Andrew Dys

'We lost a part of our history'

In this August 2006 photo, Catawba master potter Evelyn George polishes a piece of pottery with a smooth stone to prepare it for firing at the Catawba Senior Center.
In this August 2006 photo, Catawba master potter Evelyn George polishes a piece of pottery with a smooth stone to prepare it for firing at the Catawba Senior Center.

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- The hands that helped shape a People are gone.

Evelyn Brown George, 93, with signature white hair, died Sunday. She was a woman so tiny that when she sat in a chair teaching young Catawba Indians like her who they were, and are, and could be, her feet would sometimes dangle off the floor. Yet, she was a woman so huge in deed that she helped save the pottery and dance that are who the Catawbas are in their souls.

"We lost a part of our history, who we are," said Donald Rodgers, Catawba Indian chief. "She was crucial to our connection to the past."

Rodgers learned much of the tribe's history from George on road trips to perform the dances and give the talks when he worked for the Catawba Cultural Center. Rodgers' own daughter learned to dance like her ancestors from George.

You don't have to be a Catawba Indian to be know that Evelyn George died after a life that was lived and not watched. You don't have to know anything about art, and I don't, to be struck by this master potter. Anybody can go the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., among the greatest collections of stuff there is in this country, and see Evelyn George's craft.

She was a woman who lived the old days, when tribal craftspeople would sell what they made to earn enough to feed and clothe and house families. Then, she was one of the Mothers of the Catawbas' rebirth. The academics at Winthrop, like professor Tom Stanley, who have studied the Catawbas pottery, say so, and the Catawbas themselves say so.

Gilbert Blue was Catawba chief for 34 years, the face of the tribe until earlier this year. Yet, he learned who he was, a Catawba, the thread of his whole life, in part in the home of Evelyn George. George's father, Early Brown, ran the ferry that crossed the Catawba River before there were road bridges. Her mother, Edith, was a master potter before her.

"She was always an example for young people, that they could and should be doctors or computer programmers if they chose, but to remember where they came from, who they are, and what it means to be a Catawba," Blue said Monday.

As the Catawbas were reinvigorated politically over the past generation, George and other contemporaries put the jumper cables on the cultural heart of the tribe.

George taught and encouraged Catawbas to learn the pottery of wedding jugs and miniatures and more. She sewed the regalia so that centuries did not fade away.

"They are going to let it get away from them," Evelyn George warned more than a decade ago, predicting what would happen if Catawba children did not learn the pottery. "They are not going to have any potters."

The Catawbas still have potters because of people like her.

She received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award from the S.C. Arts Commission in 2004, and other awards, too. In addition to the funeral Wednesday, there will soon be a special cultural celebration.

"A true elder among us who gave to all of us, all of her life," said Wenonah Haire, executive director of the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project.

George was active at the after-school program on the reservation until just a few months ago and taught at the Catawba Cultural Center as long as there has been a center. She also taught family -- all 159 of them, from her 10 kids to great-great grandchildren, all taught the Catawba way, said one son, Wayne George.

"We lost a mother, but her loss is to all the Catawba people," said daughter Susan.

So, a nation mourns. The Catawba Indian Nation, on the banks of the Catawba River.

There is a spot along the river where Catawbas have dug the clay required for the pottery that fills some of the finest galleries and homes of collectors around this world. The spot has been mined for at least three centuries.

It was not uncommon to see Evelyn George out there at the hole that reached over somebody's head. A shovel at her ready, saying, "A little deeper, the clay we must have is deeper."

And deeper the Catawbas would dig.

It was not just clay she was after. It was Catawbas heritage found so deep.