6,000 years of culture

It’s the season of fall festivals, and the one last weekend had familiar sights, sounds and smells – tables full of art and crafts, the aroma of sweet potato pie and hot stew, a full parking lot on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
But upon entering the glass doors of the long house on the Catawba Indian Reservation, it was clear that something was different here.
Natives in traditional buckskin and feathers were walking among the jeans-and-sweatshirt crowd. Most visitors were headed for the food until they heard a woman’s voice wafting in through the open doors.
“Step high. Step high, we teach our little girls,” said a Catawba woman in a traditional buckskin dress. Captivated, people began entering the round room.
As they settled in, Kristine Carpenter repeated her words.
“Step high. Step high, we teach our little girls,” she said, then began the solemn, sacred march.
“We teach them to first respect themselves,” she said. “You can’t expect others to respect you if you don’t respect yourself.”
Catawba lineage is handed down through the women who have held the tribe together for centuries.
“The dance of the woman is a dance to honor all women,” she said.
Before the first drum beat, Carpenter asked the audience to not photograph or video the sacred dance.
“The only way to see this dance is in person,” she said.
A mixed crowd of more than 100 people sat spellbound and silent in a circle as she danced the Women’s Honor Song. Her son drummed and chanted a sacred soul-touching tribute.
People sat with their cell phones and cameras in their laps, mesmerized by a moment that had to be experienced rather than recorded for later. No one made a sound until the last drum beat and the dancer’s feet were still.
More dances followed. They celebrated life, healing and hunting.
Silver-haired Catawba women watched from their chairs as young Indians danced on the stage below. The youthful natives pranced and strutted with all their might, determined to keep the 6,000-year old Catawba heritage alive at this annual event on the banks of the Catawba River.

Return of a craft
One of the tribe’s elders, Faye George Greiner, sat behind a display of handwoven baskets.
Greiner, 81, shared how she played a part in bringing basket weaving back to the Catawbas. Almost 70 years ago, her parents sent her to the Cherokee Indian boarding school to learn to weave baskets. No basket makers had been on the Catawba Indian Reservation for more than a century until she brought it back.
For a while, she lived away from the reservation, but returned in the early ‘90s to pass the craft on to the younger generation.
“I’m so happy to see so many baskets on the craft tables,” she said.
Greiner continues to teach basket weaving on the reservation and is teaching Beckee Garris, who works at the Native American Studies Center.
“I don’t want it to get lost again,” Greiner said.
People moved slowly from table to table in the round room gazing at the pottery, jewelry, baskets and artifacts.
Madison Fellows, 8, stopped at a table with a basket of arrowheads. She ran her fingers over the smooth stones.
“I enjoy looking at the different kinds of rocks that were used in making these arrowheads,” she said.
Travis Blue, 43, dressed in brown leather adorned with feathers, performed a  dance to honor hunting, showing how to track and catch the scent of an animal. Two large feathers rose high from his headdress while a large circular set of tail feathers fanned out like a strutting wild turkey. He squatted, stalked and searched for prey.

A healing dance
Cheyenne Beck, 19, danced the Jingle Dance, a healing jig, in a skirt with five circular rows of dangling metal cones about 2 inches long. They clanged as she moved to the beat of the drum.
The legend is the dance came in a dream to a heartbroken father of a sick young girl whose illness was worsening and not responding to traditional medicine. When he awoke, he gathered the women and described the dance to them. They performed it, and his daughter was made well.
Beck has been dancing since she could walk and feels it is a way to preserve the tribe’s culture.
“I want to give back because the heritage is dying out,” Beck said.
Chief Bill Harris, surveying the circular room, said the day was about sharing the culture and having a good time. Attendance was up by about 30 percent over last year, he said.
“Fall festivals are about progression from the beginning of the year through harvest and giving thanks as we get ready for the earth to go to sleep,” said Harris. “So we review our year and make plans for the coming year.”
Beckee Garris, seated next to a Christmas tree, greeted people as they entered the long house. The round hallway led to a long line of people holding empty paper plates and dollar bills.
People were trading their dollar for a small smorgasbord of native delights including Cherokee Brunswick stew, blackberry cobbler, and various breads made from sweet potatoes, black beans and carrots. A table of sweets included peach spice preserves, blackberry preserves, banana nut cake, pecan pie.
“One dollar and you can sample everything,” Garris said. “I did.”

Hoop Dance
Finally, the show-stopping dance began. A young brave, Jonathan Thomas, dressed in bright yellow, took center stage to perform the athletic Hoop Dance.
Before he began, he spread 15 colorful hula-hoop-style rings on the floor in piles of three.
Historically, this dance was performed for members of the tribe who were unable to travel. Upon returning from his adventures, the young warrior danced to illustrate what he had seen. Using the hoops and his body, he created animal shapes including birds, butterflies, alligators, and snakes.
Thomas began with three hoops and ended with all 15, a task accomplished with four on each leg, two on each arm, a couple around his waist and one in his mouth. His dance celebrated youth, strength and gratitude. He ended the acrobatic display by kneeling with his head bowed and a single hoop raised in honor.
Thomas, 21, works at a nearby factory, but continues to pass his native heritage of archery, hoop dancing, beadwork and pottery to the kids on the reservation.
“I stay close to the roots of the Native American tradition,” Thomas said. “Anytime anyone requests me to perform, I will gladly take the time out of my day to do that.”
The festival ended with the Friendship Dance. With open arms and hands, the Catawbas called everyone down to the floor to dance with them.
Their message: We are one. We are connected.

By Mandy Catoe, Staff Reporter with The Lancaster News