The Charlotte region’s oldest cultural tradition predates practically everything we’ve learned about our city’s heritage. Thomas Spratt settling near what is now Elizabeth, the fabled (and likely fabulist) Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, and British General Cornwallis calling The Queen City “a hornets’ nest” of rebellion as he fled the area — all are just recent blips on the radar screen, pebbles crushed by the rolling wheel of time compared to this curio of Charlotte’s real heritage.
The irony is that all who live in the Carolinas today can appreciate this millennia-old tradition because it has been maintained under adversity by a people who have been oppressed, dismissed and ignored for centuries. Perhaps this historic treasure trove has also been overlooked because it began with utilitarian intent; it is distinctive blue-gray-colored pottery, including jars and jugs, used to gather water from the Catawba River by members of the Catawba Indian Nation for thousands of years.
“This is our oldest unbroken tradition,” says DeLesslin “Roo” George-Warren, an artist, educator and member of the Catawba Indian Nation, one of the indigenous Indian tribes that settled the Carolina Piedmont over 10,000 years ago. “We’ve never stopped making pottery. We never stopped teaching the next generation how to make pottery, even when it was literally just a handful of people still doing it.”
Though the Catawba Indian Nation’s lands are today centered near Rock Hill, their people once spread across the region, says Angel Johnston, adult education specialist at Charlotte Museum of History.
“Thousands of years ago, the Catawba Nation settled here and chose to make this the center of their trade,” she adds. “It’s not a piece of history that is in the far-off past. It’s something that affects our lives here today.”
Johnston helped organize the museum’s current traveling exhibit, The Language of Clay: Catawba Indian Pottery & Oral Traditions, on loan from the USC Lancaster Native American Studies Center (NASC). The exhibit features 41 clay pottery pieces from the 19th century to the present that boast Catawba Pottery’s distinctive blue-gray color, which comes from clay dug from the flood plains of the Catawba River, thereby connecting the Catawba people to the land they have inhabited for thousands of years.
On March 26, museum visitors can take a deeper dive into Catawba Indian Nation pottery when the history museum offers free guided tours of the exhibit led by Stephen Criswell, director of the NASC. The two tours will bookend a live-streamed program about the art and history of Catawba Indian pottery, hosted by George-Warren.
Now 30, George-Warren was born in Atlanta, where his mother attended law school. When he was 3, his family moved back to their hometown of Rock Hill, where George-Warren grew up right outside the reservation. His grandfather, Buck George, was assistant chief for 30 years. His aunt, Dr. Wenonah Haire, has been running the Catawba Cultural Center, located on the Catawba Indian Nation reservation near Rock Hill, for more than three decades.
In 2017, George-Warren received a small grant from the organization Running Strong for American Indian Youth to begin working on the Catawba Indian Nation’s language project. He worked at the Cultural Center before becoming an independent consultant for the tribe, a position he still holds today.
George-Warren says he expects most attendees of the virtual presentation will be non-native Carolinians, eager to learn more about the Nation and its most famous craft.
“My goal … when talking to non-native folks is almost always to try and unsettle them,” George-Warren says. “One of the greatest struggles we have as a tribal nation is that people don’t know anything about us, because it’s not taught in schools in anything approaching an adequate way.”
He feels his mission when hosting talks and presentations is to foster understanding that the Catawba have a complicated history that is interconnected with the United States’ history.
“[If you are] living in Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Charlotte [or in] the Piedmont in North Carolina and South Carolina — you are living on treaty land. You are in a legal obligation with the Catawba nation,” he offers.
That said, the presentation won’t be heavy-handed. George-Warren, a performance artist who studied music at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, will teach participants Catawba songs and share traditional and historical stories about his people.
The good earth
Methods for making pottery have remained consistent for the Catawba for thousands of years. In fact, production methods have changed little since the Woodland (1000 B.C.E.–600 C.E.) and Mississippian (600–1600 C.E.) periods. First, raw materials are “harvested” from clay pits that can stay in the possession of families for generations.
The location of each clay pit, and how the pit connects the families back to the land, is an important component for understanding Catawba pottery, Johnston says. It would be a mistake, however, to simplify that bond as “sacred” from a spiritual sense, says George-Warren, though the people who mine it do want to protect it. He notes that his family, which has been making pottery for generations, guards the location of their clay pit closely.
“The clay hole that I’m thinking of is one that my aunt made me dig mud out of,” George-Warren says. “It’s been used for 500 years and the vein has not gone dry. That would not be the case if we told everybody where the clay hole was.”
The pit needed to be kept secret from people who didn’t know proper practices — like how much clay to take out of the hole at any given time. “There are ways of doing it so you’re not screwing over all the other potters that need clay,” George-Warren maintains. In effect, sacredness is a way of designating that something is important and shouldn’t be treated as just a resource.
Once impurities are removed from the clay, Catawba pottery is made by hand with traditional coiling techniques. Handles and legs are pushed through a hole punched into the pottery, rather than by applying them directly to the surface of the vessel. This means features like handles do not break off easily. Once the pot is air-dried, its surface is scraped even with a piece of bone or antler. Next it is rubbed with a smooth river stone to burnish the pot. Designs are then cut into the surface.
There is an array of design motifs. The figure of a turtle is a recurring motif. It ties in with the Catawba’s creation story, Johnston says, where the world rests on the turtle’s back.
“You’ll see turtles in the pottery in the exhibit — and in general,” she says. Recurring designs are not just a way to connect back to the land, they also create a kind of place marker that ties into the Catawba people’s culture, folklore and oral histories.
“I think of [motifs] as a little bit like the icons in the Eastern Orthodox church,” George-Warren says. “They’re there to teach and [to help us] remember stories.”
Images of snakes, often the black snake or the king snake, proliferate on the pottery. They symbolize protection, George-Warren says, and not just spiritual protection. Snakes are also ecological protectors for the Catawba people, keeping mice away from grain or seed jars adorned with images of the animal. Other designs include frogs and leaves, tokens of the natural world that was — and still is — all around the Catawba people.
Humans are rarely depicted. When they are, the design has been mistakenly designated as an “indian head.” In fact, it is the image of one person, Chief Hagler, also called Nopkehee, who is depicted on the pots. To understand the importance of Nopkehee, who was chief from 1754 to 1763, it’s necessary to recap Catawba history.
A disappearing act
George-Warren says archeology places the Catawba people in the Piedmont as early as 6,000 years ago. From the 1500s to the early 1700s, the Catawba society was a confederacy of several villages connected through similar languages, cultural traditions, diplomacy, trade and family, George-Warren notes.
“One explorer in the early 1700s remarked that in one village there were at least 12 different languages being spoken. It was an interesting cosmopolitan, yet small village vibe,” he says.
The early 1700s also saw European settlers increasingly encroaching on Catawba land, as Catawba people continued to die from recurring smallpox epidemics. “I’ve never felt closer to Catawba in the 1700s than I have in the pandemic,” George-Warren says.
An early count of the Catawba population by Spanish explorers in the 1600s was 15,000 to 25,000, Johnston says. Just 100 years later, that figure had dropped to 1,000. By the early 1800s, the once large tribe comprised fewer than 100 souls. Before that low ebb, Chief Hagler stepped upon history’s stage, as the Catawba confederacy transitioned to a nation.
European settlers referred to him as King Hagler or George, as an equivalent to Britain’s King George III, but today we would describe Hagler as more of a diplomat than a king. Used to a top-down power structure, European settlers found the Catawba’s hierarchy, or lack thereof, difficult to understand.
“For Catawba [people], sovereignty is inherent in every person. So when people come together to live together, sovereignty is created for that community,” George-Warren says. Among his accomplishments, Chief Hagler encouraged the Catawba people to abstain from alcohol, and he worked to negotiate fair treaties and land use agreements for the Catawba people. Today, the Catawba honor him with their pottery.
Catawba pottery was used to maintain traditions, as well as a means of creating and adapting to new traditions, George-Warren says.
“When you look at Catawba pieces nowadays, they’re incredibly beautiful but not very utilitarian,” he says.
One of the reasons Catawba turned to the land in the first place was to craft much-needed dishes, bowls and containers. In the 1700s, as ceramic and metal containers became cheaper and easier to get, Catawba people started adapting the pottery.
“So, you see things like wall hangings, beautiful display pieces, things like that,” George-Warren says.
As pottery became increasingly produced for trade, the Catawba women who crafted the pottery were able to acquire economic power. They turned more and more to decorative styles of pottery as they became collectors’ items. This change of style is reflected in the new exhibit, says Johnston.
