Bertha George Harris was not just an elder in the Catawba Indian Nation, she was the eldest elder.
Harris, at 101, was the oldest member of the 2,800-plus member tribe.
She died Tuesday, but it was her long life that mattered – and always will.
As the oldest member of the tribe, Bertha Harris truly was the “Queen of the Catawbas,” said one of her daughters, Violet Harris Wilson.
For many years, this woman born in 1913 was the oldest person to carry the genes, the DNA, of a tribe that traces its heritage in York County and this region back about 6,000 years.
“Of the Catawba people, of the people who have been here on this patch of ground for all these centuries, she was the oldest among us,” said Catawba Chief Bill Harris, Bertha Harris’ great-nephew. “That is truly a remarkable idea – that a person was the oldest of all of us on the entire earth. That was always for her and all of us a great, even sacred, honor.
“Aunt Bertha, she had a truly great soul.”
The tribe’s reservation is southeast of Rock Hill along the banks of the Catawba River. Harris was among several master potters who created unique Catawba pottery from river clay – without wheel or electricity. Harris was honored by the tribe several times in recent years as its oldest living member.
Her children said Harris considered her role as the oldest Catawba important, understanding that she was an ambassador for an entire race.
Harris grew up – and became a mother and a grandmother – during times when the Catawba people were victims of racial segregation, not considered citizens equal to whites. One of her five surviving children, Mitchell Harris, said Wednesday that his mother carried the mantle of oldest tribal member with great honor.
Bertha and her late Catawba husband, George Harris, were married for a remarkable 75 years.
“She was very proud to be the oldest,” Mitchell Harris said.
Harris’ funeral will be at 2 p.m. Friday at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints on the reservation.
Now the torch has been passed to Frances Wade – at 92, the oldest person on the Catawbas’ tribal rolls, said Jason Harris, a member of the tribe’s executive committee.
Throughout a century of life on lands that her ancestors had lived on for more than five millennia before white settlers came to this area, Bertha Harris showed by example the gentle, caring spirit and work ethic that is a part of Catawba heritage, said former Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue.
Blue, 80, grew up with Harris’ children on the reservation and knew Bertha Harris his entire life.
“I spoke with her about her position as the oldest several times, and she held that to be important,” Blue said. “Bertha Harris recognized what her status as the oldest meant, and not only did it make her feel something good and important, it made all of us feel good.”