Catawba - Religion and Expressive Culture
Religious Beliefs. In aboriginal times the Catawba were polytheistic, with the emphasis on the maintenance of harmony and balance among the various forces governing the universe. The Indians as a rule rebuffed Christian missionaries until the nineteenth century, when some of the Catawba became Baptists or Methodists. In the 1880s, Mormon missionaries visited the nation, and by the 1920s virtually all the Catawba had converted to Mormonism. They remain largely Mormon today. Fragmentary evidence hints that Catawba religion had a supreme being that was associated with the sun. In addition, there were numerous spirits—personal, animal, and elemental—whose powers could be used for good or ill. Today vestiges of these spirits remain in the stories of yehasuri, or "wild Indians," who are said to live in the woods on the reservation.
Religious Practitioners. Priests, or "conjurers," enjoyed great prestige in the aboriginal and early-contact era for their powers as healers and diviners. How long the position lasted is unclear, though certainly not past the middle of the nineteenth century. From the 1840s to 1962, the Catawba had a state-appointed physician; today many of the Indians still visit the last man to hold this office.
Ceremonies. In addition to the numerous rituals to be performed by individuals (such as hunters) during the course of daily life, the Catawba had communal ceremonies to celebrate the harvest and pray for future success in planting. The fate of their ceremonial round is unknown; during the early nineteenth century the harvest ceremony may have evolved into an annual meeting in late summer to discuss the leases of reservation lands. "Powwows" were said to have been held into the late nineteenth century, though their form and function are unknown.
Arts. Singing, accompanied by tortoise-shell rattles and pot-drums, was common at ceremonies.
Medicine. Sickness could be caused by ghosts, evil spirits, or the violation of certain taboos. Cures combined medicinal plants applied through proper rituals. Today the Catawba rely exclusively on Western medical practices.
Death and Afterlife. Death was ascribed to the same causes as sickness. The afterworld was said to be divided into good and bad spheres, though the influence of Christianity on this belief cannot be discounted. Heaven was said to have four levels. Elaborate funeral ceremonies, including speeches, feasts, and periods of mourning, were the norm in aboriginal and early-contact times. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, funerals included a fast, a three-day wait for the departure of the soul, and a taboo on speaking the name of the deceased. Today, Catawba practice mirrors that of the nation's neighbors, except that potters may be buried with a piece of their pottery.