Updated: Nov 27, 2021
Today is Native American Heritage Day, a time for America to honor and celebrate Native American and Alaska Natives’ countless contributions to our nation, to recognize the wrongs of the past, and make certain that the rights and dignity of our country’s first people are upheld.
Thus, there is no better time than now for the Waccamaw Indian People of South Carolina to be officially recognized as a federal Indian tribe, making them eligible for all of the benefits accorded the 574 Tribal Nations in America.
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It is time for these "invisible" people to take their rightful place among those Tribal Nations and be positioned to benefit from many of the provisions contained in President Biden’s newly signed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which invests over $3 billion in Native health services among other benefits.
Centuries before European explorers arrived, ancestors of today’s Waccamaw Indian People lived a quiet life, hunting with bows, arrows and spears and collecting plants for food and medicine in the low country of South Carolina. Natives were captured and enslaved; farmlands and hunting grounds taken away. Some starved and died from diseases brought to this land by those "explorers."
But the Waccamaw Indian People persisted, and were officially recognized as a tribe on Feb. 17, 2005, by the state of South Carolina, meeting the state’s stringent requirements for tribal recognition.
In South Carolina, a state recognized Tribe has status similar to that of a county. Other than eligibility for some grants and acknowledgement under the law, state recognition is merely an acknowledgement that they, their society, their culture, and their ancestors have been, and remain, an integral part of this state’s history and citizenship.
The Federal Recognition Roadblock
However, a federal regulation that is impossible for the Waccamaw Indian People to meet has prevented them from attaining recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and thus, means that they are ineligible for the protections and benefits accorded other tribes under the law.
It also means that the Waccamaw Indian People cannot obtain the return of their ancestors’ remains currently stored in federally funded museums. And so, they cannot be properly buried according to Indian tradition, and provided the human respect that they deserve. This is an inhumane travesty.
As a result, the very governments that the Waccamaw Indian People support with their tax dollars and that they defended with their blood, denies them such basic rights as the right to practice the religion of their choice and properly bury their ancestors.
The government requires that the Waccamaw show an unbroken lineage from its members today to known Waccamaws at “first historic times”. However, the BIA does not define that term, and it ignores the fact that there were no written records from those times and, thus, no way to prove lineage.
Waccamaw Chief Harold Hatcher explains that before the Europeans arrived, the Waccamaw Indian People had no written language. "There were no court houses, no birth, death, marriage certificates," he says. "There was no means of recording who their members were, who their council members or headsmen were. Names changed throughout their lives. Upon birth, parents gave the child a name. When they became of age, they often chose another name. If they wanted to show honor to someone, some would take a portion of their name. But in no case were any of the names recorded.
"In fact, there was no need to record individual names and no way to do that," Chief Hatcher adds. "The name of the Tribe might have been recorded, and occasionally, the name of a headsman was written. But even then, a European name often was used as a nickname for the leader, such as 'little Charley', 'Big Nose Bob' or 'Green Toe Bill'. But there would be no linkage to the Indian’s actual name."
Consequently, it is impossible for the Waccamaw Indian People of today to know any of the names of their ancestors from those early days and no way for them to prove unbroken lineage from those "historic times." Chief Hatcher calls it "documentary genocide."
Hatcher's efforts to obtain this information through repeated inquiries to the director of the Branch and the Bureau have been unsuccessful. Moreover, repeated letters, news articles, and conversations with congressmen, senators, even presidents, with the BIA, with governors, have been to no avail, the chief points out.
"Every political office holder in the country raises their hand to Almighty God and swears to 'protect and defend the Constitution of these United States.' But in this instance, they are failing to do so because they are denying even the existence of a people with a proud heritage, a people who have fought and died for this country, and who simply are being ignored," he declares.
Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) has sponsored a bill that would grant federal recognition to the Waccamaw Indian People, bypassing the federal regulations that currently stand in the way. However, the path to final approval by Congress is an arduous one, and other tribes, particularly those in the Western U.S., oppose the approval of new tribes because that would reduce their share of federal financial assistance.
“I vow to fight it as long as I breath,” says Chief Hatcher. “This country owes my people their dignity. We ask for nothing special, but we will not accept less than our rightful place in history and society. I demand the basic rights as an American.”
Currently, award-winning videographer David Hinshaw and I are finalizing a documentary video that will present the Waccamaw story and make the case for the Waccamaw Indian People to be federally recognized as an official Indian tribe. The viewer will discover the long history of the Waccamaw, learn about their lengthy battle for recognition, and the importance of this recognition for the Waccamaw of today and for generations to come.
There will be a call to action, asking viewers to contact their representatives in Congress to support Rep. Rice's bill, to seek a change in the regulation that today makes federal recognition impossible, and to contribute to the effort to get the government’s attention.
The documentary is being partially funded by a grant from the State of South Carolina, and a GoFundMe campaign has been established. To support this initiative please click here. Our thanks to all those who already have contributed to this important project.