They also updated and adopted their constitution in 1975. The Catawbas maintained a compelling argument in the fight for federal recognition. The Treaty at Nations Ford with South Carolina was illegal because it was not ratified by the federal government. As a matter of consequence, the federal government would have been obliged to protect the rights of the Catawbas. After 20 years, the land claim settlement with the state of South Carolina and the federal government finally came to an end on November 20, 1993. The Catawbas agreed to give up claims on land taken from them by the state of South Carolina. In return, the Catawba Indian Nation received federal recognition and $50 million for economic development, education, social services and land purchases. Of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States, the Catawba Indian Nation is the only one located in the state of South Carolina, according to data provided by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In addition to the resilient spirit of the Catawba, an artistic tradition exists in pottery creation. The Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History details the specific methods the Catawba people use to create their pottery. The pottery is first and foremost created by hand using several methods depending on shape and size. The clay is extracted from clay holes along the Catawba River, many of which are the same holes used by the Catawba Indian Nation hundreds of years prior. Additionally, the tools used to detail pottery from seashells and smooth rocks from the river, and old snuff cans are passed down to children to ensure posterity. Although societal changes had resulted in a decline in pottery making, the tradition has been revived and is still passed down today. There exists about 50 adult Catawbas that earn a living making and selling pottery, according to historians with the Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. Catawba children are being taught the craft in the children’s programs that are run by the Catawba Nation. There are also pottery classes for adults taught at the cultural center near the tribe’s headquarters east of Rock Hill, South Carolina, with hopes of keeping the 4,000-year-old tradition alive. 


Editor’s Note: The National American Indian Heritage Month observance has its roots in Public Law 99-471. Over several years the observance was moved to different months but in 1990 Public Law 101-343 set the monthlong observance in November. Please note that the title of this observance varies between agencies. The Department of Defense’s Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute uses the title set forth in the Public Laws, and that title is used at the beginning of this article to signify the DOD-wide observance. By Presidential Proclamation, the month is also observed as National Native American Heritage Month. In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act extending citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements that granted such status. The act was later amended to include Alaska Natives, and as such, the month is also recognized as Native American/Alaskan Native Heritage Month.