Tribes and Territories

South Carolina’s oldest heritage

The jingle dress is the traditional attire for dancing at the PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation South Carolina Fifth Annual Powwow. The original bells were made from tin boxes.

Photography by Robert Clark

South Carolina is steeped in Revolutionary War and Civil War history. However, a rich and distinct history existed for hundreds, even thousands of years before these relatively young historical events became significant. Various tribes of American Indians  — from the Catawbas to the Creeks to the Cherokees — flourished in South Carolina. Remnants of these people groups and the territories they inhabited exist in familiar location names: Pee Dee, Edisto and Santee. Yet, their influence — then especially, and now still — is significant. 

Eric Metaxas, in his new book If You Can Keep It about America’s foundation, states that before there were the Edward Rutledges, Arthur Middletons and dozens of other founding fathers who have since become familiar in history books, there were Indians like Squanto, who is little known except to school-aged children studying quick facts regarding Thanksgiving. Yet, it was because of Squanto that the Pilgrims succeeded in knowing what to pull out of the ocean to eat and what would grow in the New World. It was arguably because of Squanto that many of the Pilgrims survived. Englanders met him when he was taken to London, and news of his encouragement, teaching and patience with the Pilgrims undoubtedly motivated others to make the journey to America and seek commonality with the native people. 


South Carolina State Archaeologist Jonathan Leader, Ph.D., says that on some level, every academic institution in South Carolina is interested in the Americans Indians because of their overall importance to the state’s heritage and present day culture. An archeological dig of some kind is constantly occurring somewhere in South Carolina, and finds are painstakingly evaluated in labs to determine what they meant then and what they might mean to us now. “The American Indian story is a continuing dynamic,” he says. “It’s not static … not cast in amber. It’s not a museum exhibit. American Indians are a dynamic, living, changing community.”


A Presence — Then and Now

Europeans flooded the shores of South Carolina beginning in the 1600s and increasingly thereafter. These newcomers could have been met by one of the original 20-plus tribes that existed then in South Carolina. One was called the Congaree; these Indians lived along the river that now bears their name. When the tribe’s numbers dwindled because of diseases such as smallpox, they joined another tribe, the Catawba. Each tribe throughout the state established its own communities, governments and cultures. 

The Catawbas, for example, primarily lived along the banks of the river also named for them, in what is known today as York and Lancaster counties. Their homes were round, bark-covered dwellings (resembling a yurt) with a fireplace in the center and an opening in the roof to release smoke. The village was often protected by a wall, and each community included a council house and an open area for dancing, games and meetings. The Catawbas focused on agriculture and were known to be friendly and welcoming to Europeans. In the 1600s, they numbered in the 5,000s. By 1776, many were fighting alongside colonists against the British and the Cherokee. Catawbas established a thriving system of trade in the Carolinas. They even rented land to settlers. 


The Catawbas, however, were not unaffected by the period of Indian Removal. Those in South Carolina negotiated what is known as the Treaty at Nations Ford, which essentially meant that they would relinquish their 144,000 acres of land, and South Carolina would establish them on a new tract of land and pay the tribe money. The latter part of this agreement did not happen. The Catawbas were considered, by some in South Carolina government, to be a non-entity. Catawbas, however, remained along the Catawba River. Yet, it was not until 1993, after generations of back and forth with the federal government, that $50 million for economic development, education, social services and land purchases was given to the Catawba Indian Nation. 

Today, there are more than 2,800 enrolled members in the Nation, according to Bill Harris, present chief of the Catawba Tribe in Rock Hill. He has a long history as a Catawba, following as chief in his grandfather’s footsteps. His grandmother was a potter, instrumental in preserving the 4,000-year-old art form. Chief Harris helps oversee the Catawba Indian Nation, an intricate system of government that includes education, healthcare, housing and a senior center. Plus, there is a Cultural Center with a mission of preserving, protecting, promoting and maintaining the Nation through archeology, crafts, education and activities such as powwows and festivals. 


