By Ms. Elyssa Vondra (Jackson)November 21, 2018
Fort Jackson gave thanks for the sacrifices and services made by Native Americans in a Native American Indian Heritage Month luncheon Nov. 16.
It was part of the national, November-long Native American Heritage Month that celebrates the tribes' histories, cultures, traditions and services to the country.
Just in time for Thanksgiving, the NCO Club hosted the event to recognize the impacts the nation's first people have had on the Army and the country as a whole.
The 282nd Army Band performed music tuned toward the occasion.
The theme of the day was sovereignty, trust and resilience.
William "Bill" Harris, chief of the Catawba Indian Nation in Rock Hill, South Carolina was the guest speaker, while the Catawba Educational Performers demonstrated a traditional woman's honor song.
Harris said such a performance would be used by tribes to welcome people to their lands with an "open hand" rather than a "clenched fist," as their ancestors were faced with when Europeans first migrated to America.
Tradition is an important part of Harris's life.
During his free time, he practices ancient pottery, passed down by his family.
"(Through his craft) he becomes another link in the chain that connects the Catawba's people's past to their future," said Lt. Col. Jason Finch, who introduced Harris Friday.
That's far from all Harris does.
"He has represented the tribe in diverse capacities," Finch said.
Harris has served on the South Carolina Native American Advisory Committee, and the Direct Service Tribe's Advisory Committee for the Indian Health Service.
He has played a role in organizations on each level of government -- local, state and federal.
He has been politically active for more than two decades, testifying on the behalf of Native Americans before Congress a number of times.
Harris has advocated for the rights of his tribe's people and the Catawba Constitution's enforcement.
Harris is part of a "feather-recognized tribe" -- the Catawba Indian Nation.
That just means the government has an official relationship with them; there are more tribes than the handful recognized, Harris said.
"We have to prove that (relationship) over and over and over," Harris added.
He spoke on how the relationship between the native people and the European immigrants tied in with the key words of the day: sovereignty, trust and resilience.
Despite vast loss in tribal communities, through resilience, Native people survived, Harris said.
Smallpox killed off many members of the Catawba nation, with the first epidemic in 1700s.
"It wasn't people that decimated the first people; it was disease," he explained. "Prior to that, we were the power.
"Smallpox was more than an equalizer, it was truly a decimator."
Though they survived, there was still loss.
Assimilation became a part of life if "we were going to exist and not become extinct," Harris said.
It was "hard to swallow" because it meant giving up some culture.
The leaders took the step to preserve the tribes.
Even the name "Indians" came from the fact that Christopher Columbus got lost on his way to India, Harris said.
"If (Christopher Columbus) was on his way to China … we'd be called Chinese," he said. "That's what history is."
Part of the Native American identity was lost with time, but a new one was formed.
Now the hope is to unite as one country; Harris said that was his goal even in speaking.
European immigration did garner some benefits -- Native Americans were assisted by some of their advancements, such as metal.
"There was a gain … it wasn't all a loss," Harris said. Even so, "trust comes later."
Many lives were taken.
Though "it wasn't about annihilation" when immigrants arrived, a need for land and "ownership" drove the Europeans to the acts they committed against the natives, Harris said.
Native Americans just needed what the land could provide them, he added.
It was a different philosophy.
"With that taking, there came a responsibility," Harris said. Sovereignty was in question.
Since then, bridges have been built; Harris said it all started with conversation.
Continuing that dialogue is key to building equality, he added.