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Who are the Catawba Indians?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 17, 2024
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Catawba Indians, also known as the Issa meaning river, are part of a federally recognized Native American tribe related to the Siouan peoples and reside primarily in South and North Carolina and Oklahoma. There are more than 2,500 Catawba Indians in the United States and the tribe’s reservation is located in Rock Hill, S.C., near Charlotte, N.C. The epicenter of the reservation is its cultural center where visitors can tour a series of exhibits about Catawba culture including a traditional bark house and dugout canoe. The Catawba people are known for their pottery and agricultural practices and historically maintained an amiable relationship with European settlers and later with Americans.

The early history of the Catawba Indians is clouded but it is known that by 1567 the tribe had settled the area around the Catawba River along the border of what are today North and South Carolina. The tribe sustained itself by hunting, fishing and growing crops. Although the Catawba Indians established a mutually beneficial and generally peaceful relationship with early European settlers, the tribe suffered from constant conflict with other Native American groups including the Iroquois, the Delaware and the Algonquian Shawnee. Various colonial governments attempted to broker peace between the tribes, especially between the Catawba and the Iroquois, with limited success.

Military conflicts with neighboring tribes combined with a series of smallpox epidemics that erupted in 1738, and later in 1759, contributed to the steadily dwindling number of Catawba Indians throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. With the death of the Catawba chief King Hagler in 1762, the tribe’s importance among other Native American groups was further eroded.

South Carolina created a small 15-square-mile (38.8 square km) reservation for the tribe along the Catawba River the following year. During the 19th century, the tribe sold and leased portions of their reservation to South Carolina and white settlers. The presence of outsiders on the reservation motivated some Catawba Indians to join the Cherokee tribe in North Carolina but most returned soon after.

In the late 19th century, a group of Catawba Indians left the tribal reservation and settled in Oklahoma with the Choctaw. These Catawba merged completely with their new tribe and several converted to Mormonism. In the Carolinas the Catawba are best known for their pottery, an art that continues to provide many tribe members with an income. The Catawba Indian pottery is not glazed or painted, is made with clay dug from the banks of the Catawba River and is shaped by hand and fired in an outdoor pit.

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Discussion Comments
By anon974353 — On Oct 17, 2014

You need to do more research. The Catawba who joined the Mormon Church did not settle with the Choctaw; they went to Colorado and Utah, then to Oklahoma and outward. I happen to be a descendant of these people

By anon971939 — On Sep 30, 2014

The Catawba were always religious even before the Europeans came. Azuza, the last fluent speaker of the Catawba language, died in 1959. Today there is a project to restore it but it's hard since many today have never heard it. Plus all the grandkids like me are so mixed with blacks and whites it seems like no use. Just keep what we have, as far as culture.

By anon347206 — On Sep 04, 2013

What form of government did the Catawba Indians have?

By Monika — On Feb 20, 2012

I'm not surprised some of the members of the Catawba tribe were motivated to leave their reservation because of the presence of outsiders. European-Americans haven't exactly treated tribes like the Catawba with the most respect over the years.

However, I have to say I'm a little surprised so many of the Catawba and the Choctaw converted to Mormonism. From what I've heard, most Native American tribes have resisted converting to Christianity, especially since so many were forced to give up their culture early on in US history. Maybe they had a religious awakening or something, but it's still surprising to me.

By Azuza — On Feb 19, 2012

@ceilingcat - Small pox is definitely a large figure in Native American history. Some tribes got it from the settlers by accident, while other tribes were infected with it on purpose. Either way, a lot of Native Americans were killed by this disease.

Anyway, I think it's awesome the Catawba Indians have been able to preserve their culture, at least to some extent. They still do traditional crafts and have some cultural artifacts on display.

From what I've read, they seem to be pretty lucky compared to other tribes in the United States. Some tribes have even completely lost their traditional language!

By ceilingcat — On Feb 18, 2012

I'm always simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the fact that Native Americans like the Catawba tribe were so susceptible to small pox. It's very interesting how diseases develop in one place, but not another.

By the time the Europeans came to this country, small pox was common in Europe and some people even had an immunity to it. But nothing like small pox had ever been seen here in the (future) United States. So there's no way that the Native Americans could have developed any kind of immunity or resistance to it!

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