Berkeley Co. tribe pushes for heritage preservation: ‘This is the right time’

Published: Oct. 28, 2023 at 6:50 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 28, 2023 at 11:16 PM EDT
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BERKELEY COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians recently opened a new chapter here in the Lowcountry to preserve their heritage and tell their own stories.

The Berkeley County Museum is now home to a multi-room exhibit showcasing the heritage of the Native American Tribe.

“Showing the diversity of our county. They were here long before any of us were here or our families,” Museum Chairman Shanda Phillips said. “That is a piece of our culture and history we need to tell.”

Displays include an extensive timeline stretching back to the late 1500s, artifacts and pieces representing ancestry and tradition, mementos and keepsakes and explanations of the group’s historical symbolism.

“It’s finally out there so people can learn about who we are,” Tribe Member Darren Clark said.

“You disappear, but to be able to come here, and see that you were here,” Tribe Member Janie Shumak said. “Here were your schools and your history. That is great to see.”

This is a part of the tribe’s most recent community outreach opportunities leading up to Native American Heritage Month.

The group is celebrating attendance in the thousands from its first inaugural Pow Wow last weekend.

“We walked away from our Pow Wow with this energized positivity that this is what we are fighting for,” Chief Lisa Collins said.

The group says Native American tribes in the Lowcountry have long faced a battle to preserve their heritage in the wake of marginalization, misconceptions and a lack of awareness from the public.

“When you were not allowed to express yourself as Native American, we have an issue of identifying yourself, being proud of who you are,” Collins said.

“30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, they were going to a one-room schoolhouse going to the fifth grade,” Shumak added. “Education in the community wasn’t high enough to say what can we do in our county?”

Members say time is of the essence.

“Why now? Why now?” Collins asked. “I think this is the right time. An ability for them to open up and allow us in, and also for the community to step out.”

With development creeping in on all sides, income levels rise, making it harder to receive resources as a nonprofit.

The group has since turned to partnerships to bring in more representative numbers.

“We need generations now and future generations to know that history and see that the tribe is still active in the community,” Berkeley County Museum Chairman Shanda Phillips said.

The tribe is continuing to push for federal recognition but has run into obstacles from an array of historical misunderstandings.

“There’s a lot of Paper Genocide like she was talking about, misclassification and mislabeling of our people, making it hard to be successful,” Collins said. “We have been marginalized so long, those opportunities to show up do not exist for a community surviving day to day.”

The group hopes to use community outreach as an opportunity to celebrate their history and remind others of their existence and perseverance.

“We’re not as different as people think being Native is,” Collins said. “We are people you are in a grocery store with, at work with, in the school system with. We need to be cognizant of how we portray Native American culture.”

The tribe will be hosting an event at the Coastal Carolina Fair on Oct. 29 at 6 p.m.

The group is also working on setting up educational classes and programs for 2024.

“There’s a lot of avenues to educate yourself if you’re interested,” Tribe Member Joshua Shumak said. “The most important part is who you’re reaching out to and what you’re learning is accurate.”

The exhibit will be available to the community until the end of December 2024.

For more information on the Wassamasaw Tribe of Varnertown Indians, click here.