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Fighting 'Documentary Genocide'

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Young Carson Hatcher dances at a recent festival sponsored by the Waccamaw Indian People in South Carolina.

The Waccamaw Indian People in South Carolina are fighting "documentary genocide" as they battle for federal recognition as an Indian Tribe.

Meanwhile, on October 11, America officially recognized Indigenous Peoples' Day, honoring Native Americans for their resilience and contributions to our nation, despite the obstacles that they have overcome.

Those obstacles began when the first European explorers arrived on our shores and Natives were chased from their lands, many slaughtered, with surviving generations facing discrimination and countless indignities -- even those Waccamaw men and women who have taken up arms to protect our nation.

With an October 8 proclamation, President Biden became the first U.S. president to recognize Indigenous Peoples' Day, declaring that it would be observed Oct. 11. That's the same day as Columbus Day -- an observation that many Native Americans find appalling, as it was Columbus and other European explorers who were responsible for the genocide that claimed the lives of so many.

As NPR wrote, "Native Americans have long criticized the inaccuracies and harmful narratives of Columbus' legacy that credited him with his "discovery" of the Americas when Indigenous people were there first."

Documentary Genocide

In South Carolina, Harold "Buster" Hatcher, chief of the Waccamaw Indian People, shares that view. He has been an outspoken advocate of Indigenous Peoples' Day in lieu of Columbus Day, and his efforts have led to some successes locally.

But the Waccamaws have a much more important fight on their hands -- to be officially recognized by the federal government as an Indian tribe.

Requirements imposed by the federal government that stand in the way of this recognition amount to "documentary genocide," Hatcher contends, explaining that a federal regulation requires that the Waccamaws must show unbroken lineage from the first ancient Indian from the 1500s to today. That requirement, Hatcher says, is impossible to meet because there were no written records kept in those early days.

Not only is that regulation impossible to meet, Hatcher contends that it is patently unfair, even discriminatory.

"The Indian people are the only people in the country that have to be officially recognized by the government," said Hatcher, noting that no such requirement exists for any other ethnic group to have full rights of U.S. citizenship.

"I'm a combat veteran, but when I buried my mother I could not bury her according to our religion and traditions," he said, noting that all Americans are guaranteed the right to freedom of religion -- "except Indians."

"When they made those laws (imposing impossible requirements for recognition) they knew they were pretty much outlawing Indians," Hatcher declared. That way, he explained, it would be possible to confiscate their homes, their farms, their lands. After all, in the eyes of the government, they really were not people entitled to anything.

"We call it documentary genocide," he said.

Who Are the Waccamaws?

Centuries before the arrival of European explorers, ancestors of today’s Waccamaw Indian People lived a quiet life, hunting with spears and collecting plants for food and medicine in the low country of South Carolina.

Then the Europeans came ashore in 1521, and life was forever changed. The Waccamaw were adept at the domestication of animals, including deer. They manufactured cheese from does’ milk. They kept chickens, ducks, geese, and other domestic fowl. There were gardens to tend, both private and communal.

Everyone worked in the community garden, including the chiefs, who were seen planting and gathering the crops along with their tribe. Among their crops were corn, pumpkins, kidney beans, lima beans, squash, melons, gourds and tobacco.

But European contact nearly wiped out the Waccamaw.

Because they had no defense for the diseases they brought, people died by the hundreds. When the Europeans needed labor, they were forced into slavery. The king ordered all owners to free their Indian slaves (c1752).

"The loss of their slaves, however, would have devastated the plantations, and so the owners simply tried to turn us Black," Chief Hatcher explains. "After the Emancipation Proclamation, thousands of Indians walked off the cotton fields along with the Blacks."

The Waccamaws persisted, and in 1813, those who remained formed a settlement in Horry County, SC. The land had been purchased by Waccamaw John Dimery and his wife, Elizabeth. Soon Native families settled there. Today, those families still form the core of the Waccamaw Indian People, officially recognized as a tribe by the state of South Carolina in 2005.

But in the eyes of the federal government, they do not exist. They are invisible people, unable to be recognized as an official Indian tribe because of those impossible federal requirements. Chief Hatcher has appealed to South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC), other local politicians, and even Presidents Obama and Biden for help in overcoming that requirement.

Rice introduced a bill in Congress to give the Waccamaws federal recognition, but that bill has languished in committee with no apparent effort to gain its approval.

Taking the Offensive

And so, the Waccamaws are working to build public support for their drive to gain recognition. For the past two years, a project has been underway to create a documentary that will effectively make the case for federal recognition of the Waccamaw Indian People as an official Indian tribe. I have been honored to work on this project with my colleague, award winning videographer David Hinshaw.

Unfortunately, the lack of funding and then the difficulties resulting from the pandemic have delayed this video project, but now, with the help of a small Folklife & Traditional Arts Project Grant from the state of South Carolina, the project is underway again with a target completion date of January 31, 2022.

When the project was first launched, we established a Go Fund Me drive for contributions to support the initiative. We are grateful to all those who contributed to this project, as their support will go a long way towards completion of the documentary. Now, if you would like to support this initiative, you can help support our Go Fund Me campaign as it is still open.

We'll keep you apprised of our progress as we go along. We are excited to be able to work on this documentary again and hopefully help the Waccamaw Indian People achieve the recognition they deserve.

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