The Waccamaw Indian People during their annual powwow near Aynor in 2017. Provided/Courtney Hayes

Who is considered an American Indian in South Carolina? 

The state of South Carolina has just put limits on who falls into the category of recognized Native American. And Chief Harold "Buster" Hatcher, of the Waccamaw Indian People, thinks that's a good thing.

Hatcher said the change will protect resources for existing tribes from impostors and in the finances that go with tribal operations.

“We don’t have enough of that money in that little pocket," he said.

His comments come after Gov. Henry McMaster signed legislation that stops the state from recognizing additional Native American "groups." That category didn't require every member to prove they have Indian blood, but groups and their members can still apply for federal dollars, register their businesses as minority-owned and weigh in on Native American issues. An influx of new groups would dilute those resources.

"We have a lot of pseudo-Indian groups that do come into this state or individuals that claim native heritage that might not be," said Marcy Hayden, Native American affairs coordinator for the S.C. Commission for Minority Affairs.

However, she added that none have gone through the process of applying to be a recognized group.

Tracing history

More than 13,000 Native Americans live in South Carolina, according to a 2016 state study. There is only one one federally recognized tribe in South Carolina, the Catawba, who have a reservation near Rock Hill. 

Separately, the state recognizes eight tribes and three groups.

That designation can be an important validation for people whose histories are ignored or erased. Hayden said school textbooks sometimes skip much of Native American history in the Southeast, leaving students with the erroneous impression that no tribes are left.

The first tribe recognized by South Carolina was the Waccamaw, in 2005. Their earliest mention in the historical record is a map from 1725 indicating their presence in present-day Horry County.

That land was given out to settlers in grants after the Revolutionary War, Hatcher said. In 1813, a "free person of color" named John Dimery bought back a portion in the Dog Bluff area, near Aynor. 

Dimery is connected to the earlier group of Waccamaw in part by logic: Hatcher argues that no other native group would have sought to regain that land. Record-keeping largely erased the designation of "Indian" in favor of terms like "Mulatto" or Dimery's description, but the historical record shows that surrounding whites considered the people there to be Native American. The settlement's children were even sent to a separate Indian school during the early days of segregation.

For decades after, Waccamaw people lived in the Dimery community, Hatcher said. Eventually the Indian school closed and the Waccamaw were split between the schools that remained. Hatcher grew up straddling two worlds, living in a black neighborhood and attending Myrtle Beach Elementary, which was then a white school. His relatives went to both black and white schools.

"We were wrong at home. We were wrong at school, too," he said.

Today, the Waccamaw have about 425 members and hold an annual powwow on land that they own near Dog Bluff. 

Another nearby tribe, the Chicora, have historical roots in Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties. There's evidence that the Chicora made contact with Spanish explorers in the 1500s.

Today, there are about 50 members. Chief Vernon Thompkins said the tribe is applying for state recognition and working to reach out to other people that might have Chicora heritage. At one point, the tribe had as many as 800 members, he said.

"We’re being blessed at this time, we’re moving in a positive mode and we’re rebuilding and reestablishing our rights," Thompkins said.

Tommy Howard, the secretary-treasurer of the Chicora, said he's had conversations with fellow history buffs who assert that the Chicora are now extinct. Getting state recognition will help to correct that misconception. 

Howard himself does not have any Native American ancestry. He said he befriended a member of the Chicora in 2014 and slowly started attending meetings and helping out as the tribe works for an official designation. He was inducted as a "adopted member" in 2016. 

"I feel like if I can help them achieve tribal recognition and grow membership and participation, it's a good thing for people that deserve to have that kind of recognition," Howard said.


South Carolina recognizes Native American entities because of the complex history between colonizers and indigenous peoples. 

In other states, treaties often form the basis of agreements granting federal recognition to native groups. They usually involved an official census of a tribal members, which makes it easier to trace the lineage of modern-day members.

But tribes in South Carolina didn't always strike a treaty with the nascent U.S. government, especially if a tribe was considered friendly, according to Jonathan Leader, the state's archaeologist. 

South Carolina recognizes tribes that can prove 100 years of continuous community with at least 100 members. The lower bar for groups initially allowed a native organization some wiggle room if they were still collecting documentation of their history. 

Hatcher said he had been pushing for the bill to cut off additional groups for years. The Native American Advisory Committee, which advises the Commission for Minority Affairs, unanimously voted to support it, he said. 

Tribe officials and state employees couldn't point to a specific example of a group with few native members trying to game the state's system. Still, Hayden said she frequently has to explain that a tribe can't consist just of family members with American Indian blood. It's a governing body, and it has to be tied to history. 

At this point, it's likely that the state has made contact with most of the tribes that remain.

"State recognition, it was always meant to be a finite process. It is not meant to go on forever," Hayden said. "There’s only so many indigenous groups of people that live in South Carolina. ... We feel like we have reached those populations.”​

Tribal membership

Hayden said that if a tribe doesn't get state recognition, "That doesn't preclude them from being who they are and owning their heritage."

But being recognized through official channels is still bound up with a sense of identity for many. The Waccamaw are working to gain federal recognition, but the process has been a difficult one because early members of the tribe didn't keep records of births and deaths. 

The additional complication of later records that did not use the word "Indian" make the process even harder, amounting to "documentary genocide," Hatcher said. 

For federally recognized tribes, deciding who's a member and who's not is a high-stakes process, especially for those that live on a reservation, have a job there or are in other ways connected to the administration of a tribe. 

Disenrollment, which sometimes happens if a review of the historical record shows someone is not actually blood-related to the tribe's ancestors, "can be very emotional and complicated," Hayden said. 

In one of the most high-profile cases, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma stripped citizenship from 2,800 people in 2007 when they changed the nation's bylaws to define citizenship as "by blood," according to NPR. The people affected were known as the Cherokee Freedmen, the descendants of slaves once owned by the Cherokee. They were brought to Oklahoma with the rest of the tribe during the Trail of Tears, a forced relocation from the Southeast under Andrew Jackson.

The controversial decision sparked a lawsuit, and a federal judge decided last August that the Freedmen should be allowed to keep their tribal citizenship. 

Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.