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May 17, 2017

Studying Pottery, Food Processing Habits to Uncover Catawba Nation History

GEAB Impact Award

North Carolina is home to eight state-recognized American Indian tribes, according to the N.C. Commission of Indian Affairs. Accounts of the strategies these tribes employed to maintain autonomy and protect their livelihoods are essential components of our state’s history. Mary Beth Fitts, Ph.D., has produced new insights concerning the effects of colonial period stress and uncertainty on conditions of daily life in the Catawba Indian Nation.

Located south of present-day Charlotte, the mid-18th-century Catawba Nation included the adjoining Catawba villages of Nassaw and Weyapee, and the refugee community of Charraw Town. Historic documents provide limited information on the daily lives of colonial-era American Indians, so Fitts examined pottery, carbonized plant materials and animal bone from Nassaw, Weyapee and Charraw Town to gain insights into day-to-day life. Undergraduate students with UNC-Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology assisted in excavating and processing artifacts from these sites.

Many of the items, such as pottery and the remains of food processing activities, were created by women. Her findings suggest that Catawba women, including Charraw refugees, were forming vessels with knowledge gained from potters in neighboring villages. Data also suggest that Nassaw women intensified agricultural production of maize to mitigate food insecurity, while Charraw refugees supplemented staple foods by gathering more fruit. Her discoveries suggest that there was cooperation among Catawba towns, especially in food production. Fitts’ work, to be published by the University Press of Florida in 2017, highlights a somewhat hidden aspect of Native community history and the strong contributions that women made to Catawba sovereignty.

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