The Waccamaw Indian People in South Carolina are fighting today for federal recognition so they no longer are a people “invisible” in the eyes of the United States government.
Federal recognition would bring benefits to which Native Americans are entitled, but there is another important reason why this is needed – aside from basic fairness: Without federal recognition, the Waccamaws are unable to give proper burial to their ancestors and some 600 sets of bones now are unceremoniously stored on museum shelves.
That’s a long-standing wrong that needs to be addressed, which is more fully explained by Chief Harold "Buster" Hatcher in the video above. And, it's why award winning videographer David Hinshaw and I are collaborating on a documentary, in cooperation with the Waccamaws, to bring attention to this unfair situation.
In the hour-long documentary, the viewer will discover the long history of the Waccamaws, a peaceful people whose history in South Carolina began even before the arrival of Europeans in 1649, but who were later forced from their land with many now living in poverty.
The ancestral remains in question were discovered over time, unearthed at construction sites and roadbuilding projects across South Carolina. The documentary will include
South Carolina geologists and other keepers at the sites where the Waccamaw’s remains are stored, and show the burial grounds where they need to be interred.
The problem, Hatcher says, begins with the roadblocks imposed by the federal government before the Waccamaws can be recognized 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."
Before this recognition can be achieved, the Waccamaws must show unbroken lineage from the first ancient Indian until today, a virtual impossibility since no records were kept by early Indians, and one that Chief Hatcher and others are trying to change.
"It's as if we don't exist," Chief Hatcher says. "These are the remains of human beings. We are human beings. But we are simply ignored."
The Waccamaws back then did not read or write, so there were no birth certificates or death certificates. And, thus, there were no records that can be traced from the 1600s until today.
Without federal recognition, Hatcher says the Waccamaws cannot legally use an eagle's feather in its burial ceremony. The documentary demonstrates this and explores the significance of this sacred tradition of the Waccamaw Indian People.
The State of South Carolina also has stringent requirements, but those were met by the Waccamaw Indian People in 2005. To be recognized as a Tribe in South Carolina, an entity must prove to 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 became the first state-recognized Tribe in South Carolina’s history.
But because of the more arduous requirements imposed by the federal government, “These people, our people, have never been returned for proper reburial," says Hatcher.
The documentary will explore the long and expensive – and unsuccessful -- efforts that have taken place to obtain federal recognition. Letters to South Carolina lawmakers in Washington have been virtually 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.
Interviews with federal officials and state legislators will be included in the hour-long film, as well as with officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and historians, who will trace the history and heritage of the Waccamaws.
"Federal laws interfere with almost every attempt to repatriate these people (the ancestral remains), simply because they are Native," Hatcher says. "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.
"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."
"I was shot in Vietnam," adds Hatcher. "I received the Purple Heart and many other awards, but still I cannot get this recognition for my people."
The very fact that the tribe must seek this recognition angers Hatcher. "I don't think there should be any official recognition of a person required before you can have rights like everyone else," he says. "But I've got to play their game so I and my people can have the same rights of every other American."
The Waccamaws should have the ability to bury their dead in the tradition of their religion, just like every other American. It's just another example of how these original Americans have been treated over the years; how they are being discriminated against and disrespected, even today. And it is not right.
In this brief video, Chief Hatcher explains the Waccamaws' efforts to gain federal recognition to the Myrtle Beach Human Rights Commission.
If you would like to help make this documentary become a reality, please click here. Any contribution, in any amount, will be appreciated.