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Planned Indian village a challenge

If things go the way Ronnie Beck hopes, visitors to the Catawba Cultural Center will experience American Indian village life exactly as it once was.

Beck, 32, is one of several center staff members working to re-create more than 500 years of history on the Catawba Indian Reservation about 5 miles east of Rock Hill.

They envision a replica village where American Indian re-enactors in traditional dress would demonstrate how Catawbas went about their daily lives. Visitors walking along the half-mile trail from the center headquarters to the Catawba River would see demonstrators build dugout canoes, cook over an open fire and tan animal hides.

Beck also hopes to bring in buffalo and other animals.

But getting to that point won't be easy.

The center is paying for the project with money from admission fees to cultural programs and gift shop sales.

But high gas prices are deterring visitors and profits are dwindling, said Beckee Garris, a tribe member and staffer with the Catawba Indian Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Also, the four staff members working on the village split their time between the project and normal duties.

Plus, there are construction delays.

The village was expected to be built by year's end, but setbacks have pushed it further out.

“We had a couple of houses finished,” Beck said. “But weather tore them down.”

Construction recently restarted. The skeletal frame for an early Catawba house made of tree limbs stands shaped like an igloo. It's partially covered by strips of birch bark. Beck recently switched to synthetic bark to better withstand weather.

“We know how to build it the old way,” said Beck, whose great-great-grandfather was a Catawba chief. “Now, it's time to preserve it.”

When complete, the village will sit on about an acre. It will house several early tribal huts, which Catawbas lived in before their first contact with European settlers. The homes will be surrounded by palisades – a fence of thick sharpened logs driven into the ground.

Nearby will be log cabins that later generations of tribal families lived in.

“It's really a long-range dream of ours,” Garris said. “We're hoping at some point to have a living village.”

Beck and the others working on the project – Corey Totherow, Donnie Boyd and Amanda Rogers – say they're determined to make it happen.

“Their passion is to make sure our history doesn't die off any more than it already has,” Garris said.

Totherow, 21, hopes one day to recruit a group of folks to live in the village for at least a week.

“I'm talking to the point of no (modern) clothes,” he said.

The group would build utensils, cook food and survive the way Catawbas did, he said.

“I just want to see what it would've been like to live at that time.”

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