It's time for Yap Ye Iswa

The Catawba Indian tribe's annual cultural celebration returns this weekend after a two-year hiatus with a new location and a partner -- the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.

Saturday's Yap Ye Iswa festival, or Day of the Catawba, will be hosted by the USC-Lancaster campus, which is promoting its new Native American studies program.

"It's the Catawbas' festival, but we're offering the space and supporting it," said Stephen Criswell, director of the Native American studies program.

The festival is part of a gradual return of some of the tribe's cultural activities, which were scaled back or staffed by volunteers for a period due to tribal financial problems that forced staff cuts at the Catawba Cultural Center.

"I think that they're sort of cranking back up and doing more and more programs, and I hope that we are helping with that," Criswell said.

The festival, which began in 1990 and was traditionally held the Saturday after Thanksgiving at the cultural center, was put on hold in 2005, due in part to the financial problems. Cultural officials said the festival needed to be revamped and had outgrown the space at the cultural center.

Criswell said the campus support may provide an expanded audience for the festival, and also will help with event costs. The festival is the single major fundraiser for the tribe's Catawba Cultural Preservation Project.

Wenonah Haire, executive director of the cultural preservation project, said the campus partnership and the festival's new location grew out of a discussion campus officials had with tribal leaders more than a year ago.

"We forge partnerships wherever we can find them," she said.

The cultural center's staff has gradually returned to a full 40-hour paid work week, Haire said, and is working to expand programs and begin new ones.

Some of their projects include a partially finished replica of the late 1800s home of Catawba Isabelle Harris, which has been constructed at a site on the nature trail near the center.

"Our hope is to eventually have a number of different dwellings that would kind of complete the pattern of what Catawbas would have lived in throughout that time," Haire said.

And there are plans for ghost tours on the nature trail, she said. Lighting is needed along the trail before that project can move along, she said. There are also plans for gardens.

Beckee Garris, a historic preservation officer who also is a student in the USC-L Native American studies program, expects the campus program will help foster awareness.

"It's probably one of the best things that has happened to us recently," said Garris, 60. "Because not only will it be able to tell about the Catawba history, it will tell about all of the tribes in South Carolina."

The Catawbas are the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina, Criswell said, but there are about a dozen state-recognized tribes or groups, most of which are small.

"We realized there was not anything in the state addressing these contemporary communities," Criswell said, referring to the Indians, many whom have been isolated. But now, he said, "they're sort of turning their Indian identity out for others to see."

Ronnie Beck, 31, who works with a Catawba after-school program, made possible through grants, said that program has helped foster an interest in tribal culture among children, who learn dancing, drumming and other traditions.

Beck said he has three different drumming groups among the children, and he works with another group of high school-aged boys two days a week.

"I think the parents see the younger kids here, and the ones that aren't active, their kids are going to make them active after they see their kids perform," he said.

The festival will include the traditional Indian food, dancing and drumming, children's activities, storytelling, lessons on the Catawba language, pottery demonstrations and vendors selling Native American crafts.

It also will include talks on Native American history, culture and archaeology by USC-L faculty members and a tour of the Catawba Indian archives, which include information donated by historian Tom Blumer, who has studied the tribe.

Jennifer Becknell • 329-4077