ON THE ROAD: Rock Hill woman reviving Catawba culture for future generations

ROCK HILL, SC (WOLO) — Earlier this week, Gov. Henry McMaster helped present the South Carolina Historic Preservation Awards.

While most went to efforts keeping old buildings alive, the Governor’s Award went to a woman who has for decades been working to keep her culture alive.

“What reminder do we have of those who were here before us? Not many reminders,” said Bill Fitzgerald, Preservation South Carolina chairman. “So where do you begin to tell the story of the people who were first here?”

That was the question many Catawba people asked themselves decades ago.

In 1959, the Catawba Indian Nation was no longer recognized as a tribe by the Federal government. That same year, the last native speaker of the Catawba language also passed away.

“Several tribal members in 1979 got together and decided that if we didn’t start doing things to preserve our culture, it was going to slip away from us,” said Dr. Wenonah Haire, Catawba Cultural Preservation Project director.

For almost 20 years, the Catawba people fought to regain federal recognition.

One of the things that the elders kept alive during that time was the tribe’s pottery making.

“It’s the one true tradition of our tribe that’s never stopped being made like our ancestors before Europeans ever stepped foot on this part of the world. It’s not just focusing on one thing. It’s focusing on all of them, because we’re in a race against time, Haire said. “There’s so many things to reintroduce that we once did as a people. There’s so many things to preserve and protect so that future generations will be able to know.”

Along the trail to the Catawba River are QR codes that you can scan to learn more about the Catawba Nation.

“We’re always trying to preserve the past while keeping up with the present and thinking about the future,” Haire said.

That means keeping up with current technology. The tribe has digital archives and Zoom classes to teach culture to Catawba people around the world.

Part of the culture that has been difficult to revive has been the Catawba language. 

“It’s a process of bringing the language into utilization for today,” Haire said. “For example, there’s no word for microphone or TV. We have to coin a word using Catawba words we know to describe an item. Going forward, we know a Catawba word for cellphone, hoodie or any other modern terms.”

The Catawba Cultural Center has only recently reopened after the pandemic. During that time, the center focused on renovation… construction and preservation.

On Wednesday, Haire accepted the award for preservation this week. However, she says anyone who helps keep the tribe’s culture alive is just as important in the preservation effort.

“I think right now the word that sticks in our mind is resilient. Despite all the things we’ve had to endure and that have come at us, we’re still here today, alive and well,” Haire said.

A day of Catawba culture can also be enjoyed by everyone when the Yap Ye Iswa event returns in November.

The cultural center is open Monday through Saturday from 9 to 5.

You can check here for more information about the center’s programs.

Categories: Local News