Exclusive: Four SC tribes to pair up in fight for federal recognition

Four Native American tribes seeking federal recognition plan to team up and consolidate their efforts in a bid to fast track the process.

“If we can get one bill pushed by South Carolina, it helps a lot. We’d be able then to massage it more efficiently as we push it through Congress,” Waccamaw Indian People Chief Harold “Buster” Hatcher told The Sun News on Nov 4. while presiding over his tribe’s 31st annual cultural arts festival and pauwau in Aynor.

The Edisto, Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Wassamasaw peoples have all weathered setbacks over the past several years in their quests for federal recognition. Combined, the tribes are made up of more than 14,200 people, according to U.S. Census records.

“I don’t care what the bloodline is. They’re all my brothers and sisters. My family is right here,” Waccamaw Indian People elder Charles Hughes said, watching dancers gyrate in hand-made regalia as traditional drumming and singing rang out across the tribe’s 20-acre settlement off Bluewater Road.

South Carolina currently recognizes nine American Indian tribes, but just one — the Catawba Nation in Rock Hill — has secured federal sovereignty.

Obtaining such status through the U.S. government gives tribes much more power, including the ability to oversee local zoning and taxation while qualifying for aid to help with housing, medical care and other services.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Rice in 2021 introduced H.R. 1942, the “Waccamaw Indian Acknowledgment Act,” but the legislation stalled.

Hatcher said he’s contacted Rice’s successor, U.S. Rep. Russell Fry, but is awaiting a response.

Hatcher is a soft-spoken man whose gentleness is praised by tribal elders. But the chief’s demeanor hardens when he talks about the difficulties in obtaining federal recognition.

“For us to have equality, we have to be recognized, which is BS anyway,” Hatcher said. “No American should have to be recognized to have rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution. You know, when politicians raise their right hand to almighty God and says they’re gonna support the Constitution of the United States, he lies. Because he didn’t do it.”

Hatcher said he hopes state leaders will back the plan, which already has support from Delores Dacosta, executive director of the S.C. Commission for Minority Affairs.

“The state has very little role, because it’s a federal process. But what we have done at the commission is we have gotten our federal delegation at the table, and we have supported any initiative they can promote,” she said. “We would love to see it.”

David Perry, a Waccamaw Indian People tribal member, said events like this weekend’s pauwau are crucial in building public awareness around tribal culture that could translate into support for federal recognition.

“We need the community at large. And so when everybody comes out, especially a crowd like this, it’s partially a sign of good advertising,” he said. “And so it spreads among the community, that there’s something going on here that’s worth experiencing.”