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Without a paddle: Catawba canoe home after 75-year trip

Louise Pettus, left, and Beckee Garris hold a small birchbark canoe. Pettus' relative Bernice Davis got it in the 1930s on the Catawba Reservation. Garris, of the Catawba Indians' Historic Preservation office, is thrilled to have it back in Catawba hands.
Louise Pettus, left, and Beckee Garris hold a small birchbark canoe. Pettus' relative Bernice Davis got it in the 1930s on the Catawba Reservation. Garris, of the Catawba Indians' Historic Preservation office, is thrilled to have it back in Catawba hands.

INDIAN LAND -- It has taken a journey of more than 75 years, but a tiny canoe has returned home.

A 12-inch birchbark canoe -- made by an unknown Catawba Indian and bought by a Rock Hill mail carrier in the 1930s -- was given back to the tribe this week for its permanent collection at the Cultural Center on Tom Steven Road. The center is open to the public.

Tribal officials say the canoe is thought to be the only one of its kind. They're not aware of anyone on the reservation who makes the canoes now, and haven't seen another one in decades.

"When I touched it for the first time, I felt a little shock of static electricity. I think the canoe is glad to be back home," joked Beckee Garris, a Catawba Indian who works in the tribe's Historic Preservation office.

Garris said she instantly recognized the Catawba style of construction because her grandmother, Vera Blue Sanders, had made similar canoes.

"She stitched them with needle and thread, and this one is put together with strips of river cane. But it's the same style, turned up at either end," Garris said. "Although we made pottery to sell, she didn't sell the canoes. She made them for the grandchildren, and we would float them in the branch behind our house."

The Catawbas didn't often use canoes because the nearby river was so rocky; but when they did, they typically used hollowed-out log canoes, not birchbark.

The canoe was donated by Bernice Davis of Brasstown, N.C., who graduated from Rock Hill High School in 1954. Her father, Earl Barnhardt, worked as a rural mail carrier in eastern York County.

She believes he got the canoe at Glasscock's Store in the Lesslie community.

"The store used to carry Catawba pottery and other small crafts like the canoe," Davis said. "My father was a kind-hearted man who liked the Indians and would often give them a ride into town, even though he wasn't supposed to, in the post office's vehicle."

She said he would sometimes leave gum in the mailboxes for the Catawba children.

Davis remembers tribe members, such as Buck George, at her high school. And she was friends with former Catawba Chief Sam Blue who, before he died in 1966, reportedly was the last tribal member to speak the language fluently.

Davis had contacted a distant cousin, Louise Pettus, a retired Winthrop University historian who lives near Indian Land, about making sure the canoe was delivered to the Catawbas.

"Bernice is getting older, and she just wanted to see that the canoe got back into the tribe's hands for safekeeping," Pettus said.

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