USC-L Native American Studies Center holds world’s largest Catawba pottery collection

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comJuly 26, 2013 

— If you want to know the historical significance of Catawba Indian pottery, listen to what Brent Burgin said on Friday and what he’s repeated dozens of times to his students: “When the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt, people were making pottery on the banks of the Catawba.”

Burgin is the director of archives at the Native American Studies Center at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster, the home of the largest collection of Catawba Indian pottery in the world, most of it made from clay found in the area, among other Native American art and artifacts. The center will celebrate its first birthday in October.

Steve Criswell, director of Native American studies at USC-L, said the center isn’t a museum.

“We think of ourselves primarily as an educational center,” he said.

While the front of the center’s Main Street location is a gallery, displaying art, photographs and artifacts, there’s also an archive room, an archeological lab, a classroom, a boardroom and additional office space for studying. The creation of the space was the brainchild of former USC-L Dean John Catalano and the city of Lancaster, Criswell said.

“John sort of had this vision of the University of South Carolina-Lancaster being a center of study for Catawba Indians,” Criswell said.

The collection on display in the museum was partially donated and partially purchased, with most of it coming from Lindsay Pettus, who acquired it from Thomas Blumer, an academic whose focus is Native American history and culture, particularly the York County-based Catawba Indians and other regional tribes.

Before the center was established, the collection of research materials, art and artifacts began to grow on the USC-L campus. Catalano collaborated with Lancaster leaders to arrange for the city to donate a building for the collection. And after just six weeks of major renovations in a former department store, the center was ready to go.

“We’ve averaged 500 visitors a month,” Burgin said. “Which is pretty good for a small town.”

Criswell said the city is treating the center as a tourist attraction, and he hopes it brings more people and business to downtown Lancaster. But he also said the center serves a greater purpose: promoting the creativity of native artisans in the region.

In addition to Catawba Indian pottery, the center has items from other South Carolina tribes, including the Cherokee and Beaver Creek traditions, and the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia. Programming at the center includes USC-L classes, “Lunch ’n’ Learns” on regional and tribal history, a new artist-in-residence program and open hours to assist in the archeology lab. The center is also establishing a lab and courses to teach the Catawba Indian language.

There are also visiting exhibits in the center. Currently, one of the galleries contains the South Carolina Historical Society’s “The Shaping of South Carolina” and on Aug. 24, a new visiting exhibit will open, this one from the Smithsonian.

“We really wanted to have that here to get our community and especially our students to a Smithsonian exhibit about Native Americans,” said Brittany Taylor, the curator of collections at the center.

The exhibit is called “Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas,” and Lancaster is currently the only city that will host the exhibit in the Carolinas. It will be in place until Oct. 10, and Criswell said the center is also preparing a companion exhibit about underexposed native communities in the area.

The Native American Studies Center is jointly funded by USC-L, the city of Lancaster and grants, including a major gift from Duke Energy. Just last week, Lancaster received a Municipal Achievement Award for the Center from the Municipal Association of South Carolina.


Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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