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The Waccamaw Indians: Are They a 'Lost People?'

Harold "Buster" Hatcher, Chief of the Waccamaw Indian People

The Waccamaw Indian People, a tribe based in South Carolina, has been seeking official recognition from the federal government -- just as they were recognized by the state in 2005. In effect, they must prove to bureaucrats in Washington that they actually exist.

One of the primary reasons federal recognition is needed, according to Waccamaw Chief Harold "Buster" Hatcher, is so they can provide a dignified burial to over 600 sets of human remains of Waccamaw ancestors, remains that have been on museum shelves in boxes since the 1920s -- and so they can use an eagle feather in their burial ceremonies.

Hatcher and other native American leaders have been seeking the help of U.S. Congressional representatives as well as Gov. Henry McMaster in obtaining this important designation. A stumbling block has been a federal requirement that direct lineage must be established from from the 1600s all the way through the generations to a known Waccamaw today.

That's impossible, since those Indians back in the 1600s did not read or write and only communicated verbally. There were no written records. So the requirement is an impossible hurdle to overcome.

But, the Children

Child Indian dancer at the 2018 Pauwau of the Waccamaw Indian People

Another important factor in the need to achieve official recognition involves Indian children.

In 1978, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted in response to a crisis affecting American Indian and Alaska Native children, families, and tribes. Large numbers of Native children were being separated from their parents, extended families, and communities by state child welfare and private adoption agencies. Research found that 25–35 percent of all Native children were being removed; of these, 85 percent were placed outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available.

Now, ICWA requires caseworkers to make several considerations when handling an ICWA case, including:

  • Providing active efforts to the family;

  • Identifying a placement that fits under the ICWA preference provisions;

  • Notifying the child’s tribe and the child’s parents of the child custody proceeding;

  • Working actively to involve the child’s tribe and the child’s parents in the proceedings.

According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), the measures ICWA take to keep Native children in relative care, whenever that is safe and possible, have since become a best practice in the wider field of child welfare, and increasingly codified into state and federal law for the wider population.

But there is just one problem. The law, which has been called the "gold standard" by experts and leading child advocacy organizations, applies only to federally recognized Indian tribes. South Carolina has not adopted those provisions, which has prompted the Indigenous Women's Alliance of South Carolina to lead an effort to convince South Carolina lawmakers to do so.

And, the Women

An Indian woman at the Pauwau of the Waccamaw Indian People.

In a recent meeting with Gov. McMaster, Kathleen Hayes, chair of the Alliance, pointed out that Native American women suffer some of the worst violence, sexual assault and murder rates of any other ethnic group in the country. The murder rate for Native American women, she said, is ten times that of the national average, and nationwide, 84 percent of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence; 56 percent of them, sexual violence.

But what about South Carolina? Because the government does not designate "Native American" on its police reports and other governmental documents, there is no way to know. So, there is no data to support efforts to address these concerns.

The governor asked why those rates were so high.

"Unless this is tracked, we won't know," replied Chief Hatcher.

These are basic issues of human rights. The ability to bury their ancestors according to their traditions; the ability to effectively care for children in need; the ability to address violence, especially against women.

However, as though they have been "lost" as contributors to American society, the Waccamaws in South Carolina are being treated as though they do not really exist.

And that's not right.

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