Rush to join millionaire Indian tribe: A cash-for-land award means everyone wants to be a Catawba, Patrick Cockburn writes from Rock Hill, South Carolina

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The Independent Online
IN the weeks since the tiny Catawba tribe in South Carolina won a dollars 50m ( pounds 33.5m) settlement in return for dropping its claim to tribal lands, there has been a rush of people wanting to join the tribe.

'Now we have a lot of wannabees who claim they belong to the tribe because their great-grandmother said she had some Catawba blood,' says Wenonah Haire.

It is a long time since belonging to the Catawba did anybody any good. Four hundred years ago when the first Spanish explorers travelled north from Florida they found Indians - known as 'the river people' - who fished and made pots out of clay along the banks of the Catawba river.

Smallpox and white settlers ended all that. By 1840 the tribe was reduced to a rump, living - as successive agreements were dishonoured by the government - on a reservation of 630 acres near the town of Rock Hill. The rifle replaced the blow pipe for hunting and their language became extinct but here, in mobile homes scattered among the cottonwood trees, some 200 Catawba survive.

Charlotte, one of the larger banking and industrial centres in the US, is only 30 minutes drive away but 20 per cent of the homes in the Catawba village still have no running water.

The Catawba never wholly abandoned their demand for redress. In 1973 Gilbert Blue, who was in the navy and works as a machinist in a local tyre factory, was elected chief. Believing legal action stood a chance of success, he began moves that led to a bitter 17-year lawsuit that only formally ended last month.

None of this was easy because the Catawba had no money. Some worked in the local textile mills, cut wood or made shiny black pots out of the river clay. In 1959 the federal government even derecognised the tribe to get them to integrate into the local population.

But since the 1970s Supreme Court decisions have made it easier for tribes to sue because of agreements broken in the last century and before. In the case of the Catawba, however, it was their decision last year to bring lawsuits against each of the 67,000 landowners living on 144,000 acres of land once owned by the Catawba that led to a compromise settlement.

Chief Blue, admitting there was an element of fantasy in this, says: 'The post office did not have the men to deliver all the legal papers.' Even if it had, the tribe might not have won their case. But the threat of litigation alone stopped anybody in Rock Hill buying or selling land because its ownership was suddenly in doubt. Wanda Warren, one of the few Catawba to have a university degree, says: 'It one hundred per cent blocked land deals. Nobody would issue even the highest risk title insurance and that closed down any land transactions.'

Just before the 67,000 writs were served a compromise was agreed. The federal government and the state of South Carolina would pay the Catawba dollars 50m, recognise them once again as an independent tribe - a status that makes the Indians eligible for federal grants - and give them the right to expand the reservation by 4,400 acres.

In return the Catawba agreed to more limited independence than most of the 500 other tribes in the US.

Not everybody was happy. John Petty, a builder whose home is across the road from Chief Blue's headquarters, says: 'I was a bit disappointed. I've been in reservations out West and they are a state within a state. The only government official who can go in is a federal marshall.' He adds that the real beneficiares will be the younger Catawba through better education, health care and housing.

A problem now is defining who is a Catawba. This is important because, although most of the dollars 50m will be held in trust, dollars 7.5m is to be distributed in cash. In addition to the 200 Catawba on the reservation there may be another 1,600 descended from members of the tribe listed on the last tribal roll. Few are full-blooded Catawba. Chief Blue - three-quarters Catawba on his father's side and half on his mother's - says the tribe is so small that its members cannot go on marrying their first cousins.

The Chief plays down the problem. He says he just has to ask applicants who their grandparents were to know if they really belong to the tribe. The extinction of the Catawba language 50 years ago does create a broader question of indentity. But it is the dollars 50m that ensures that each day the names of new members of the Catawba are being added to the list in the tribal computer.