Preserving Catawba Indian history

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By Jesef Williams

Jesef Williams
Dr. Stephen Criswell glanced over a desk, quickly stepped into an adjoining room and came back with two coveted audio tapes.


The cassettes contained oral histories in the form of interviews with Native American tribes in the Carolinas. Hours of conversations have been recorded over the years.
Most of the interviews have since been taken from cassette and digitized for better preservation.
These recordings are kept inside the audio room – one of several sections in the recently opened Native American Studies Center on Main Street in downtown Lancaster.
Criswell, director of the Native American Studies program at University of South Carolina Lancaster, guided The Lancaster News on a tour of the facility during media day Wednesday, Sept. 26.
A public open house will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4.
The center’s audio room features digital recorders, a computer and other technology used to conduct, download and sort oral interviews. Some of the conversations are with Native Americans who spoke on life in the 1800s and early 1900s.
“Nobody can tell your story better than you can,” Criswell said, speaking on the importance of the personal interviews.
“Nobody knows their experiences the way they do,” he said. “They know what it means to be Native American in a biracial South.”
These recordings are just a small snippet of the resources inside the Native American Studies Center – a 14,600 square-foot facility that was once Badcock furniture store and then The Artisans Center.
The center has four galleries – the Lindsay Pettus Gallery, Red Rose Gallery and Duke Energy Gallery. Those will feature rotating exhibits while the fourth gallery, which is unnamed, will serve as a permanent-collections area. Paintings, pottery pieces and photographs make up a large percentage of the content.
USCL’s Native American Studies program has more than 1,300 pieces of Catawba Indian pottery. In the past, the department was only able to showcase a few pieces at the same time.
Things are quite different now.
“This is the first time we’re able to display at least half of our pottery collection at one time,” said Brittany Taylor, the center’s collections curator “That’s a big achievement for us.”
The archaeology lab provides ample space to store and analyze rocks that have been gathered from areas where Native Americans have lived.
Criswell said some rock samples go back more than 1,000 years.
A quick stroll takes you to the archives room, where legal documents, notes and other papers are kept. You’ll immediately notice the chill, as the room is kept at 63 degrees for preservation purposes.
Nearby is a separate room USCL English professor Claudia Priest is using to highlight the Catawba language.
Priest, who teaches Native American literature, plans for the room to include interactive computer software to help teach users the Catawba language.
“Having the center is really going to allow me to expand the language program,” said Priest, who’s also the official linguist for the Catawba Indian nation. “I have the space now.”
Other areas inside the center include a collections room, a classroom, a conference room that can also be used as a classroom, a break room (which can be used for workshops), a student lounge area and faculty offices.
Catawba Indian nation member Beckee Garris, who serves as the center’s receptionist, said she’s glad to see the facility open.
“There’s been so much vast history here before any European contact,” she said. “Thank God USCL saw the need.”

Contact reporter Jesef Williams at (803) 283-1152