“You see the Catawba creating pottery to market to Europeans and imitating European styles,” she says. Wedding jugs displayed in the exhibit mimic a European shape. The pieces cinch in the middle like a woman’s waist, but their distinctive blue-gray color remains, and nature motifs of snakes, turtles and leaves remain.
At the end of the 18th century, the Catawba had 20,000 acres of land, all technically owned by a woman named Sally New River. Despite increasing pottery trade and leadership like Chief Hagler’s, the Catawba Nation’s population continued to dwindle.
Then, from 1830 to 1850, the Andrew Jackson administration implemented the forced displacement of approximately 60,000 Native Americans. The Trail of Tears had begun, but the U.S. government didn’t bother with forcing the Catawba to leave. There were so few of them left, the administrators who guided the genocidal practice left the tribe alone. They figured the Catawba would die off on their own.
Instead, the Catawba prevailed and began a resurgence. In 1840, the tribe handed over their land to the state of South Carolina in exchange for new land for a reservation. Eventually the tribe moved onto a 630-acre tract on the bank of the Catawba River, in today’s York County, just outside Rock Hill. Currently, there are 3,300 enrolled members of the Catawba tribal, not all whom live on the tribal lands.
The Catawba Cultural Center is currently housed in a historic school building located on the reservation. The center provides cultural immersion classes for Catawba children and adults, while also promoting the potters’ art.
There was still another massive setback for the Catawba Indian Nation to come. However, this hardship fueled a revival of the pottery tradition. In the early 20th century, the U.S. government, which had legally recognized the Catawba as an indigenous tribe, suddenly snatched that recognition away.
“At that point, the Catawba Nation is very small,” Johnston says. “They have to fight, starting in the 1950s, to get that recognition back.” That battle led to a revival of the cultural traditions that were being lost. The Catawba received recognition from South Carolina in 1973, but the federal government lagged behind.
George-Warren says that, in addition to being an economic driver and a vessel for keeping the tribe’s cultural identity alive, Catawba pottery took on a new role as legal evidence.
“In the recognition process, you have to demonstrate that you are an indigenous community with indigenous traditions and kinship,” he says. “Pottery, as our only unbroken tradition, was evidence of those things. It literally became legal evidence that we are a tribe.”
Starting in the 1970s, the Catawba Indian Nation saw a huge refocus and marketing initiative on the storytelling and continuity attached to pottery. The master potters, a generation of Catawba potters who kept the tradition alive during that period, were identified as the tribe’s indigenous elders, the ones who taught the younger Catawba their culture. After a protracted legal battle, the U.S. finally restored tribal recognition to the Catawba Nation in 1993.
Johnston points to pictures in The Language of Clay exhibit depicting elder women in the community. They are teaching pottery classes, and thereby preserving and fostering the Catawba people’s longest running tradition.
“I want to emphasize that this is a continual tradition,” Johnston says. “In the exhibit, there are pieces from the 19th century, and also there are pieces that were made 10 years ago.” People are still creating, and that creativity and industry is something that people can support today. To that end, she likens the March 26 event as a Catawba analog to a Small Business Saturday.
She says the exhibit is a lot bigger than most people expect, and it’s organized in a way that tells the story of how the Catawba and their pottery have evolved. It also shares the stories the pottery has to tell about the history of the Catawba Nation.
George-Warren hopes The Language of Clay fosters a love and respect for the Catawba Nation’s pottery tradition.
“It’s so hard to fathom the scale of it, but the United States is maybe 250 years old, while the Catawba have been here for 6,000 years,” he says. Rather than the Eurocentric history taught in U.S. schools, it is the Catawba tradition that is the true story of Charlotte and the surrounding lands, he maintains.
“I hope that [the exhibit] helps people step into a curiosity about the land that we all share, about our shared histories, and learning what those histories are,” he says.
“We want people to value the artisans and the cultural tradition that has been in our community for a very long time,” Johnston adds. “We want people to recognize that the tradition exists and that it is strong, and will remain strong within the cultural zeitgeist if we as citizens decide that we want it to be.”
“History is never lost,” she says. “It’s [sometimes] not paid attention to by the folks who write history textbooks, but it is never lost.”
Admission at Charlotte Museum of History is free on March 26, but space for the Language of Clay guided tours is limited, and pre-registration is required. For information on how to buy Catawba pottery, visit the Catawba Cultural Center’s website.