In the tribal round room of the Longhouse on a beautiful fall Saturday afternoon, the Catawbas taught the world a lesson - to honor the oldest women among us.
Catawba Indians have lived on the reservation for as long as there have been people living in York County. And of the almost 2,800 known Catawbas on earth, with about half living locally, there are just two ladies over age 95. Elsie Inez Blue George, 96, and Bertha Mae George Harris, 97. They sat in leather chairs above all the tribal members, in seats fit for queens. Royalty.
Which both, plainly, are.
The Catawba women are culturally the peacemakers, event organizer Teresa Harris told the crowd, "a river that gives us life."
Just like the Catawba River named for this tribe that runs by only a few hundred yards from where those people sat Saturday. It was breathtaking in that round room. There was a rhythm from the traditional drum, beating, beating, like a collective heart. It pervaded the young kids who stopped giggling. It stopped babies from crying. It was magic, or God, or both.
Gilbert Blue, former chief of the nation for more than three decades, whose leadership turned the Catawbas from tribe to tribe and sovereign nation, put it plainly to a group of about 200 people in that round room. He spoke of the wisdom given, the lessons taught, the culture saved.
"It is an honor to honor our elderly people, who have taught us so much," said Chief Blue.
Both women were given eagle feathers adorned with beads, the highest symbol of honor among all Native American people of any tribe. Each was presented a pottery turtle, made by Catawba master potter Margaret Robbins. The turtles, in the Catawba culture and pottery that comes from clay dug from the nearby river's banks, represent long life and knowledge.
In the past years, the Catawbas have had political battles with outsiders, and in recent weeks, amongst themselves over leadership. But there were no politics Saturday. Nobody talked of anything but one large family. The ceremony taught us that the heritage of the Catawbas is not just pottery known around the world. It is not just this patch of earth that is theirs alone.
It is their people. Grand, proud, resilient, loving, people.
"We can all learn so much from their knowledge," said Dee Harris, one of the organizers of the event with the Traditional Women's Group of the Catawbas. The group honored other women of older age who had died since the tribe gained federal recognition 17 years ago. Other older women, those older than 85 still living, were given yellow flowers.
Elsie George, the second-oldest honoree, offered to me - a non-Catawba honored to be invited to such a ceremony - the secret to a long, loving life. She whispered in my ear: "Live the best you can, give to all, and love those around you."
The drums beat again. The chanting in the native language went with the drums. The Catawba people kept time with their hands and their feet.
Viola Harris Wilson, one of Bertha Harris' children, said her mother didn't hear very well. But when the drums beat, and the Catawba language words were sung, Bertha Harris's head nodded. Her foot tapped. Her hands moved. She did not smile as much as glow.
The sound of drums and Catawbas chanting, singing, beat strongly in her heart.