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Catawba people facts for kids

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Ye Iswąˀ
Catawba lang.png
Pre-contact distribution of the Catawba
Total population
2010: 3,370
Regions with significant populations
 United States (North Carolina, South Carolina)
English, revival of Catawba
Traditional Indigenous (private), Christianity (incl. syncretistic forms), Mormon
Related ethnic groups
Lumbee, Waccamaw, Eno, Shakori, and other Siouan peoples
Catawba Reservation
Location in South Carolina
Location in South Carolina
Tribe Catawba Nation
Country United States
State South Carolina
County York
Headquarters Rock Hill
 • Total 3,370

The Catawba, also known as Issa, Essa or Iswä but most commonly Iswa (Catawba: Ye Iswąˀ – "people of the river"), are a federally recognized tribe of Native Americans, known as the Catawba Indian Nation. Their current lands are in South Carolina, on the Catawba River, near the city of Rock Hill. Their territory once extended into North Carolina, as well, and they still have legal claim to some parcels of land in that state. They were once considered one of the most powerful Southeastern tribes in the Carolina Piedmont, as well as one of the most powerful tribes in the South as a whole, with other, smaller tribes merging into the Catawba as their post-contact numbers dwindled due to the effects of colonization on the region.

The Catawba were among the East Coast tribes who made selective alliances with some of the early European colonists, when these colonists agreed to help them in their ongoing conflicts with other tribes. These were primarily the tribes of different language families: the Iroquois, who ranged south from the Great Lakes area and New York; the Algonquian Shawnee and Lenape (Delaware); and the Iroquoian Cherokee, who fought for control over the large Ohio Valley (including what is in present-day West Virginia). During the American Revolutionary War the Catawba supported the American colonists against the British. Decimated by colonial smallpox epidemics, warfare and cultural disruption, the Catawba declined markedly in number in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some Catawba continued to live in their homelands in South Carolina, while others joined the Choctaw or Cherokee, at least temporarily.

Terminated as a tribe by the federal government in 1959, the Catawba Indian Nation had to reorganize to reassert their sovereignty and treaty rights. In 1973 they established their tribal enrollment and began the process of regaining federal recognition. In 1993 their federal recognition was re-established, along with a $50 million settlement by the federal government and state of South Carolina for their longstanding land claims. The tribe was also officially recognized by the state of South Carolina in 1993. Their headquarters are at Rock Hill, South Carolina.

As of 2006, the population of the Catawba Nation has increased to about 2,600, most in South Carolina, with smaller groups in Oklahoma, Colorado, Ohio, and elsewhere. The Catawba language, which is being revived, is part of the Siouan family (Catawban branch).


Indians NW of South Carolina
A c. 1724 English copy of a deerskin Catawba map of the tribes between Charleston (left) and Virginia (right) following the displacements of a century of disease and enslavement and the 1715–7 Yamasee War. The Catawba themselves are labelled as "Nasaw".

From the earliest period, the Catawba have also been known as Esaw, or Issa (Catawba iswä, "river"), from their residence on the principal stream of the region. They called both the present-day Catawba and Wateree rivers Iswa. The Iroquois frequently included them under the general term Totiri, or Toderichroone, also known as Tutelo. The Iroquois collectively used this term to apply to all the southern Siouan-speaking tribes.

Albert Gallatin (1836) classified the Catawba as a separate, distinct group among Siouan tribes. When the linguist Albert Samuel Gatschet visited them in 1881 and obtained a large vocabulary showing numerous correspondences with Siouan, linguists classified them with the Siouan-speaking peoples. Further investigations by Horatio Hale, Gatschet, James Mooney, and James Owen Dorsey proved that several tribes of the same region were also of Siouan stock.

In the late nineteenth century, the ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft recorded the purported Catawba traditions about their history, including that they had lived in Canada until driven out by the Iroquois (supposedly with French help). They migrated to Kentucky and to Botetourt County, Virginia. By 1660 they had migrated south to the Catawba River, contesting it with the Cherokee in the area. The Kentucky River was also known as the Catawba River at times. Catawba Tribe was later a subtribe under Cherokee Chiefs authority at times.

But, 20th-century anthropologist James Mooney later dismissed most elements of Schoolcraft's record as "absurd, the invention and surmise of the would-be historian who records the tradition." He pointed out that, aside from the French never having been known to help the Iroquois, the Catawba had been recorded by 1567 in the same area of the Catawba River as their later territory. Mooney accepted the tradition that the Catawba and Cherokee had made the Broad River their mutual boundary, following a protracted struggle.

