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‘We’ve got to let the past go’: Catawba Indian Nation Chief talks about the future

Catawba Nation Chief shares favorite moments

Bill Harris was re-elected chief of the Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Chief Harris shares some accomplishments during his tenure.
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Bill Harris was re-elected chief of the Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Chief Harris shares some accomplishments during his tenure.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the family relationship between Bill, Jason, Emily and Elizabeth Harris. The story has since been corrected.

Bill Harris has four more years to achieve his goals for the Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill.

Those goals include improving the Nation’s leadership methods, forming better relationships with the community and setting a foundation for the tribe’s next leader, Harris said.

Catawba Nation held elections earlier this summer for the Executive Committee in the Tribal Government, which includes chief and assistant chief. Harris was re-elected for another four-year term.

Jason Harris is the assistant chief and Roderick Beck is the secretary and treasurer for the tribe. Sam Beck and Butch Sanders were elected executive committee members at large, according to the tribe.

Jason Harris is distantly related to Chief Harris.

Chief Harris said this will be his last term as the tribe’s top leader. Harris, 65, was first elected chief in 2011 and re-elected in 2015 and 2019.

“If I can be your leader for 12 years, I think it’s time to bring someone younger in and let them double that time,” Harris said. “The (tribes) who have leadership who has been there for a long time are more successful, both economically and within their own community.”

The Herald spoke with Chief Harris. Here are the highlights:

What are you most proud of in your tenure as chief of the Catawba Indian Nation?

“Being chief is a title, but with it comes some responsibility,” Harris said. “For me, it’s not so much what the chief does, it’s what the chief inspires others to do that will take this nation where it needs to go.”

Harris said he is proud of the tribe’s progress in molding young minds. Through a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of York County, the Nation started the Catawba Teen Center in 2014.

The teen center provides homework assistance, career and paid apprentice partnerships, community service, athletics, college trips and tutoring for children ages 13 to 17, according to the Catawba Indian Nation’s website.

In 2017, the Boys and Girls Club of Catawba Nation was established, said program manager Emily Harris, who is distantly related to Chief Harris.

The program now serves elementary school age children and teens.

The tribe has seen the number of children involved in its programs grow over the years, Bill Harris said.

“It changed the future,” he said.

What are some of the challenges you and the tribe have faced? How have you addressed them?

Harris ran for chief in an effort to ensure the tribe gave its members a proper voice in decisions. He said it took until 2007 for the tribe to hold elections as it was supposed to under its constitution, established in 1993.

“I was just trying to right the injustice. I just wanted to be a voice,” Harris said. “In the process of that, I never thought I’d end up in the position I am.”

Harris lost the election in 2007, but first won in 2011.

The tribe’s constitution, which outlines its government, was formed as part of Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993. That settlement, Harris said, brought its own challenges for the tribe.

“The restrictions that were imposed on a sovereign nation is pretty remarkable,” he said. “The year was 1993, they weren’t familiar with what a sovereign nation was or is and I think they were fearful of what was coming.”

A restriction Harris described as “monumental” is the fee the Nation had to pay to educate tribal children in Rock Hill schools.

Tribal property is not a source of tax income for school operations. The Catawba Indian Nation agreed in 1993 to pay out-of-district tuition fees for its schoolchildren in lieu of taxes, The Herald previously reported.

That stipulation led to a decades-old $4.5 million debt, which was settled in July 2017 when the Nation transferred real property as payment for the debt, according to the Catawba Indian Nation’s financial statements.

Under Act 388, which shifted the property tax burden from owner-occupied homes onto businesses and secondary homes for school operations, the Catawba Nation no longer owed the school district tuition, The Herald previously reported.

S.C. Rep. Brandon Newton, R-Lancaster, sponsored a bill eliminating the Catawba Indian Nation’s requirement to pay fees in lieu of school taxes. The bill, signed into law in May 2019, backdates that stipulation to 2007-’08.

The bill, Harris said, means that if Act 388 was to end, the tribe would be protected from fees related to educating children in public schools.

“It was a righting of a wrong,” Harris said. “I’m grateful the South Carolina legislature saw what we saw and, in seeing, decided to change.”

Tribal Administrator Elizabeth Harris, who is distantly related to Chief Harris, said Newton’s action is a sign the Nation can work through some hurdles.

“It opens the door to sit down and discuss other issues in the settlement agreement ... and see if we can come to some new understanding,” she said.

Chief Harris said the Catawba Indian Nation is working to address restrictions tribe leaders deem unfair. He said they also hope to work with the state and region on economic development, jobs and other benefits.

