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November is nationally recognized as Native American Heritage Month, a time each year to honor and pay tribute to the rich and varied cultures, histories—and futures—of our nation’s first people.  

There are 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S, including Alaskan Natives and tribes that extend from the U.S. into Canada and northern Mexico, and all have played a part in making America what it is today. This week, in celebration of Native American Heritage Month, we’ll learn more about one of those tribes from Gas South’s Melanie M. as she shares a little about her own Native American heritage. 

claude ayers wearing a traditional catawba headdress
Melanie M,’s grandfather, Claude K. Ayers, wearing a traditional Catawba headdress during one of his yearly visits to schools each November, sharing about Native American culture.

Hi, Melanie. Tell us about your Native American heritage. You’re a member of the Catawba Indian Nation, correct? Is that on both sides of the family or just one?  

Yes, I’m a member of the Catawba Indian Nation. My grandfather on my mom’s side is a full descendant, so it’s carried through him.   

Did you grow up with a sense of your Native American heritage—was it something your family celebrated, or was it something you came to or learned about later in life?  
My grandfather was a very active tribal member. He served on the Board and was involved in the Catawba community through ministry and through service. He was an integral part of the large land settlement granted to the Catawbas in the 1990s, which reinstated the Catawbas as a federally recognized tribe. Because of my grandfather, we were very connected to our heritage growing up. He lived on tribal land once he retired from pastoring, and we often attended cultural events as kids.  

What does being a member of the Catawba people mean for you in terms of involvement with the tribe? Are you required to attend any special functions or perform certain duties? How do you take part?  
I’m not obligated to do anything specific, though I am trying to reconnect to my tribe in recent years as I learn more and value my heritage as an adult. There was a period of rebuilding for our tribe and its council while I was a teenager and young adult, and it’s been in recent years that the tribe has really made an effort for its people to connect back to the tribe, even though many do not live close. Technology has made staying in touch much easier, as you can imagine.  

Anything new or exciting going on with the Catawba today you’d like to share? Are there any challenges they face?  
The Catawbas have been hard at work at the state and federal level in recent years to reclaim land in North Carolina, which has allowed our tribe to build a gaming casino and conference center in Kings Mountain, NC. Phase one of the project is open and the developers are working to finalize the full conference center and casino over the next few years. It’s an exciting development for our tribe as it will bring new jobs and revenue for the Catawbas - which will continue to allow us to make investments in our people and our communities.   

Can you tell us a little about the Catawba people, historically and now? What about their customs, traditions and beliefs? What’s important to the Catawba, as a people?  
The Catawba Indian Nation has lived along the banks of the Catawba River in the Carolinas dating back at least 6,000 years with a population size upwards of 25,000. The tribal people called themselves “yeh is-WAH h’reh,” meaning “people of the river.” As Europeans first encountered them in the late 1500s, they began calling tribes along the Catawba River Valley by the name Catawba. As European settlers continued to migrate and claim land in the Carolinas, disease spread and by the late 1700s our nation’s population was barely 1,000. At that point, the King of England granted the Catawbas 144,000 acres in South Carolina.  

The Catawbas were known as fierce warriors, and during the Revolutionary War, they aligned with the patriots to help them gain their independence—one of only three tribes to do so. When most tribes were moved west during the Great Removal period, the Catawbas and the South Carolina government—expecting the tribe to soon die out—entered the Treaty at Nations Ford. The treaty kept the Catawbas from being sent west on the Trail of Tears, but in return the nation was forced to relinquish its 144,000 acres to South Carolina, in return for a 700-acre reservation—where the tribe still has its reservation today near Rock Hill, SC. Of the 574 federally recognized tribes in the US, the Catawba Indian Nation is the only one located in the state of South Carolina. Our population is now closer to 3,300.  

How do you celebrate this month?  
One of my favorite tribal events is held in the month of November, the Yap Ye Iswa Festival. It has long been held the Saturday before Thanksgiving to honor and commemorate our tribal ancestors through traditional tribal dances and drumming, Catawba crafts and other activities. I’ve attended as far back as I remember, and with an extended break in the tradition due to Covid, the festival is back this year. I’m looking forward to teaching my two young boys about their heritage, and this is one important piece to me.   

Why is it important to honor Native Americans? Tell us a little about their contributions to today’s America—how have they influenced our lives? What lessons can their experience provide us today, and what should we keep foremost in our minds during Native American Heritage Month?  

It seems quite simple. Native Americans were our country’s first true people. Long before Europeans came to settle here, they were here living their lives with their people—this land was truly theirs. And when the Europeans came, it was the Native Americans who taught them how to survive here, and though that may have looked different than what they were used to, it’s important to remember how it all started. I don’t think Native Americans have ever asked for much in return—just the ability to live on the land they love and treat it the way they see fit.   

I love our culture, our heritage, our love of the land and its natural beauty. When I think of my heritage, I feel very connected to it all—there’s a deep appreciation for all beings, not just manmade things.   

I don’t think Native American Heritage Month has a different message or meaning than any other time we reflect and honor other groups of people. It’s just about appreciating people different from you and respecting their perspective and all that their ancestors have gone through to get us where we are today. A hope our history can be preserved and remembered—even its darker times—as a way to learn about how we all got here and be hopeful for where we can all go together.   

Gas South is proud of the diversity in our workplace. We know it’s a big part of what makes this company strong, and we’re thrilled when we get a chance to highlight some of that strength. We hope you enjoyed this week’s blog celebrating Native American History Month. Stay tuned to our blog as we continue to highlight diversity in our workplace in the months ahead.