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History: Waccamaw Indians preserve their place in area's past

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

From magnificent plantation homes at the end of oak-lined drives to the humble remains of former slave dwellings, the area surrounding the Waccamaw River is rich with history.

Yet the history of one group of people, those who gave the river its name, is left largely untold.

“It’s frustrating,” said Cheryl Sievers, 48, of Murrells Inlet. She’s a descendent of the Waccamaw Indians and is the tribe’s second chief, meaning she’s a sort of magistrate for the tribe and steps in when Chief Harold D. “Buster” Hatcher is away.Her ancestors lived on and worked the land long before the first European settlers arrived. They were enslaved along with Africans brought here to keep plantations running.

The tribe is now fighting for federal recognition and to keep their history and traditions alive.

“You hear about the Confederacy, the Daughters of the American Revolution, slave history and Gullah history, but it’s like the Indians still don’t matter,” Sievers said.

“We literally were thrown into obscurity,” said Georgia Comfort, a Hagley resident. She’s a descendent of the Black Feet Indians from Montana, and has been a friend of the Waccamaw tribe since moving to the area.

Even Sievers didn’t know about the Waccamaw Indians being forced into slavery until she started researching her family tree as an adult.

“I found my great-great grandfather was listed as a free person of color,” she recalled. The wording startled her as she realized if he was listed as “free” the implication was that someone in the family before him hadn’t been.

Indians in South Carolina were taken as slaves to be used on plantations, or sold to the West Indies or the New England colonies.

“South Carolina as a colony exported more Native American slaves than any other American colony,” said Lee Brockington, an historian who works at Hobcaw Barony.

Efforts to keep Indians as slaves in areas they knew were often unsuccessful. “If you turned your back on them, they were in the woods and headed home,” Hatcher said.

“They knew the woods and the creeks and the rivers, so if they could escape they were set,” Brockington added. Others committed suicide rather than live without freedom.

Living and working together as slaves, blacks and American Indians interbred, leading to “black Indians,” something Comfort said she had never seen before going to a pauwau (or powwow) on the Waccamaw tribal grounds in Aynor.

Even after emancipation, American Indians and blacks often married, as the Indian population was small and, until 1930, it was against the law to marry outside one’s race. But American Indians started being lumped in with the black population centuries ago when the English proclaimed it was illegal to enslave Native Americans, Hatcher said. Instead of freeing their native slaves, colonists simply declared them black and it was accepted.

American Indians were taken as slaves as early as the 1500s when the Spanish attempted the first European settlement in North America. It is believed they landed in Georgetown County at Winyah Bay.

“They were the worst slave holders. They were barbaric and when they came in one of the first things they did was take slaves,” Sievers said. “They saw it as they had a need, they needed them to navigate, so they took them, and they raped and pillaged.”

In the 19th century, some Indian slaves were even shipped to Africa with black slaves in an effort to colonize Liberia. Many died from conditions on the ship during the voyage or were killed after landing, either in fights with the natives or by illnesses they had no natural defenses against.

It all falls among many injustices that American Indians have endured. Hatcher recalled how his ancestors were forced from their homes in the village they had built when the land was given to white men through grants shortly after the Revolutionary War. American Indians “didn’t believe in titles to land,” Sievers said. They used land as they needed it, but didn’t like or understand the concept of ownership.

“They gave these people land that already had houses on it. The Indian people were told they just had to pack up and leave,” Hatcher said.

That’s part of the reason American Indians have been largely wiped from history, he added.

“They tried to make Indians disappear. Even census reporters began using terms like mulatto and free person of color,” he said. There’s a fear even today that if the powers that be admit American Indians exist, they will open themselves up to lawsuits from Native Americans suing for land and damages.

“They speak about us as if we’re in the past tense,” Hatcher said. “Just recently, in the last two or three years, South Carolina textbooks are now starting to include Indians in South Carolina. Prior to that, talk about Indians was limited to ‘they used to live here.’ They still do. It’s not like they’ve all gone away.”

