Native Village
Youth and Education news

January 2010 Volume 1

Varnertown Indians gain state recognition
By Bo Peterson
Condensed by Native Village

South Carolina: The Wassamassaw tribe of Varnertown Indians became the sixth Native American community in South Carolina to be given state status as a tribe.

" It's something that you dreamed about," said Loretta Leach, an elder who attended the ceremonies.

The Wassamassaw number only about 1,500 in a state with 27,000 American Indians. They had lived for generations  between Summerville and Moncks Corner. They lived on dirt side roads, attended their own school, and were not accepted by white or black communities unless they could "pass."

For many years, most tribal members didn't talk about who they were.  "You either were black or white back then. They didn't accept you as anything else," Leach said.

TThe Wassamassaw were one of those tiny remnants of a tribe that record keepers never bothered with.  Even local historians weren't familiar with them.

"Wassamassaw" is said to mean "connecting water." They were among any number of local Lowcountry tribes. Most either died or scattered because of Colonial wars and disease. Among them were the Edistow, an island tribe that many considered "wiped out" and no trace left behind. 


To gain state status, the Wassamassaw had to gather 100 years of records proving they lived in Varnertown as a community. Their search led to the 1800s and "Indian Mary." Indian Mar married into a Varnertown family and identified herself as an Edistow. This could mean the Varnertown community is the last living link to the Edistow.

Tribal members know they are part Catawba, part Edistow and part Cherokee. But after 200 years of intermarriage with white settlers and other tribes, the Wassamassaw are more mixed than most Lowcountry Indian groups. through time, their heritage, customs and crafts frayed away . It wasn't until after 1960s integration movement that tribal members began wanting it back. An effort led by Tribal Administrator Lisa Leach won the state recognition.


State tribal status will be helpful to the Varnertown tribe.

It's a first stepping stone to seeking federal recognition, which can lead to sovereignty. Federal recognition is so difficult that some tribes have spent up to 30 years and not yet achieved it.
It allows tribal members to sell wild turkey feathers.

It allows tribal member to sell their artwork as "Native American."

State recognition does something more for the Wassamassaw. It gives them back their own. "It's just marvelous," Loretta Leach said. "We knew we were here. But to be recognized by the state, that's a good feeling."

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