“We hope the state and local community see us more as a partner,” Harris said in an e-mail. “Because of our unique status as a federally recognized tribe, we can access federal grants that can improve the lives of our people, but also the surrounding community.”

How has the relationship between Rock Hill and the Catawba Nation changed?

The Catawba Indian Nation’s history with South Carolina and the Rock Hill community has evolved, Chief Harris said.

In 1973, the Nation started a decades-long battle to regain the federal recognition it lost in 1959, according to the Nation’s website. Catawba is the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina and is one of 573 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., according to the S.C. Department of Archives and History.

The tribe argued against the Treaty at Nations Ford of 1840, in which South Carolina negotiated with the Catawbas to took land from the tribe. That treaty was not ratified by the U.S. Government and should not have been allowed, Harris said.

The tribe’s effort to regain the lands caused tension with local residents, Harris said.

“People in South Carolina, especially York and Lancaster Counties, were upset because the Catawba Nation was left with only one option, to file suit for the lands taken illegally by the state of South Carolina in 1840,” he said in an e-mail to The Herald. “Because of the land claim we filed, landowners were unable to obtain clear title insurance for property.”

Some of that tension still exists, Harris said.

“There are people who have forgiven us for that and there are people who I don’t think will ever forgive us,” he said.

The tribe gained federal recognition as part of a 1993 settlement with South Carolina. The tribe also was given $50 million for education development, land purchases and social services. And, in turn, gave up claims to land taken by the state.

Today, the Catawba reservation sits east of Rock Hill.

Chief Harris said the tribe still battles stereotypes and is working to educate the community on who the Catawbas are.

“Fortunately most people now understand that we are a good neighbor,” Harris said in an e-mail. “There may be biases out there today, but more people today see what we contribute to the area.”

“In order for us to move forward and make progress, we’ve got to let the past go,” Harris said.

What is your key goal for the next four years?

Chief Harris said he wants to pass a new constitution and update how the Nation runs its government.

The Tribe’s General Council form of government calls for citizens to come together twice a year to vote on issues and make business decisions, Harris said.

“They set the tone for what can happen,” he said. “With that comes its own set of problems.”

Harris said he would like to see a form of government that gives decision-making power to all tribal citizens. The General Council would suggest laws and ideas, which would then be sent for a vote to all tribal members.

The Catawba Indian Nation has 3,332 members, with 2,449 of age to vote, Elizabeth Harris said. About 975 members live on the reservation east of Rock Hill.

“When our constitution was originally written ... it was a much smaller community. Pretty much everyone lived on the reservation,” she said. “It just doesn’t work for a tribe as we grow.”

In the most recent election, 23.4% of the tribe’s eligible members voted, Elizabeth Harris said.

“If I can walk away in four years knowing I assisted with getting a new constitution, I’ll walk away a happy man,” Chief Harris said.

What kind of impact has the return of the Yap Ye Iswa festival had on community relations?

“We as Catawbas knew the importance of the festival, but the thing we didn’t know was how our friends and neighbors and the community beyond our borders, was cheering for us silently to bring it back,” Harris said.

During this year’s festival, Harris said a mother brought her daughter and granddaughter. The woman’s daughter had attended the festival as a child.

“I had three generations standing in front of me who had had the experience of being with the Catawbas on the Day of the Catawbas,” Harris said. “That’s where we need to focus. We can recognize our value within the community.”

The Catawba Indian Nation brought back its Yap Ye Iswa Festival Saturday after a decade-long hiatus. The festival celebrates 6,000 years of existence for the Catawbas.

A closer look:

Data provided by the Catawba Indian Nation and sourced from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey. Data reflects residents living on the Catawba reservation:

  • 46% of Catawba Nation households were at or below the 2015 federal poverty level of $24,250 for a family of 4.
  • The medium household income for the Catawba Indian Nation as of 2015 was $28,333. 17.6% of households made less than $10,000 a year, 9.6% made between $10,000 and $14,999 a year, and 18.7% made between $15,000 and $24,999 a year.
  • 14.5% of households made in 2015 between $25,000 to $34,999.
  • About 60% of Catawba Nation households were eligible for Medicaid in 2015.

Other data provided by the Catawba Indian Nation:

  • 80% of Catawba children are on free or reduced lunch at school.
  • 58% of Catawba students do not finish high school on time. More than 30% of students do not graduate from high school.
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Amanda Harris covers issues related to children and families in York, Chester and Lancaster County for The Herald. Amanda works with local schools, parents and community members to address important topics such as school security, mental health and the opioid epidemic. She graduated from Winthrop University.
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