It took an almost cross-country journey for Rachel McDaniel to understand her Catawba heritage.
She grew up on Reservation Road in the heart of the Catawba Indian Nation. Raised in the Mormon faith, her mother limited her choices for college. McDaniel chose Utah State University.
During a college dance performance, a segment was devoted to Native American dancers. The tribal dances did not surprise McDaniel, who had grown up going to the annual Catawba Pow-Wow in Rock Hill and other ceremonial Catawba events.
The dances were new to her college friends, however, and McDaniel learned that her cultural experiences were different from others.
Sharing the Catawba heritage is an important part of McDaniel’s job as director of the Catawba Teen Center at the reservation. The teen center is a partnership between the tribe and the Boys and Girls Clubs of York County.
About 50 people celebrated its opening Thursday at the Catawba senior center. The event was a chance for the teens, ages 13 to 17, to show what they had learned – and to have fun.
David Carriker, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of York County, said the partnership represented two organizations with the same goal – making a difference for young people.
“This population needed a place to go,” he said, “a place to hang out.”
Catawba Chief Bill Harris said the tribe was looking for programs to keep its teens in school.
“They were stepping out too early,” he said.
The tribe partnered with the Boys and Girls Clubs because “they have great programs to keep kids in school,” Harris said. The partnership is not just for the kids, he said, it is a way for the community to learn about the Catawbas.
“It’s a swinging door – a door out to the world for us, and a door for people to see us,” Harris said.
Catawba teens have been coming to the reservation’s senior center since January to play pool and cornhole, and to disappear into the woods for games. McDaniel said many of her teens prefer outdoor activities.
About 30 teens are on the roll, and the club’s average daily attendance is about 15. The goal is to serve 50 teens, McDaniel said.
Recently, they planted a garden in the raised beds beside the senior center. The teens daily check the progress of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, onions, watermelon and – most importantly to the teens – peanuts.
They can’t wait to have boiled peanuts, McDaniel said.
She describes the fun activities as “learning in disguise” as the teens learn to work together and fulfill common goals.
There is also more formal learning. Each day, time is set aside for homework. Tutors assist the teens, who also have access to the computer lab at the tribal Longhouse.
The youth also go on field trips. Recently several members of the club, along with those from the Rock Hill teen center at the Flexible Learning Center off Flint Street Extension, went to Charleston to tour colleges.
The visit helped broaden the outlook for the Catawba teens, McDaniel said. One teen had said his future was becoming an auto mechanic and owning his own shop. Since visiting the Charleston schools, he has realized that knowing how to work on cars is not enough. He also needs to know how to run a business – something he could learn in college.
The mixture of activities, the teens said, is what keeps them coming back.
“It’s fun interacting with others and getting help with homework, especially math,” said Chris Harris, a freshman at Rock Hill High School.
Part of the time at the club is set aside for learning about Catawba heritage. It is an extension of programs held at the tribe’s cultural center for younger children.
“You don’t find other ways to connect with your culture,” said Ashley Bradley, a sophomore at Rock Hill High School. A recent cultural session included a review of the tribe’s constitution, which piqued Bradley’s interest and ambition.
“I want to be chief,” she said. “I have a lot of really good ideas for the tribe.”
That’s an obtainable goal, Chief Harris said, because even though the Catawba constitution refers to the chief as “he,” there is no prescribed gender for the tribe’s top office.