Varnertown Indians gain state recognition

Geneva Varner Clark of Varnertown in Berkeley County was photographed in 1938 by Marion Post Wolcott, a noted Farm Security Administration photographer who documented poverty and deprivation during the Great Depression. Clark was the only resident who ide

The tribal elders who stood on the stage knew who they were and where they had been. Official recognition was a long time coming.

They lived on dirt side roads, attended their own school, disenfranchised by both white and black communities in the segregated Lowcountry unless they could "pass." Now they formed a semi-circle at the S.C. Native American Affairs conference, acknowledged as the Wassamassaw.

Their ancestors were remembered. Roy "Spotted Eagle" Glass, an esteemed Cherokee flutist, blew an honor song, the hushed melody of "Amazing Grace" and the Wassamassaw tribe of Varnertown Indians, the residents of a small community insouthern Berkeley County, were given state status as a tribe. They became the sixth Native American community in the state to earn it. The ceremony was held earlier this month.

"It's something that you dreamed about," said Loretta Leach, who was one of the elders on that stage.

"It was very emotional, very powerful," said Marcy Hayden, program coordinator for the S.C. Native American Affairs Commission.

The tribe lived all but unheard of for generations along the road between Summerville and Moncks Corner, so obscure that local historians weren't familiar with them. "Wassamassaw" was recognized as the name of a swamp nearby or as one of two American place names that are palindromes, words that read the same forward and backward. The other is Kanakanak, Alaska.

The tribe numbers only about 1,500 in a state where 27,000 people identify themselves as American Indian. For many years, most tribal members didn't talk about who they were.

When a photographer rode through Varnertown in 1938, Geneva Varner Clark was the only resident who identified herself as an Indian. She stands, her arms wrapped around her in the cold, with three children and a dog in the dirt and rocks in front of a pine-board house with a roof of tattered wooden shingles and thin stick porch columns that lean in on each other holding it up.

Today, her photo is the only one of a Lowcountry Indian in the Library of Congress, immortalized in the collection of Marion Post Wolcott under a heading, "Indian (mixed breed -- 'brass ankle') family near Summerville, South Carolina." The derogatory term "brass ankle" refers to someone of mixed race who passes as white.

It had been a long, hard fall.

"Wassamassaw" is said to mean "connecting water." The people were among any number of local Lowcountry tribes who named themselves with a "aw" or "o" sound at the end to signify they were related to coastal waters. The sounds became part of the weave of the place -- Wambaw, Wadboo, Wando. For most of those people, the echo is all that remains.

The tribes were decimated and scattered by Colonial wars and disease. Among them were the Edistow, or Edisto, the island tribe thought to have been so completely wiped out that no trace remained.

But the Wassamassaw had to compile a century of records that they lived in Varnertown as a community in order to win the state recognition. In that research, they came across records from the 1800s that "Indian Mary," who married into a Varnertown family, identified herself as an Edistow. That makes the tribe possibly the last living link to the Edistow.

Tribe members know they are part Catawba, part Edistow and part Cherokee. But after two centuries of new blood that began with white settlers and the intermingling of remnant tribes after the Yemassee War in the early 1700s, the Wassamassaw are more mixed than other Lowcountry Indian groups.

They were one of those tiny remnants of a tribe that the record keepers never bothered with.

"You either were black or white back then. They didn't accept you as anything else," Leach said.

Thread by thread, their heritage, their customs and their crafts frayed away. It took the generation that grew up in the wake of integration in the 1960s to want them back. An effort led by Tribal Administrator Lisa Leach won the state recognition.

The state tribal status does a few very important things for the people in Varnertown. It's a first stepping stone to seeking federal recognition, a feat that can bring sovereignty and perks like casinos, and has become so difficult that tribes have been unsuccessfully seeking it for 30 years. Under federal law, the state status allows tribal members to sell wild turkey feathers and sell their artwork as "Native American." That can open up revenue for a tribal center that the Varnertown people plan.

But the 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."

Reach Bo Petersen at 843-937-5744 or