Andrew Dys

Catawba preschool incorporates air quality into kids’ learning

Long before there were hippies, Greenpeace environmentalists ramming whaleboats, and sandal-wearing do-gooders, there were American Indians.

In York County, since there have been humans in York County, the Catawba Indian tribe has practiced embracing the land, water and air. Handmade Catawba pottery is made from clay dug from the riverbank. The unique clay comes straight from the land and water.

So the traditional Catawba drum sounded Tuesday, along with a song about love of the land and water and air.

Ronnie Beck, a Catawba dancer and drummer with national stature, pounded that drum and sang a song unique to the York County-based Catawba, in his language, that honored the earth.

Maddox Beck, 4, a member of the Catawba Indian Nation, spoke for an entire people – and hopefully, he said, more – Tuesday as the green flag of clean air was raised on the same flagpole as the American flag that Catawba hold so dear.

“Today is a good air day,” he said. “I hope it stays that way.”

Beck and the other students at the tribe’s Head Start program on the reservation along the Catawba River in eastern York County are the first area pre-school group to incorporate the federal government’s clean air flag program into daily learning, tribal leaders said Tuesday during a ceremony to mark Air Quality Awareness Week across the nation.

Tribal leaders plan to keep up the program, despite federal budget cuts that will force the tribe’s preschool Head Start to reduce the number of students and cut programs. The importance of environmental stewardship has been practiced by the tribe for millennia.

“We want the kids to be aware of the importance of the air, to let their parents know how important it is, and continue the traditions of caring for the environment we have called home forever,” said Assistant Chief Wayne George.

The Charlotte region, which includes York County, is annually among the 20 worst in the nation for air quality and federal ozone standards. Just two weeks ago, the advocacy group American Rivers named the Catawba River as endangered for the third time in a dozen years.

In the iconic 1971 Keep America Beautiful TV commercial, a dirty river filled with litter is mourned by a crying man American Indian.

“We always cared about the earth,” George said. “We were the first people here and it is part of who we are. That commercial is more than TV to us. That is exactly how we feel.”

The Environmental Protection Agency came up with the school flag program to make learning about clean air a daily school activity, said Eve West, who manages the Catawbas' air quality program as part of the tribe’s overall environmental initiatives. Catawba Head Start is one of just five schools in the state that participate in the clean air program.

“As the population has increased in this region,” she said, “the air quality has gone down.”

The program, which monitors ozone levels and raises flags each day to indicate the air quality, has an even more acute importance for the Catawbas, George said: The tribe has a higher percentage than the general population of asthma and other chronic respiratory problems.

The Catawbas are the only federally recognized Indian tribe in South Carolina. Because it depends so heavily on federal money for health care, education and other activities, the budget cuts that have taken effect over the past two months have forced the tribe to cut some of what it offers to people from the smallest children to the oldest seniors.

The air monitoring site that the tribe has – the only one in eastern York County – will be lost next year due to budget cuts unless the tribe can find another way to pay for it.

The 80-student Head Start, which serves both tribal children and dozens of others non-Catawbas who live nearby, will lose 5 percent of its budget this year and another 8 percent next year.

The actual cost of cuts at the tribe’s Head Start is about $70,000 this year alone, with deeper cuts expected in 2014. At least eight children will lose slots, staff face furloughs and layoffs, and programs might have to be shortened to less than a full year, said Melissa Harris, Head Start program director.

The clean air program was added at almost no cost. Head Start had to pay for the flags and a few instructional materials.

“We always took care of the land here, the water, the air,” said George. “If we don’t take care of it, nobody will.”