The ancestral land of the indigenous Catawba Nation is located in the Piedmont region of North and South Carolina and covers what is now Charlotte. Calling themselves “yeh is-WAH h’reh”, meaning “people of the river,” they have lived around the Catawba River for thousands of years. When colonists arrived in the new world, the Catawba Nation, along with the Cherokee and Iroquis, controlled trading routes between the north and south, including the path that later became known as Trade Street in Charlotte.
The Catawba lived in permanent villages where they hunted, farmed, and developed cultural traditions that reflect their way of life, living with the land, rather than off of it. This way of living is described by Roo George-Warren, Catawba Nation citizen and consultant for the Catawba Cultural Center (link below starting at 13:44).
This circa 1721 map was copied from a deerskin map likely drawn by a Catawba or Cherokee leader to illustrate the different nations across the Carolina colonies, their relative sizes, and connections. The Catawba are labelled “Nasaw.” Credit: Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina, Francis Nicholson. 1724. Library of Congress.
One of the traditions kept alive and strong today by members of Catawba Nation is pottery. Catawba pottery is still created using traditional methods that are over 4,000 years old including, shaping by traditional coil, smoothing or burnishing the surface with rubbing stones, and pit firing. The distinct colors of the pottery are owed to the clay retrieved from the flood plains of the Catawba River. Some of the clay pits are the same ones used thousands of years ago. Through preservation of traditions like pottery, language, and dance, the Catawba Nation continues to survive and thrive. Today, the modern day Nation is located in York County, South Carolina and includes over 3,300 enrolled members.
To dry and fire traditional pottery, pieces are slowly heated by a fire, then fired in a pit to finish. Credit: Burning Pottery, Unknown Photographer. 1961. Fred Sanders Collection: USC Lancaster Native American Studies Archive.
The Museum will open a new exhibit, titled “The Language of Clay: Catawba Indian Pottery and Oral Traditions,” on July 31st, just two weeks away! Find visiting information and tickets at charlottemuseum.org.
“The Language of Clay: Catawba Indian Pottery and Oral Traditions” is a traveling exhibition, organized by the University of South Carolina Lancaster.
To learn more about the Catawba Nation, check out:
Until next time!
UNC Charlotte Graduate Student
Summer Intern – The Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
This post is based on an essay by Richard Carney for the Charlotte 240 project, a collection of essays written by Charlotteans that explore regional history and highlight the people, places, and spaces that tell our story. You can find the original article here.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass