The chiefs of South Carolina Native American tribes say that for generations they have been striving for society to acknowledge their heritage and historical contributions in the very place their ancestors have always dwelled. Still, after centuries on this land, they have to prove their existence — in a society they say has rendered their narratives obsolete — in order to be recognized in the eyes of government.
But how does one prove identity when it is innate? The hue of your skin, the texture of your hair and the structure of your face may superficially define identity yet cannot adequately characterize generations of ancestors traced in DNA.
State tribal leaders say their value —their identity — is defined by a heritage of rich traditions and bloodline of pride not adequately exemplified in a textbook. And their validation, they add, should not depend on an arduous governmental process of documentation, proving genealogical kinship to their native descendants or archaeological discoveries validating their material culture and tribal significance.
“We…the Indians in this state, in the United States is the only race, the only people that’s got to prove who they are…no other race in the country has got to prove to the state of South Carolina, to our government, that we are who we are,” Santee Indian Organization Chief Randy Crummie told The State.
However, proving their tribal history and ancestral lineage is part of the expectation — the standard — required of Native American tribes to be formally recognized, achieving a status that affords the tribes legal and financial benefits. It is not lost on them that they have to prove their identity in a system framed by the colonizers who settled on their land.
And while the tribes’ ancestors cultivated this land centuries ago, it was not until 2005 that South Carolina recognized its first American Indian tribe: the Waccamaw Indian People. The tribe located in Horry County is one of nine state-recognized tribes in South Carolina.
Other Pee Dee area tribes include the Sumter Tribe of Cheraw Indians, Pee Dee Indian Tribe of S.C. and the Pee Dee Nation of Upper S.C.
The Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe, Santee Indian Organization and Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians are located in the Lowcountry. The Beaver Creek Indians are based in the Midlands, and in the Upstate region are the Piedmont American Indian Association Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation.
The Catawba Indian Nation is the sole federally recognized tribe in the state.
The South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs grants state recognition to tribes, affording them access to some educational, environmental and economic grants. And in order to petition for such status, native entities are required to meet certain criteria including providing contact information of their tribal leaders, a mission statement, documents indicating their efforts to promote Native American culture and address the socio-economic challenges they face as well as historical narratives indicating their establishment.
In a statement to The State, the commission said in part, “the agency has supported the state’s Native American tribes in various ways, more recently through the distribution of PPE supplies; providing information on COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites; serving as a liaison between tribal leaders and the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control to establish COVID-19 testing locations in communities across the state; identifying grant opportunities; and connecting organizations to address water access.”
In South Carolina, only 10 tribes remain that haveattained tribal recognition out of what historians estimate were 29 distinct ethnic groups before Europeans settled the continent.
“It’s a rigorous process…developing your history over 100 years and their genealogy and their current tribal membership role. Their archaeological background…pulling all that together in a large file that is reviewed by this group,” said Christopher Judge, archaeologist and USC Lancaster assistant director of Native American Studies.
Judge added that for some Americans, it’s a privilege to never have to worry about proving one’s identity — a liberty Native Americans are not afforded.
“As a Caucasian middle-class male, we don’t get asked these questions.”
Subtle reminders of how far society has yet to come to recognize and value the lives of Native Americans are apparent on a daily basis, the chiefs say. Whether it’s completing the “other” section of a doctor’s form, proudly penciling in “Native American” as their race, only to get lab results labeled, instead, as a “white male.” Or, when visiting a local school, a bright-eyed child gleams up and asks, “Where is your horse?”
But more than government recognition, the chiefs say they desire to be seen — beyond primitive figures discussed during seasonal lessons in a classroom or only acknowledged by state officials during their designated month of recognition in November.
“Native Americans exist. … Native Americans exist in South Carolina. When we talk about history, we have to be inclusive, even when we don’t know it,” S.C. state archaeologist Jonathan Leader said.
“The things that give us our history are reliant on other people’s history we pretend to ignore…they are so embedded in our history that whether we recognize it or not, it produces who we are.”
Native American chiefs in South Carolina say they strive to honor the land their ancestors were ordained with, sharing their native language, traditional regalia, song and art with the next generation while educating their surrounding communities in order to keep their heritage alive.
And preserving their rich history and sacred traditions in a society that has erased so much of them propels tribal leaders and state archaeologists to hold tighter to what remains by educating the community about the tribes in South Carolina.
“After the slave insurrections, there was this massive effort to erase African culture, and also Native American culture. By 1790, they’re no longer enumerating on the Census,” Judge said, adding natives of this land — now South Carolina — date back to the last ice age — 13,000 years prior to the first European or African arrival.
“People who are Native American, they’re falling under the category of free person of color…And then what we have found at the Native American Studies Center is that they become invisible,” Judge, the center’s assistant director, said.
A feeling of invisibility — losing their cultural identity — caused some natives to blend in with or adapt to society’s norms in order to survive, Beaver Indian Tribe Chief Louie Chavis said.
“A lot of people are ashamed and embarrassed to be called an American Indian. There is a great stigma that kind of goes with it,” Chavis said. “All of our native people, we have the attitude or the thought that we will survive…we have endured so long without.”
“Prejudice.” It’s a word Chief Randy Crummie says embodies the struggles of growing up American Indian in a small, rural town of Orangeburg County — Holly Hill — during the ‘60s. It was a time of segregation when Native Americans were often mistreated, undermined and relegated to separate learning facilities when there was no place for them in the white or Black schools.
“I grew up when the Indians weren’t allowed to go to the public schools in town…in the 60s,” the 61-year-old Santee Indian Organization chief said. “The whites would come out and taught the Indians.”
American Indian children like Crummie often found their haven in single-room institutions. Those schools included the Leland Grove School educating children of Marlboro and Dillon County, the Varner Town Indian School in the Varner Town Indian Community and, for the children of Holly Hill, it was Santee Live Oak Indian School, which closed in 1966 due to integration and served as the tribal headquarters for the Santee Indian Organization. Indian schools then became folded into “colored schools,” Leader said.
In losing their schools, Native Americans found themselves losing hold of what little they held as their own in a society that shunned them.
A discriminatory past is still felt today for the tribal reservation that stretches along the nearly 5-mile strip of road in Holly Hill — a place where, the grandson of a tribal chief says, some people still fail to acknowledge them as an American Indian community. Still, being the leader of his tribe means advocating on their behalf, even if it’s simply acknowledging their existence.
“They just need to recognize that we are here. We’re here. We’re not asking America for nothing,” Crummie said.
“It’s about helping my people.”
‘Grandfather has extremely blessed my people’
Chopping and delivering firewood to warm homes or climbing atop a 12-foot ladder to pick figs for a fellow tribal member to prepare preserves are just a few ways retired lineman Chief Louie Chavis helps to take care of his Native American community — one he says has been self-sufficient despite their circumstances.
They are circumstances that have forced them to adapt to a world that was forgetting who they were — causing some indigenous people to lose a sense of themselves, their own cultural identity, Chavis said.
“[It’s] trying to either adapt to exactly where we are but what people are looking, thinking or either expecting us to be.”
However, for more than 16 years, the 73-year-old has been leading his growing 650-member tribe while keeping the legacy of the Beaver Creek Indians alive despite the obstacles preserving their history presents.
Their ancestors settled along branches of the Edisto River, along Big and Little creeks, in Orangeburg County. And their presence there spans over two centuries to today.
“My people, our tribe, we don’t even do a pow wow, we do a gathering where anyone is welcome to come. We break bread,” Chavis said. “You do not have to prove anything to come and have a good time. Enjoy, fellowship and try. Just try to look and see … how close the similarities are with such a difference in culture.”
And the grandson of a Lake City Pentecostal preacher says faith has sustained his people.
“Grandfather has extremely blessed my people. All of our native people…we have the attitude or the thought that we will survive. We have endured so long without,” the 73-year-old said.
“We knew then and now, as Grandfather True, the Great Spirit, the master of life, the giver of life, Yahweh…He’s always been there. And tomorrow when we wake up, He’ll still be there.”
‘To whom much is given, much is required’
Chief John Creel of the Edisto Natchez-Kusso Tribe has been providing spiritual and physical nourishment to people of this state and foreign lands — ministry and medicine joining hand-in-hand as his service and purpose in life for over two decades. And it was an evening at the Edisto Indian Church of God — hearing how ministry was impacting Native Americans of South Dakota — that changed the trajectory of his life as a teen. Face quivering, with tears running down his face, Creel said he knew the Lord was calling him to a higher purpose: preaching the word of God.
“I asked my brother…did you hear him say there’s a young man in here that God’s got His hand on…called into the missions? And he said, ‘No,’ ” the 53-year-old said. “I was not confused…It was like I heard the spirit say to me, ‘I was speaking to you.’ ”
The Medical University of South Carolina associate professor and family medicine physician hails from generations of tribal leadership: his father served as chief in 1982 and a distant cousin held the leadership role for 20 years. Creel is only in his second year as chief, an elected position, though he’s served on tribal council since 1995. His commitment to his community is best characterized by his sacrifice and service that has led to expanding the services offered by the Edisto Indian Free Clinic — an establishment he helped reach nonprofit status and acquire additional medical staffing — as well as the organizing of the Little Rock Holiness Church of Cottageville, South Carolina.
Still, there is so much more the married father of three desires to have for his tribe: a 20-bed assisted living facility, the addition of a free dental clinic, a museum and a space for elders to teach the next generation the skills of their ancestors.
“They know how to do things with their thumbs on phones and games but they don’t know how to farm, plant and grow crops or fish or hunt,” Creel said. “We’re wanting to revive our basket making and our Cypress boat paddle which our tribe is famous for.”
And his unwavering determination to grow and preserve the tribal community can be exemplified by his motto, included in the signature of every email correspondence. It’s a testament to his role as a caregiver for the community and for his own family: a family where he cares for his life-long companion and wife, battling stage four colon cancer and a son born with spina bifida and hydrocephalus who was miraculously revived to life four years ago.
“God’s delays are not denials. Don’t give up in the midst of trials.”
‘We are beginning to stand up and be recognized’
As a child, Chief Prentiss “Pete” Parr of the Pee Dee Indian Tribe recalls sitting in an open field in Cheraw, peering out over a seemingly endless sea of cotton, watching his mother — inflicted with polio from the waist down causing her feet to club — as she maneuvered her way through the crop, picking the fluffy fiber from its stalks.
“I can remember my mom when I was about three of four-years-old, we used to sit at one end of the cotton row, and she would pick down the row and come back and then she moved me over to another row,” Parr said.
“My dad worked in a cotton mill and my mom worked beside him…and when the cotton season was over, they… picked tobacco.”
Hard work is ingrained in the son of a Scottish, Irish and American Indian father and mother whom he calls a “full-blooded” Pee Dee Indian, sustaining the family of seven that lived between Cheraw and Baltimore, Maryland.
The 71-year-old says he always considered himself American Indian, officially joining the tribe in 1982 though South Carolina only recognized them in 2006. However, the retired iron worker says that the state was not always welcoming to his race, causing some to deny who they were in order to survive.
“South Carolina was a bad state for Indians. I don’t know the reason why, but our people was just not recognized, was not wanted or I guess they figured we was no value,” Parr said.
“We have Native Americans here that are hurting, that are in need.”
And the vestiges of ignoring their needs for so long can be felt today for some members of the tribe, Parr says, referencing an apparent mistrust and fear in the government — some are even hesitant to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
However, those challenges do not preclude them from giving back to their surrounding communities: Parr says with the assistance of Marlboro County Council and state Rep. Pat Henegan, the tribe sponsored a food giveaway which provided over 900,000 pounds of food and perishable items to families in surrounding communities in 2020 during the height of the pandemic.
“I care about my people, which is in the Pee Dee, but we care about all Native Americans,” Parr said. “They thought they killed the good seeds in the ground, and we’re the product of that seed now. We are actually beginning to stand up and be recognized.”