The Catawba People are survivors. Despite their population being decimated by wars, a smallpox epidemic and centuries of political exploitation by European settlers, the Catawba have held steadfastly to their culture and traditions.
Housed in and around the only remaining Reservation Schoolhouse, the Catawba Cultural Center exists to preserve those traditions and share them with others. Some exhibits demonstrate traditional Catawba hunting and cooking methods, while others include photographs that show how the nation dealt with natural disasters like the Great Flood of 1916.
But perhaps the most fascinating displays are the ones that deal with Catawba pottery. The traditional way of pottery making is still practiced by the Catawba people; the skills are handed down from generation to generation.
The clay used is dug up by hand from well-guarded parts of the Catawba River flood plains. Then, rather than “throw” the pottery on a wheel, Catawba potters use lumps and coils of the clay to build their pots. Catawba pots are never painted, nor are they glazed. The lovely sheen on the pieces is achieved by polishing them with special rubbing stones.
The back room of the Cultural Center houses many masterpieces by one of the most famous Catawba potters, the late Earl Robbins, who passed away in 2010 at age 87. Robbins came to pottery late in his life but became one of the foremost keepers of the tradition. His pieces are housed in museums around the world. Take your time with the memorial collection at the Cultural Center so that you can appreciate the pieces’ subtle beauty.
One of my favorites is Robbins’ snake pot, one of the oldest traditional designs in Catawba pottery. The pots were originally produced as a food storage pot; the snake is added to fool hungry rodents into thinking an actual snake is guarding the pot’s contents. It’s fascinating to see this modern master’s take on a design that goes back hundreds of years.
While you are visiting the Catawba Cultural Center, make sure to take the time to walk down the peaceful and scenic half-mile walking trail. The trail, which follows an 18th century wagon trail, is marked with informative plaques that flesh out the Catawbas’ heritage.
The Catawba Cultural Center is open Monday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.
Click here for more information on the Catawba Nation or on the Cultural Center visit http://sites.google.com/site/catawbaculturalpreservation/home.