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Catawbas seek tourism dollars to build niche destination

A living history village providing a glimpse into the lives of historic Catawba Indians is one new attraction aimed at transforming the York County reservation into a prominent tourist draw.

The improvements could help make the reservation, located east of Rock Hill on the Catawba River, into a potential "flagship" tourism destination, attracting visitors to the state and to York County, tourism officials say.

A state tourism study identified Native American studies as a niche interest in the tourism market. The study flagged the Catawba Cultural Preservation Center as a site that could fill that niche with some improvements, said Bennish Brown, director of York County's Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The Catawba Cultural Center is one of the tourism products we're able to promote to encourage people to come here," especially when visitors are already coming to see more prominent attractions, Brown said.

"But it does take the larger attractions," he said.

On Monday night, the York County Council will consider granting about $189,000 in York County hospitality tax dollars toward the effort. The project is one of four recommended to receive tourism grant money.

The plans include improvements to the cultural center, existing exhibitions and new attractions located along the Ye Hasuri Trail that runs from the cultural center to the Catawba River, said Wenonah Haire, the director of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project.

Named for the "little wild Indians" - the mischevious tricksters in Catawba folklore - the trail already is home to a replica of a roundhouse, a garden and a replica of an early 1900s house that belonged to one of the tribe's families.

The new ideas include an amphitheater located near the river. It would provide a place for outdoor dramas and activities such as historic dances, storytelling and folklore performances, according to the state tourism study.

But the focal attraction will be a living history village charting the development of the Catawbas' culture over time.

The village will be surrounded by a palisade or fence constructed out of trees encircling the village and providing protection, Haire said.

Inside the village, replicas of housing structures from different points in Catawba history will show a visual, physical continuum of how lifestyles and culture developed in the tribe, she said.

"People tend to see native people as a timeshot in history," Haire said.

She often hears questions illustrating that perspective. Someone once asked her, "How can you be a Catawba? You're wearing a watch."

But the truth is, there are a number of different ways the Catawbas have lived over time, she said.

"We develop, we change, we borrow, we lend."

Inside the village, historic interpreters and craftsmen will carry out the activities of "a day in the life of the Catawbas," Haire said.

Re-enactors and craftsmen will demonstrate cooking techniques and other skills such as tanning and preparing hides, making tools, and arts and crafts.

Visitors will be free to interact with the craftsmen, "actually seeing the culture in a dimensional state," and experience it through multiple senses, she said, including tasting foods cooked using historic techniques.

Visitors' questions and curiosities will fuel ideas for expanding the types of exhibits the village offers.

The experience would be similar to Charles Towne Landing, which bills itself as the "birthplace of South Carolina."

A similar experience dealing instead with Catawba history could be a welcome addition to York County and the state's offerings.

"They do a great job (at the cultural center) when preparing for groups," Brown said.

"But now that experience needs to be as high for the individual traveler that gets off the interstate" and comes with family who "walk away saying, 'Wow, we have to go back and we have to tell people about it.'"

That's what visitors need, Brown said, "an experience."

Both visitors and the Catawbas will benefit, Haire said, especially the younger people who will learn about Catawba history.

"The reason I like to call it a living history," Haire said, "is until there's no more breath coming from anybody, it will be passed on for generation to generation."