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Catawba Cultural Center Serves as Beacon for Catawban Community

Charlotte Museum of History honors center with preservation award

The extrerior of the Catawba Cultural Center
The Catawba Cultural Center is located on Tom Steven Road on the Catawba Indian Nation reservation near Rock Hill. (Photo courtesy of Catawba Indian Nation)

It was more than 35 years ago that Dr. Wenonah G. Haire was working at her dentistry practice in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when a fellow tribal member of the Catawba Indian Nation came by to visit. 

He told Dr. Haire that he was concerned for the future of the tribe, as he had noticed young people becoming disconnected from the culture. By the late 1980s, Catawba had already been embroiled in a years-long court battle to regain federal recognition, with no clear end in sight. 

For the younger generations in the tribe to be losing important skills and knowledge regarding Catawba culture in that climate could spell a death knell for a people that settled in this area more than 6,000 years ago. 

As it turned out, the following conversation would drastically change the course of Haire’s life over the next 35 years. 

“I was in between patients, and [my visitor] said, ‘We got to do something about the culture. We’re losing it,’” she recalled. “I’m like, ‘I agree,’ so he said, ‘Well, we decided you’re going to be the one that’s going to do it.’ I was like, ‘Do you not see the patients waiting out here?’”

Haire laughs thinking back to that moment now and what it led to, which was the founding of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project in 1989. To this day, Haire still serves as the executive director of the project, and she’s done so from her office in the Catawba Cultural Center, a small building on the Catawba Reservation in York Country that serves as the hub for the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project and the Catawba community more broadly. 

a portrait of people dancing at a festival at the Catawba Cultural Center
The annual Yap Ye Iswa Festival is now held on the Catawba Cultural Center grounds. (Courtesy of Catawba Indian Nation)

On May 9, the Charlotte Museum of History will honor the Catawba Cultural Center with its Excellence in Preservation Award, a top award handed out at its annual Charlotte Gem Preservation Awards, which recognize outstanding contributions to historic preservation in the Charlotte region, encouraging preservation of the area’s historic buildings and streetscapes.

What the Catawba Cultural Center represents, however, goes much deeper than the preservation of a physical space. 

In a release announcing the award, the Charlotte Museum of History announced that judges had recognized the center and the folks who run it for their “exemplary efforts in preserving and promoting the cultural and material heritage of the Catawba people, who are indigenous to the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. Mecklenburg County is part of the Catawba’s historic homelands and remains a part of the modern Catawba Nation’s federally recognized service area, making Catawba Nation history a fundamental part of Mecklenburg County history.” 

Origins of the Catawba Cultural Center

The building that houses the Catawba Cultural Center began its life as a two-room school for Catawba children in 1948, when the local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints constructed it to provide an education to Catawba children on the reservation during segregation.

Unlike many of the boarding schools built for indigenous children across the Midwestern United States and Canada in the previous century, schools that shared a dark history of disturbing assimilation practices and family separation, the Catawba school had a positive impact on the community, as most members of the congregation that built it were tribal members.

After the Catawbas’ federal recognition status was terminated in 1959, the tribe donated the land where the center sat on Reservation Road back to the church. 

“We had so much confidence in our relationship with the church, and that the church was predominantly Catawban, that we were like, ‘We’re going to give this land to you for a dollar in exchange for you protecting it, holding that trust for us,’” explained DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren, longtime staff member at the center and currently a council member with the Catawba Nation Executive Committee. 

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 brought an end to segregation in the South, Catawba children continued to attend the Cultural Center for educational purposes, as the local school district in Rock Hill refused to send its school buses onto the reservation to pick up children or drop them off. 

“There was a time that there were no public teachers,” said Haire. “They had a teacher that came, and I don’t know whether it was out of her goodwill or if somebody garnered money for it, but that same teacher would teach all grades. And so I always thought about that, ‘Wow, we didn’t even have teachers.’” 

Dr. Wenonah Haire was honored with the South Carolina Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation in 2022. (Photo courtesy of Catawba Indian Nation)

Eventually, as tribal members continued to move away from the reservation and the remaining children began attending public schools, the building fell into disrepair. 

In the early 1990s, the school was moved from its original location to where it sits today on Tom Steven Road. Haire remembers tribal members lining the streets to witness the historic move. 

“It took an entire day to get it from Reservation Road over to here, which is not even five minutes away,” she recalled. “There were people lined up on the street in their lawn chairs, watching this building, because this was a very important building to them, and they were very glad that it wasn’t going to be just torn down.” 

The former schoolhouse became the Catawba Cultural Center, where it has served as a hub for the tribal public ever since. Following some key add-ons and renovations funded by federal ARPA dollars in 2020 and 2021, the Catawba Cultural Center is now buzzing with activity on a daily basis. 

a portrait of people celebrating at the Yap Ye Iswa Festival in colorful, traditional clothing
Yap Ye Iswa Festival is held in November at the Catawba Cultural Center. (Courtesy of Catawba Indian Nation)

Maintaining history and tradition

When Queen City Nerve visited on a recent Friday afternoon, a couple of staff members were finishing up a basket-weaving project using rivercane. The craft store was open, highlighting numerous artistic pieces for sale by tribal members, while downstairs, next to the library, the archive held countless documents, crafts, photographs, books and other invaluable pieces of Catawba ephemera.

