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What is the Catawba Tribe?

By Katriena Knights
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Catawba tribe, more properly known as the Catawba Indian Nation, is one of many Native American tribes that are recognized by the United States government. Derived from a Catawba place-name, Katapu, Catawba is translated as "fork in a river." As with most names commonly used for Native Americans by others, Catawba is not the name the tribe uses for itself. Instead, the Catawba call themselves Iyeye, which means "people," or Nieye, meaning "real people." The tribe is sometimes called the Iswa, but there is some debate about whether this actually was a separate tribe or another name used by Spanish settlers for the Catawba tribe.

Catawba Indians originally were found throughout present-day North and South Carolina in the United States, but by the early 21st century, they primarily were centered around the Catawba river in South Carolina and along the border between the Carolinas. At their height, the Catawba tribe was second only to the Cherokee in terms of power held in the area that was to become the Carolinas. Although they were largely friendly toward European colonists, they maintained almost constant warfare with nearby tribes, including the Iroquois, Cherokee, Shawnee and Delaware Indians. On occasion, the Catawba tribe joined European settlers in battle against these tribes.

During the 17th century, when British colonists first made estimates of the population of the Catawba tribe, there were approximately 5,000, though these estimates were not necessarily accurate. The Catawba tribe merged with several other Indian nations, including the Iswa and several other groups that shared similar languages in the Siouan language family. At the same time, the overall numbers of all Native American tribes were declining because of diseases such as smallpox and the side effects of alcohol consumption, all of which were introduced into the tribes by European settlers. For example, nearly half of the tribe perished during a smallpox epidemic in 1759. Various wars waged by the tribe or by Europeans, particularly the French and Indian Wars, also reduced the population significantly.

As of 2010, the Catawba numbered approximately 2,600, with about 1,200 of these in South Carolina, near Rock Hill, where the tribe's headquarters is located. About 100 lived in the Catawba State Reserve, located on 640 acres (2.6 square km) in York County, South Carolina. Many Catawba tribe members were forced to migrate to Oklahoma along with the Cherokee, and groups of Catawba still live in Oklahoma and Colorado. The Catawba tribe received recognition by the U.S. government in 1993.

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Discussion Comments
By winslo2004 — On Oct 25, 2011

I find it interesting that out of almost 3,000 members of the tribe, only 100 live on their State Reserve. I wonder if the others want to move there and can't for some reason. Unfortunately, there often seems to be a lot of infighting within the tribes, which is probably made worse because they have a high degree of autonomy from state or Federal interference.

By bigjim — On Oct 25, 2011

@starrynight - It's funny where the Mormons pop up. They have always been a missionary church, so they interact with all kinds of isolated populations. They are quite an item in the Pacific Islands too, like Hawaii and Tonga, which has the interesting effect of making Salt Lake City, which has very few minorities, home to a small, but significant, Tongan and other Pacific Islander population.

I would imagine that other Christian missionaries have interacted with the Catawba at various times, and with other tribes.

By emtbasic — On Oct 24, 2011

@SZapper - I agree that it seems disrespectful and odd not to call the tribe by their chosen name. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Lots of tribes call themselves something different than what they are called by mainstream society. For example, the word Eskimo. I believe that it refers to a specific group of people, but you commonly hear it being used to describe any Alaskan native.

Unfortunately, we in American (and pretty much the rest of the world too) have been very bad at dealing with indigenous cultures. I don't think it will change anytime soon, either, because the sad truth is that there are hardly any of them left.

By starrynight — On Oct 23, 2011

@SZapper - Interesting point.

I actually read an article about the Catawba tribe recently. It seems that many of them belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Apparently in the late 1800's, Mormon missionaries were successful in converting a lot of the Catawba. So many of them are still Mormon to this day!

However, a few do still adhere to their tribal religion, which, interestingly enough, features a trinity also. Their trinity also involves a creator and his son, which is perhaps why this tribe was receptive to Mormonism.

By SZapper — On Oct 22, 2011

I think it's very strange that the common name for this tribe isn't the name they picked for themselves. I think I would be offended if someone else decided that I should go by a different name! I imagine some of the Catawba might feel the same way.

It's interesting to me that their name for themselves means "real people" or "people." Calling themselves "real people" would seem to imply that everyone not a part of their group is not a real person.

It does make sense that they would consider other people as separate from themselves, considering how much time they seem to have spent at war with their neighbors!

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