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.