“On any given day, all of these things could be happening,” explained George-Warren. “You could have someone who was just driving down the road, saw the sign for a Catawba Cultural Center and Reservation, said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I just want to pop in. Let’s see what’s happening here,’ while you might also have a school group in the big room, maybe 50 kids all excited because they’re on a field trip and we’re doing drumming, we’re doing dancing, and telling them about our history and our stories. 

“While simultaneously, you might have someone downstairs who is either picking out a kid’s storybook about native people or someone else who’s in our archives who’s trying to hear old recordings of their grandparents. Then in the afternoon, you might have representatives from federal agencies who are sitting down for a meeting with tribal leadership to talk about how we can work better together.” 

With adult workshops, Head Start preschool classes, programming for tribal elders, outdoor educational programming and the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project all operating out of the center, there’s always something going on. 

The basket-weaving project in itself was symbolic of how the Preservation Project is not only preserving but rescuing aspects of Catawba culture. The baskets are made with rivercane, a highly valuable but now scarce resource for the Catawba people.

a photo of people preserving the Catawba culture with basket weaving
Basket weaving at the Catawba Cultural Center. (Courtesy of Catawba Indian Nation)

“Rivercane is this incredible material that can be used to make baskets and mats and weapons and structures and music, art and culture,” explained George-Warren. “But through all these different colonial processes, a lot of that knowledge got left behind, let alone the fact that rivercane is very difficult to find now, particularly at the size that you need it for [those projects].” 

Catawba members have partnered with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to work together in revitalizing rivercane patches along the Catawba River and plant new patches elsewhere in recent years, but the process has been slow-going. 

George-Warren saw the project that was finishing up during our recent visit as representative of the larger mission of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project. 

“We’re bringing the knowledge back about how do we actually make rivercane baskets, how do we actually make rivercane mats, which we see in our historical record,” he said. “We know that it’s there, but the knowledge is lost. Just as they’re weaving those baskets, they’re reweaving this culture. It’s so symbolic.

“It’s just a casual Friday afternoon here where people are making some baskets, but at the same time, the importance of it is so huge,” he continued. “I mean, this is the first time in over 100-150 years that a Catawba has made a rivercane basket or a rivercane mat.” 

Continuing the work

Looking back on 35 years of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project, Haire said she has watched progress be made from the time in the late ’80s when she and other members of the tribe who had formed a board for the project would meet at one another’s homes to launch their new mission. 

She said the will was always there for a project of this size, but not the resources to make it happen. 

“I remember a potter telling me, well, several of them telling me that because they were busy surviving, they weren’t able to do what was in their heart,” she said. “As time went on, when we first started out, a lot of the elders were very intent on trying to bring that back and make sure they put a focus on it because they were no longer working, so they could donate.” 

Haire pointed to Evelyn Brown George — a master potter who was born in 1914 and continued to work as a dance instructor, teaching children traditional Catawba dance moves, until her death in 2007 at the age of 93 — as an example of the elders’ dedication to keeping Catawba culture alive.

Read More: Catawba Indian Nation’s Enduring Clay Pottery Practices Highlighted in Exhibit

As time has passed, she has seen more young people get involved in learning and practicing Catawba culture, an observation that has comforted her after many years of working at the center.

“Over the years, there are younger generations coming in here,” she said from her office, which is filled with enough mementos collected over the decades to qualify as its own Catawba archive. “I’m seeing that and this is good. I’m not ready to lay the torch down, but I feel like if I did or if I had to, it would go on. For a long time, I was really scared because I kept thinking, ‘Everybody’s off doing their own little things, and nobody’s thinking about the core of who we are as a people is our culture.’ If you don’t have your culture, you’re no more than an organization. 

“I was really worried because people were doing the same thing the elders said, busy with their lives,” she continued. “I wasn’t faulting them, because that’s what they had to do to get their families going. But now we’ve got younger generations, my granddaughter makes some exquisite pottery and does a lot of other things … We’re having tribal members coming back to the Nation and getting involved, which I really, really like. It brings new ideas and new blood in, too, so you don’t get stagnant.” 

The Governor’s Award is presented annually “in recognition of an individual’s significant achievements or landmark efforts in the support of historic preservation in South Carolina.” (Photo courtesy of Catawba Indian Nation)

Haire’s latest project has involved working on what she calls The Palisade, a living village on the Catawba Cultural Center’s property where folks can get a more immersive perspective of Catawba life and history. 

While the idea was first floated nearly 20 years ago, Haire and her staff have been working with the Rock Hill Convention & Visitors Bureau to make it a reality. She hopes to see it open in the next 18 months. 

Beyond that, she’s enjoying her time at the Catawba Cultural Center, especially now that it’s adding to the quality time she spends with her family rather than taking away from it as it did in those early days when she launched the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project. 

“I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time here,” she reflected. “I’d be about 2 in the morning here working on things, and I didn’t get to go to a lot of my children’s ballgames, and that part I really regret. But now I’ve been vindicated, because I have a daughter working here, I have my nephew here, my grandson, and I see that, I just feel like it’s a full circle, which is the native way, coming back to the full circle.” 

The Charlotte Museum of History Gem Preservation Awards ceremony will be held on May 9 at Revelry North End.  


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