The Catawba were long in a state of warfare with northern tribes, particularly the Iroquois Seneca, and the Algonquian-speaking Lenape, a people who had occupied coastal areas and had become vassals of the Iroquois after migrating out of traditional areas due to European encroachment. The Catawba chased their raiding parties back to the north in the 1720s and 1730s, going across the Potomac River. At one point, a party of Catawba is said to have followed a party of Lenape who attacked them, and to have overtaken them near Leesburg, Virginia. There they fought a pitched battle.

Similar encounters in this longstanding warfare were reported to have occurred at present-day Franklin, West Virginia (1725), Hanging Rocks and the mouth of the Potomac South Branch in West Virginia, and near the mouths of Antietam Creek (1736) and Conococheague Creek in Maryland. Mooney asserted that the name of Catawba Creek in Botetourt came from an encounter in these wars with the northern tribes, not from the Catawba having lived there.

The colonial governments of Virginia and New York held a council at Albany, New York in 1721, attended by delegates from the Six Nations (Haudenosaunee) and the Catawba. The colonists asked for peace between the Confederacy and the Catawba, however the Six Nations reserved the land west of the Blue Ridge mountains for themselves, including the Indian Road or Great Warriors' Path (later called the Great Wagon Road) through the Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia backcountry. This heavily traveled path, used until 1744 by Seneca war parties, went through the Shenandoah Valley to the South.

In 1738, a smallpox epidemic broke out in South Carolina. It caused many deaths, not only among the Anglo-Americans, but especially among the Catawba and other tribes, such as the Sissipahaw. They had no natural immunity to the disease, which had been endemic in Europe for centuries. In 1759, a smallpox epidemic killed nearly half the tribe. Native Americans suffered high fatalities from such infectious Eurasian diseases.

In 1744 the Treaty of Lancaster, made at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, renewed the Covenant Chain between the Iroquois and the colonists. The governments had not been able to prevent settlers going into Iroquois territory, but the governor of Virginia offered the tribe payment for their land claim. The peace was probably final for the Iroquois, who had established the Ohio Valley as their preferred hunting ground by right of conquest. The more western tribes continued warfare against the Catawba, who were so reduced that they could raise little resistance. In 1762, a small party of Algonquian Shawnee killed the noted Catawba chief, King Hagler, near his own village. From this time, the Catawba ceased to be of importance except in conjunction with the colonists.

In 1763, South Carolina confirmed a reservation for the Catawba of 225 square miles (580 km2; 144,000 acres), on both sides of the Catawba River, within the present York and Lancaster counties. When British troops approached during the American Revolutionary War in 1780, the Catawba withdrew temporarily into Virginia. They returned after the Battle of Guilford Court House, and settled in two villages on the reservation. These were known as Newton, the principal village, and Turkey Head, on opposite sides of Catawba River.


In 1826, the Catawba leased nearly half their reservation to whites for a few thousand dollars of annuity, on which the few survivors (as few as 110 by one estimate) chiefly depended. In 1840 by the Treaty of Nation Ford with South Carolina, the Catawba sold all but one square mile (2.6 km2) of their 144,000 acres (225 sq mi; 580 km2) reserved by the King of England to the state. They resided on the remaining square mile after the treaty. The treaty was invalid ab initio because the state did not have the right to make it and did not get federal approval. About the same time, a number of the Catawba, dissatisfied with their condition among the whites, removed to join the eastern Cherokee in western North Carolina. But, finding their position among their old enemies equally unpleasant, all but one or two soon returned to South Carolina. An old woman, the last survivor of this emigration, died among the Cherokee in 1889. A few Cherokee intermarried with the Catawba.

At a later period some Catawba removed to the Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory and settled near present-day Scullyville, Oklahoma. They merged with the Choctaw and did not retain separate tribal identity.

Catawba 1913
Catawba at THE CORN EXPOSITION 1913 Rock Hill

Starting in 1883–84, large number of Catawba joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some migrated west with them to Colorado.

Historical culture

The Catawba were sedentary agriculturists, who also fished and hunted for game. They had customs similar to neighboring Native Americans in the Piedmont. The men were good hunters. The women have been noted makers of pottery and baskets, arts which they still preserve. They seem to have practiced the custom of head-flattening to a limited extent, as did several of the neighboring tribes. By reason of their dominant position, the Catawba had gradually absorbed the broken tribes of South Carolina, to the number, according to Adair, of perhaps 20.

