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Justice at last for the Catawbas.

Legend has it that George Washington, after being elected the first U.S. President, came to South Carolina and assured the Catawba Indians that their tribe could continue to hold the 144,000 acres granted them by the King of England in 1760 and reaffirmed in a 1763 treaty.

True or not, it didn't make any difference. In 1840, South Carolina dispossessed the Catawbas of their land in York, Chester, and Lancaster counties, promising money and a new reservation in South Carolina. The state never came through with either, but in 1843 put the Catawba reservation, ultimately whittled to 630 acres, "in trust."

For 150 years the Catawbas, originally one of the most powerful tribes in the Southeast, have been trying to get recompense from Federal and state governments.

On February 20, 1993, tribal members met in a prosperous suburb of Charlotte and voted 289-to-42 in favor of a long, painfully drawn document that after 150 years would end the tribe's exile.

It took years of negotiation and a lawsuit that is now thirteen years old to reach the settlement drafted among Federal and state representatives on one side and the tribe's representatives on the other. The tribe's biggest clout came from the location of its 144,000 acres.

The land lies less than twenty-five miles from Charlotte, whose rapidly expanding population is today around 400,000. The old Catawba reservation encompassed all of the nearby city of Rock Hill, clouding the title to every piece of real estate there.

"We were ready to file suit against 63,000 defendants, trespassers on Catawba land," says attorney Jay Bender, who represents the Catawbas.

There has been litigation on the Catawba claim since before the Civil War, but no one has pursued it as thoroughly and carefully as the tribe and its advocates are doing today.

Representatives John Spratt, Democrat of South Carolina, and State Senator Wes Hayes, Democrat of York County, are drafting legislation to approved new settlement between the U.S. Government and the Catawbas. If Congress approves the agreement, the 1,400 members of the Catawba tribe will get $50 million, state tax exemption for ninety-nine years, control over internal tribal affairs, and the option to expand the reservation by up to 4,200 acres.

Spratt says he's still got a tough job ahead in pushing the settlement through Congress. Bender is more optimistic, though, pointing out that South Carolina's Republican Governor Carroll Campbell had already extracted support from the Bush Administration. "I can't imagine the Democrats would be less sensitive," Bender says. Bender and Don Miller of the Native American Rights Fund have been working on the Catawbas' case since the mid-1970s. They are elated by the settlement, as is Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue, who calls it, "the road to a better future."

Not all the Catawbas, of course, live on the reservation, which stretches along the cliffs of the Catawba River in eastern-most York County and looks more like a series of hardscrabble farms than a community. Indeed, the 1990 census showed Catawba per capita income as 35 per cent less than the York County per-capita income.

But the Catawbas have managed to preserve some of their culture and a bit of their language at a community center within the reservation. There, Catawba artisans still make and sell their beautiful, well-known pottery and the tribe holds ceremonial dances.

Chief Blue says that with the settlement money the tribe wants to create a replica of a 400-year-old Catawba village as a tourist attraction, and because of the settlement's tax advantages, also hopes to start an industrial park.

The Catawbas were rooted out of their reservation just about the same time that the Cherokees were forced onto the Trail of Tears.

Nothing can redeem the sordid past. But now, at least, there seems to be a bit of belated justice, assuming that Congress and the South Carolina legislature concur. Perhaps George Washington's spirit will hover over that vote.
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Title Annotation:Catawbas Indians
Author:Steif, William
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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