Although the Catawbas were, and are, prominent in South Carolina, there are many more American Indian people groups still essential to the state. Gene Norris has been the chief of the PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of South Carolina, located in Gray Court, since 1995. Each year, he oversees and participates in a powwow to share history and culture with the public. Powwows also raise money for the Cherokee Nation, which owns 4.2 acres of land where there is a craft store, museum, living village and tribal office. The tribal grounds were not purchased until 2004. The Cherokee were famously part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, and many were forced to vacate the Carolinas and march to Oklahoma to establish a life on a reservation there. However, many stayed and hid; others eventually returned. 

The Piedmont American Indian Association has been a state recognized Indian Group since 2006. “Before the Spanish explorers, we were organized into tribes,” explains Chief Norris. “We prefer to perpetuate that tradition. It’s important for our members to be recognized as American Indians, not Native Americans. It is our heritage. It keeps the traditions and culture from dying out. We are a Cherokee tribe.”

Chief Norris adds that it was only this past year that South Carolina officially recognized PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation of South Carolina; it became the only recognized Cherokee tribe in the state. There are approximately 550 tribal members. 

This year’s Cherokee powwow, which takes place annually the last Saturday in September, raised money to improve its White Sage Longhouse with a new well and bathroom area. Longhouses were built by some American Indians to accommodate multiple families; they were often made of wood fastened with leather and then covered with bark or hide. According to Chief Norris, the Nation is in the process of enhancing its museum experience so that artifacts from hundreds of years ago to the present can be displayed, and the public will have a deeper knowledge of the history and culture of not only the Cherokee, but other Indian tribes as well.

Another active tribe is the Waccamaws in Aynor. Annually, they host a Cultural Arts Festival and Pauwau at their tribal grounds. This year’s event takes place Nov. 6 and is open to the public. Active in the area near Conway, also known for generations by the Indians as Dog Bluff, are decedents of the Waccamaw people. For a brief moment in history, they warred against white settlers, but were mostly known to inhabit areas along what is now called the Waccamaw River where they fished, hunted and farmed. Some Waccamaws merged with Catawba tribes. It was not until 1922 that a formal organization was established to protect and promote the traditions and history of the Waccamaw people. The tribe became state recognized in 2005.


On Display and Living Life

Even though many of the tribes that originally existed in South Carolina have vanished, evidence is clear that American Indian footprints superseded those of the white man. There are the rare finds of arrowheads lying on top soil in a farmer’s newly plowed field. Sherds of pottery, in-tact tools and hunting accoutrements are revealed when people garden or dig a foundation for a new home. Then we have journals, letters and reports by some Englishmen who became allies with native people.

One of the places housing a comprehensive collection of objects old and new is the Native American Studies Center at the University of South Carolina Lancaster. According to Christopher Judge, the director, this is the only opportunity for comprehensive American Indians studies at any university in South Carolina. 

“We provide a central location for American Indian archaeology, folklore, linguistics and art,” says Chris. “In addition, we maintain public archives with books, films, videos, photographs, manuscripts and other information on the South Carolina tribes. Plus, we have four exhibit galleries, one permanent and three rotating.”

There are Artists-in-Residence, including a Catawba potter, Keith “Little Bear” Brown, and Catawba basket maker Faye Greiner. Visitors can watch these artists work, as well as participate in hands-on activities.

Established in 2012, the center houses the largest single collection of Catawba pottery in existence, primary and secondary resources of American Indians throughout the Southeast, and educational classes and programs. There are also oral history and language labs. 

Chris says the center has historically seen around 7,000 visitors per year, but expects the numbers to be closer to 9,000 this year. Many are from North and South Carolina, but visitors from most states as well as from 22 different countries have visited the center. He points out that more people seem interested in, whether on an academic or personal level, learning about American Indian history and culture in general or about their own ancestry. A popular activity at the center is the Lunch and Learn Lecture Series, third Friday of each month. 

Chris believes institutions such as the center are essential to instilling in the consciousness of South Carolinians that American Indians are truly the essence of the state’s heritage. “There are so few venues to promote the American Indian heritage and culture that I believe we play a critical role in this effort. It is vitally important today for people to realize the contributions of American Indians and their heritage to Southern culture.” 


South Carolina has a host of opportunities to learn more about those who were the state’s first inhabitants:

University of South Carolina Lancaster Native American Studies Center in Lancaster;

Catawba Cultural Center in Rock Hill;

PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation Museum and Living Village in Gray Court;

Museum of the Cherokee in South Carolina in Walhalla;