The Waccamaw Indian tribe, whose 550 members make their home along South Carolina's Waccamaw River, has tried for years to bury more than 600 of its ancestors, but the federal government continues to stand in the way.
According to Chief Harold D. "Buster "Hatcher (pictured above) the remains of those ancient Indians are currently being kept in boxes housed at various museums around the state. They are not on display; just stuffed unceremoniously into boxes and warehoused.
The problem, says Hatcher, stems from the fact that the federal government does not recognize the Waccamaws as an official Indian tribe, even though the state of South Carolina did so in 2005. Without this recognition, the ancestral remains are considered federal property and will not be released to the Tribe for burial."
A Lost People
It's as if we don't exist," Chief Hatcher told me today as he gazed over the waters of the Waccamaw. "These are the remains of human beings. We are human beings. But we are simply ignored."
To be recognized as a Tribe in South Carolina, an entity must prove they have existed as a separate community for at least 100 years, among 10 other requirements and standards. On February 17, 2005, the Waccamaw Indian People met those standards. Thus, the Waccamaw Indian People became the first state recognized Tribe in South Carolina’s history.
"Today there are over 600 sets of human remains in museums across South Carolina," said Hatcher. "These bodies, along with burial urns and artifacts, were unearthed at construction sites and projects across South Carolina. These people, our people, have never been returned for proper reburial."
Long and expensive efforts to obtain the recognition necessary have been unsuccessful. Letters to South Carolina lawmakers in Washington have been ignored. There have been petitions. At least $600,000 has been expended, Hatcher says, money that could otherwise have been used to help the Waccamaw people.
"Federal laws interfere with almost every attempt to repatriate these people (the ancestral remains), simply because they are Native," Hatcher said. "If the remains were White or Black, the federal laws would not even apply. Our efforts to regain the bones of our great great grandfathers and grandmothers would be greatly enhanced if the political leaders of South Carolina would demonstrate that they intend to stand behind their Indigenous peoples in resolving this matter."
Hatcher predicted "the public outcry would be deafening if the ancient graveyards of Whites or Blacks were decimated. Meanwhile, cardboard boxes have become the burial shrouds and a museum shelf the resting place, for our ancients. This is a total disregard for common human respect, which will not end until these people are given back to Mother Earth for the remainder of eternity!"
In a May 1, 2011 letter to then Representative (now Senator) Tim Scott (R-SC), Hatcher pleaded, "Help us enjoy the same freedoms guaranteed to all citizens of these United States. Our people fought and died to defend them! I am a combat veteran with service in the Republic of Viet Nam and among my decorations are the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. However, although my people serve, we do not share in the same privileges others simply inherit."
This is wrong. We will be watching this story as it unfolds.