These Native peoples all spoke the ancient Siouan language, and shared traditions, ceremonies, lifestyles and dress. There was a common bond among the tribes, and at the time of European contact, it was estimated that they numbered in excess of 20,000. It is this grouping of tribes that will be referred to here as the "Catawba", and the reasons for the name are explained further on.
First recorded contact with the Catawba was by DeSoto in 1540. It was noted that they were a tall and graceful people who dressed in skins and fur. The bodies were painted, and facial tatoos were favored by both men and women. Special note was made of their long fingernails!
They used shells for many things, and fashioned shell decorations for their clothing and ceremonial items. They valued feathers and all manner of beautiful stones (probably the many varieties of gems found in this part of the country.) Their arrowheads and spear points were made of quartz crystal.
By the time the English discovered the Catawba, they had developed a liking for silver breastplates, silver arm bands and brass bells. They wore silver ornaments in their ears and noses. It can be assumed that these items were introduced by the Spanish, but this is only an assumption since the source of these metals was not discussed.
The Catawba were farmers, hunters and fishermen, and were not nomads by nature. They settled in one area as long as the land was good and, when it was not, they moved their villages to a better location. They did not live in tipis, but rather in permanent structures built of trees and brush that would withstand the weather. Deep snow is not common in this area, but high winds, thunderstorms, lightening storms, hail and even sleet were commonplace. The dwellings were grouped in a community fashion, and surrounded by wooden palisades 6 to 8 feet high to keep out wild animals and unwelcome visitors. They were fierce warriors who fought to protect their families and their lands against neighboring, unfriendly tribes.
Original relationships with the white men were friendly and profitable, and went on peacefully for many, many years. The traders who blazed the first trails into Catawba territory were respectful and honored tribal protocol. In return, the traders were invited to trade each Spring and Fall, and they were provided shelter on the outside edge of the villages during their stays. Many traders learned the Native ways, were adopted into the tribe, moved inside the village compounds and took Catawba wives. The mixing of cultures and bloodlines for the Catawba dates back to the 1500's, and the existence of a full-blood Catawba today is rare indeed.
Early in trading history, the log book of one trader alone listed over 7,000 deer hides shipped out of the territory in a single season. Combined with the hides were furs of every description; pottery pots, dishes and utility pieces; baskets, rugs and all types of work woven from the reeds and canes of the lakes and rivers of the area. Of course, as word of this wealth spread, more, and less honorable, traders moved into the region. With them came the dreaded white diseases of cholera and smallpox which swept over the Catawba in waves, year after year. Villages lost so many of their people that those remaining would join with the nearest village just for survival. As the epidemics continued, more and more fell victim to disease until all the remaining villages drew together and grouped along the Catawba River. They became known as "The People of the River", and finally, "The Catawba".
As the Catawba lost their land to politics and greed, they began to move away from their homeland. A few stayed behind to fight for their rights and their lands under treaties signed with the white government. At the beginning of the 20th Century, only approximately 1,000 Catawbas could be accounted for. In the mid-1950's, the U.S. government declared the Catawba extinct, and "terminated" them.
Happily, events are taking a better turn today. Claims for tribal recognition and the return of their homeland were filed with the government, and were won by the Nation. A Catawba reservation was established in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and there is a return of the people to their native lands. Always famous for their pottery and basketweaving, these skills are once again being taught in the traditional way. A gathering is held on the reservation once each year and, amazingly enough, the 1993 gathering hosted over 5,000 Catawba!
There is a concentrated effort to rebuild the history of the Catawba. An active search is being conducted for old land deeds, photographs, family histories and original craft items such as baskets, pottery, jewelry; anything relating to the Catawba. If you or someone you know has historical ties to this part of the country, please contact Anthropologist, York County Museum, Rock Hill, South Carolina.
The most comprehensive history of the Catawba can be found in the
writings of Frank G. Speck. Called the "Catawba Texts", they are usually
NOT found in the American Indian sections of libraries, but rather under
literature and/or anthropology.
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