Transplant Times

We’ve discovered a nation within a nation

January 28, 2014 

As newcomers, Cherie and I like to explore. While I am not a history buff, I have often been interested in learning more about those that originally occupied the land we call America, the Native Americans. I have a deep sense of respect for those that were here before any European settlers arrived.

The discovery of the Catawba Indian Nation was a welcome surprise as Cherie and I continue to explore the diversity of Fort Mill. Upon discovering that this true gem exists in the midst of our community I set out on a mission to connect with the leadership of this nation within a nation.

The name of the tribe, Catawba, means “people of the river.” They sustained themselves in the traditional ways through fishing, agriculture and hunting. The Catawba are also known for their exquisite pottery. What is unique is they still have their own village, also known as a “nation,” within the community. Some think of a nation as as a large body of land that is governed, much like we have a president, or other nations have a king. But the Catawba Nation is governed by a chief.

Chief Bill Harris is the head of the governing body for the Catawba Nation and upon entering the Catawba village there is a sign prominently displayed at the entrance that simply states: “ALL VISITORS ARE SUBJECT TO THE LAWS & ORDINANCES OF THE NATION.”

My first conversation with Chief Harris was encouraging as he briefly gave me an overview of the nation’s rich and challenging history. Chief Harris was gracious enough to permit me a follow-up interview in person. As I spoke with this noble leader I felt as if I was connecting with a story and a tradition that was deep and flowing like a mighty river. Our friendly exchange created in me a deep sense of wanting to belong. I also developed a renewed appreciation for the power of history to teach lessons and inspire wisdom to help us live more respectfully and inclusively in the present.

A few history buffs might be familiar with the valuable contribution the Catawbas made during the American Revolution in support of the American troops. Most of us will be surprised to learn that they fought right alongside our troops to win independence for our country. What a privilege it was to get an education from this noble leader that I never could have received in public school.

Chief Harris told me that the original native Americans settled here more than 6,000 years ago. He was gracious in his assertion that a great price that was paid by all settlers who have chosen to make America their adopted home. What is deeply moving is Chief Harris’ empathy and concern for the present state of America. The words that remained unspoken and the demeanor and character of this chief of the Catawba Indian Nation revealed a man of true integrity and character.

I suppose my expectations were that a certain level of bitterness might show up in a discussion about the plight of the first Americans following the European settlement. And yet in Chief Harris I sensed nothing but compassion, hope for the future, and a deep desire that Catawba Nation would continue to be a sustainable community that would be able to make ongoing contributions to the larger world.

History reports that the Catawba Indian tribe was decimated by the introduction of smallpox by the European settlers. Also many of the Catawba women were taken as brides for the expanding population of men arriving on the settlers’ ships. In spite of the plague and the injustices forced upon them, the Catawba Indians have prevailed as a community and continue to fight with integrity and honor to raise standards among their people.

As I spoke with Chief Harris he revealed some of his passion as tribal leader. His one emphasis is to foster the tribes future sustainability. He does not want the Catawba Nation to disappear from the face of the earth. He wants his people to be educated in a way that they can become world-changers and influential in society at-large. Chief Harris believes that many of the ways of the first Americans are essential for conservation of the earth’s resources and for teaching the importance of community in the lives of all people everywhere.

The one theme that resonated throughout our conversation was Chief Bill Harris’ strong desire to help people within his tribe and wherever his message might be received around the world. He strongly believes that we all must learn to truly love and respect one another regardless of race, nationality, creed or any of the other numerous things that tend to build walls between us.

As a direct result of our conversation I realized that while we both lived in different worlds and came from different backgrounds, we possessed a common vision for the common good. Chief Harris affirmed in me that if we are to impact community and change a nation we will have to be committed to mutual dialogue, mutual trust of each others’ intentions, and a mutual willingness to be transparent with each other. We also discussed the importance of a person’s character and the integrity with which we live out our lives.

I believe that on the day of our conversation Chief Bill Harris gave me a most precious gift, the gift of hope. Whatever wariness, anxiety, or uncertainties I had when I started the day were gone completely after our time together. Whether he realizes he has the “gift” or not, I believe that Chief Bill Harris has a little bit of the medicine man in him, for I know that he brought healing to my troubled spirit.

I am honored, humbled and privileged to have shared sacred space with this gifted leader of the Catawba Indian Nation.

The moment of the conversation that humbled me the most was when Chief Harris asked if I had any final questions. It was as if he discerned in me something unfinished. I sat for a moment and thought to myself just what it was that I needed to ask this gracious chief. What was the question that would both honor our time together and the fact that my wife and I are relatively new transplants to the Fort Mill community? And then it struck me, the one question that perhaps had never been asked of the chief and that would serve to honor him and the entire Catawba Nation which he represented. I looked Chief Bill Harris in the eye and asked this question: “Chief Harris, on behalf of my wife Cherie and myself, as newcomers to Fort Mill, South Carolina, might we have your blessing to reside in the city and occupy these lands side-by-side with you and your people?” Chief Harris stood up and, with the grace and presence of a true leader, pronounced his blessing on Cherie and I as we continue to build our lives upon the sacred soil of this community. It was at that moment that I realized that we truly do belong here.

Iya`ndre namu`h (’Happy New Year’ in Catawba dialect).

Reach William winship at william@portacle.com.

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