Among the Catawba Indian Nation in York County, one person knew the plants that dated back millenia. He knew how the plants are used, the meanings of spirituality and health, all from a place where the Catawba people have lived for thousands of years.
That was John George. Title: “Medicine Man.”
George, a vital part of the Catawba tribe’s cultural and political renaissance over the past quarter century, died late Monday at 71, tribal leaders said.
His contributions to the tribe’s people, history and future, they say, is immeasurable.
George was the tribe’s official traditional healer and spiritual leader.
“John George was so important to reviving and keeping alive many of the traditions that date back as long as there have been people in this area,” said Beckee Garris, a longtime tribal elder who has spent decades working with the Catawba Cultural Center and tribal historical preservation groups.
“He was instrumental in identifying the indigenous plants of this area, the plants that are found on the reservation,” she said.
The Catawba reservation sits in eastern York County, along the shores of the Catawba River. The Catawbas are the only federally recognized tribe in South Carolina.
Catawba Chief Bill Harris said George “is best known as a medicine man, but in our last conversation, John shared the joy he experienced in years of researching the indigenous plants used by our early ancestors in everyday activities. John appreciated the knowledge and the gift of plants.”
Garris said it is “impossible” to replace George’s tribal, land and historic knowledge as medicine man, unless a younger Catawba embraces the culture as George did.
George, a U.S. Navy veteran, was the first modern tribal medicine man for the Catawba.
He was named official medicine man after tribal recognition in 1993, following a land settlement with the South Carolina and federal governments, said Elizabeth Harris, spokesperson for the tribe.
The medicine man title and all it meant was a source of immeasurable pride for both George and the tribe, leaders said.
“The medicine man is a role within the tribe, held by someone who is known as a traditional healer and spiritual leader. In that role, the person leads spiritual ceremonies, and has knowledge of traditional healing practices and traditional medicinal plants that is shared with tribal members,” Harris said.
George would use traditional plants and pottery in ceremonies for members, she said. He would use them to explain the culture of the tribe to others.
Tribal members and leaders in the past quarter century have fought to keep the traditions of the Catawba people alive. Such traditions are unique not just in this area, but in America and the world.
Catawba pottery, for example, is created with a unique handmade method using Catawba River clay and is unlike any other.
George’s pride in his heritage included trying to help native American people in a prison program that he founded that sought to teach inmates about their heritage and culture.
Dates and times of services for George have not yet been set.