ROCK HILL, S.C. — For centuries, the "river people" dug clay for their pots from the Catawba River and sat on its banks telling stories about the animals that roamed the nearby woods.
Then the Catawba Indians fell on bad times. They watched as others made plans for the increasingly valuable lands around their namesake river. The tribe lost federal recognition, and many left the reservation.
But that's all changing now. About to be federally recognized once again, flush with expectation of a $50-million settlement of their 150-year-old land claim, the Catawbas suddenly have a future in shaping one of the country's fastest-growing areas.
"The tribe is a business now, and this is a new era," said Chief Gilbert Blue--an era in which the real work will be transforming a poor, uneducated rural community, best known for a centuries-old technique of firing pottery and rubbing it with rocks, into an economic force.
Some of the Catawbas' plans for the money are mundane--putting new roofs on houses, installing septic tanks. Other dreams are grander, such as building an industrial park or a tourist village on the reservation.
The settlement lets the Catawbas expand their 630-acre reservation--most of it wooded, unfarmable land--to as much as 4,200 acres of prime real estate that lies in the prosperous orbit of Charlotte, N.C.
"I keep referring to it as economic conversion. . . . This area--they literally will not know what hit them," said tribe member Wanda George Warren, the attorney hired by the Catawbas to oversee the transition.
"We're trying to seek out economic development and growth for the tribe any way we can," she said.
The Catawbas' tribulations began in the 1700s, when white settlers moved inland from the shores of South Carolina, spreading disease and encroaching on tribal lands. The tribe visited George Washington in 1791 to plead for protection of their ancestral lands.
The Catawbas' legal claim stems from an agreement made in 1840, when the tribe surrendered 144,000 acres to the state in exchange for a promise of an equivalent parcel--a promise that was never fulfilled.
In 1959, the Catawbas were among the tribes that were cut off by a federal government that was bent on moving Indians into the mainstream.
Many members moved away or drifted into the surrounding community. Now, nobody speaks the Catawba language, most have some white ancestry and many are converts to Mormonism, thanks to a Mormon church located just outside the reservation.
About 200 Catawbas live there in modest single-level houses and mobile homes, much like the rest of suburban York County. According to the 1990 Census, the tribe's per capita income is 35% lower than the county average of $13,306.
An abandoned schoolhouse with chipped paint and broken windows is a reminder that the tribe had to educate its children on its own for many years because they weren't allowed to attend local public schools.
Fighting for land rights was an idea that had all but disappeared by 1973 when Blue, who works at a tire-making plant, was elected chief.
"I didn't think the tribe was dying out. There were grants to be had, things to be done for the community," Blue said.
In 1975, he initiated the drive to regain the tribe's land and federal recognition. The Catawbas went to court, claiming that the 1840 land deal was void because South Carolina failed to get required congressional approval.
The dispute dragged on until the tribe prepared to sue 67,000 landowners in the area. Then, this year, a deal was struck.
The tribe would receive $50 million and recognition from the federal government. State and local governments would give the Catawbas limited self-government along with the right to expand the reservation and buy other land for development.
The Catawbas get fewer rights than other tribes. For instance, the state will enforce criminal laws on the reservation and will have some say about the tribe's expansion.
The U.S. Interior Department objected to these limitations. But tribal leaders said it was the best deal possible, and the department relented.
The agreement does give the Catawbas the right to set up a high-stakes bingo parlor offering $100,000 nightly games, although there is little sentiment for that on the Mormon-influenced reservation.
The settlement also provides that $7.5 million will be split among 1,300 Catawbas. On average, each will receive more than $5,700.
Some tribe members who fought for the money are wary of outsiders claiming Catawba blood. In order to receive federal benefits, they must be descendants of those listed on the 1961 federal tribal rolls.
"People from everywhere are wanting to become members. We don't know these people. I reckon we're going to have to fight," said Helen Beck, 72, who grew up on the reservation with her mother and stepfather, both Catawbas.
Helen Beck is one of many Catawbas who say setting aside money for education is the most important part of the settlement. The tribe also will set up a trust to care for its elderly.
Some bitterness remains. Evelyn George contends the government is settling now because the bloodline has been thinned through intermarriage with whites.
"When I was growing up everybody in the tribe was Indian. They should have done it when my mother and daddy were alive," said Evelyn George, 79.
The hope is strong, though, that the settlement will attract Catawbas back to the reservation where both George and Beck pass along the ancient pottery-making tips.