It’s hard for Sievers to imagine being ashamed of who she is, but her mother felt shame over her Native American roots for many years, Sievers said.

Sievers’ grandmother would talk about their Indian heritage and Sievers would ask questions, always wanting to know more, but it upset her mother.

“We were considered savages and second class citizens,” Comfort explained.

Sievers grew up in Chicago and Florida and said she thinks that’s a big part of why she has such a different view of her heritage than her mother did.

“There was a cultural mix there,” she said. Additionally, her father was “very deliberate” in his ideas and values regarding race and equality. Sievers was also affected by growing up during the civil rights movement and listening to people such as Martin Luther King Jr., who was one of her heroes.

She said it wasn’t until 2000 that her mom started to embrace her heritage after visiting a tribal cemetery.

“It was like she just started letting go and she was crying. After that I could see her whole attitude changed,” Sievers said. “It was on my 40th birthday that she started breaking stuff out and showing me pictures I had never seen and telling me a little about some of the things she had experienced — being called names like half-breed and mutt. I wish she had talked to me earlier about why she got so upset. She was 71 years old and she had to live all of her life like that.”

Perceptions of American Indians have changed over the years, but Hatcher is still fighting for equal rights for Native Americans and for members of the Waccamaw tribe in particular. He has been at it for more than 20 years.

He was chairman of the S.C. Indian Affairs Commission when he helped get legislation in place to allow Native American tribes to get state recognition. The Waccamaw Indians were the first tribe to receive state recognition in 2005.

“It was a very long and tedious process,” Hatcher said. “First we had to convince the government that state recognition was needed.

“When I first started on this stuff in 1988 or ’89, I thought if you had a good cause and made a good case and went to Columbia, they were all fair and wise people who would hop on the train and get things done.”

He has since realized it’s not that easy.

He’s still working on getting federal recognition for the Waccamaw tribe, something he said could take another 20 years or more.

“It’s important because there are a lot of federal laws that set Indians aside,” Hatcher said.

One law, for example, says anyone advertising or selling arts or crafts labeled Native American must be part of a state- or federally-recognized tribe. Individuals who violate the law can face a fine up to $250,000 for a first-time offense. Native Americans are the only race subject to that kind of law, he added.

There’s also an issue with remains.

“Some years ago they found some remains of a person up around Columbia. They decided the person was Caucasian and set about immediately trying to return the bones to the family. That doesn’t happen in the Native American community. There are now 600 sets of human remains in museums we can’t get released to go back into graves,” he said. Only a federally-recognized tribe can, he added.

There are also laws prohibiting the use of items that are part of American Indian religious ceremonies, such as eagle feathers, except in recognized tribes.

One reason it is hard for American Indians to get support for state and federal recognition is that people regard it as an effort to be separate from the rest of the population, according to Hatcher.

“Really it’s the exact opposite,” he said. “We’re not trying to be set aside. The law sets us aside. We’re trying to be included.”

There are several ways to get federal recognition, including a lengthy process that involves proving a tribe’s history to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Waccamaw tribe has already spent more than $600,000 on research and other efforts to meet those standards.

They could also receive recognition through congressional action, a proclamation by the president or a federal lawsuit. Hatcher says he prefers the congressional route, but can’t get support from a local congressman.

Former U.S. 1st District Rep. Henry Brown agreed to support the effort, but then left office. Letters to his successor, Tim Scott, have gone unanswered, Hatcher said.

The Waccamaw Indians have a continuing outreach program to inform the public about their history and make sure people realize they still exist in South Carolina, including programs for school children and events that welcome the public to their tribal grounds.

The grounds will be open to the public this weekend for the Waccamaw Indian people’s 19th annual Arts Festival and Pauwau on Saturday and Sunday. Gates open at 10 a.m. on both days. The event will include traditional American Indian food, drumming, singing and dancing.

The tribal grounds are at 591 Bluewater Rd. in Aynor. For more information, go to the tribe's web site.

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