When the English first settled South Carolina about 1682, they estimated the Catawba at about 1,500 warriors, or about 4,600 people in total. They named the Catawba River and Catawba County after the indigenous people. By 1728, the Catawba had been reduced to about 400 warriors, or about 1400 persons in total. In 1738, they suffered from a smallpox epidemic, which also affected nearby tribes and the whites. In 1743, even after incorporating several small tribes, the Catawba numbered fewer than 400 warriors. In 1759, they again suffered from smallpox, and in 1761, had some 300 warriors, or about 1,000 people. By 1775 they had only 400 people in total; in 1780, they had 490; and, in 1784, only 250 were reported.

During the nineteenth century, their numbers continued to decline, to 450 in 1822, and a total of 110 people in 1826. As of 2006, their population had increased to about 2600.

Religion and culture

Catawba potter
The Catawba women were well known for their pottery in the Carolinas.

The customs and beliefs of the early Catawba were documented by the anthropologist Frank Speck in the twentieth century.

In the Carolinas, the Catawba became well known for their pottery, which was made by the women.

In approximately 1883, tribal members were contacted by Mormon missionaries. Numerous Catawba were converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some migrated to Colorado and Utah and neighboring western states.

The Catawba hold a yearly celebration called Yap Ye Iswa, which roughly translates to Day of the People, or Day of the River People. Held at the Catawba Cultural Center, proceeds are used to fund the activities of the center.

20th century to present

The Catawba were electing their chief prior to the start of the 20th century. In 1909 the Catawba sent a petition to the United States government seeking to be given United States citizenship.

During the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the federal government worked to improve conditions for Native Americans. Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, tribes were encouraged to renew their governments for more self-determination. The Catawba were not at that time a recognized Native American tribe. In 1929 the Chief of the Catawba, Samuel Taylor Blue, had begun the process to gain federal recognition. The Catawba were recognized as a Native American tribe in 1941 and they created a written constitution in 1944. Also in 1944 South Carolina granted the Catawba and other Native American residents of the state citizenship, but not to the extent of granting them the right to vote. Like African Americans, they were largely excluded from the franchise. That right would be denied the Catawba until the 1960s, when they gained it as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided for federal enforcement of people's constitutional right to vote..

As a result of the federal government's Indian termination policy in the 1950s of its special relationship with some Indian tribes that it determined were ready for assimilation, it terminated the government of the Catawba in 1959. This meant also that the members of the tribe ceased to have federal benefits, their assets were divided, and the people were subject to state law. The Catawba found that they preferred to be organized as a tribal community. Beginning in 1973, they applied to have their government federally recognized, with Gilbert Blue serving as their chief until 2007. They adopted a constitution in 1975 that was modeled on their 1944 version.

In addition, for decades the Catawba pursued various land claims against the government for the losses due to the illegal treaty made by South Carolina in 1840 and the failure of the federal government to protect their interests. In 1993 the federal government reversed the "termination", recognized the Catawba Indian Nation and, together with the state of South Carolina, settled the land claims for $50 million to go toward economic development for the Nation.

With the late 20th-century governmental recognition of the right of Native Americans to conduct gambling on sovereign land, the Catawba set up such enterprises to generate revenue. In 1996, the Catawba formed a joint venture partnership with D.T. Collier of SPM Resorts, Inc. of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to manage their bingo and casino operations. That partnership, New River Management and Development Company, LLC (of which the Catawba were the majority owner) operated the Catawba's bingo parlor in Rock Hill, for several years.

When in 2004 the Catawba entered into an exclusive management contract with SPM Resorts, Inc., to manage all new bingo facilities, some tribal members were critical. The new contract was signed by the former governing body immediately prior to new elections. In addition, the contract was never brought before the General Council (the full tribal membership) as required by their existing constitution. After the state established the South Carolina Education Lottery in 2002, the tribe lost gambling revenue and decided to shut down the Rock Hill bingo operation. They sold the facility in 2007.

In 2006, the Catawba filed suit against the state of South Carolina for the right to operate video poker and similar "electronic play" devices on their reservation. They prevailed in the lower courts, but the state appealed the ruling to the South Carolina Supreme Court. The state Supreme Court overturned the lower court ruling. The tribe appealed that ruling to the United States Supreme Court, but in 2007 the court declined to hear the appeal.

On July 21, 2007, the Catawba held their first elections in more than 30 years. Of the five members of the former government, only two were reelected.

In the 2010 census, 3,370 people claimed Catawba ancestry. 2,025 of them were full-blooded.

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