Last Known Speaker of Catawba Language

On Jan. 8 the man said to be the last native speaker of the Catawba language, Red Thunder Cloud, died at age 76 in Worcester, MA.

Such a death can never be truly memorialized because we can never understand exactly what was lost - not only vocabulary, but a way of apprehending the world. Some linguists estimate that 500 languages were spoken by the inhabitants of North America at the time of the conquest and that 100 survive. The number regularly spoken is much smaller. The Catawba first enter history in 1540 when explorer Hernan De Soto had some contact with them. Prior to that there is silence, although archaeologists intriguingly connect their pottery traditions to those of the high Mississippian culture, the only such survival of the civilization which vanished hundreds of years before European contact with the New World. The Catawba seem to have been closely related to their neighbors, the Waxhaws, who were also known as "Flatheads" for their tradition of ornamental skull deformation.

The first extensive record of the tribe was left by one John Lawson, an English traveller who spent some time with them in South Carolina in 1701. He wrote that he was feasted upon "Loblolly and other medleys, made of Indian grain, stewed peaches, bear-venison, &c." Lawson also recorded elaborate dances and a period of sexual license when

     Every youth that was so disposed, catched 
     hold of the girl he liked best and took her 
     that night for his bed-fellow, making as short 
     courtship and expeditious wedding, as the 
     footguards used to do with the trulls at 

The Catawba were renowned warriors. They were so fierce that killing a Catawba was said to be a great honor for an Indian of another tribe. They were known for their treachery in battle, yet they made peace early and honorably with English colonists.

It was much later that they made their peace with the notoriously aggressive Iroquois, who journeyed from their homes in what is now northern New York to fight them. The Iroquois complained to English negotiators that the Catawbas taunted them, sending them "word that we were but women; that they were men and double men for they had two penises," one for their women and one for their foes. The two tribes eventually made peace at a dramatic meeting in Albany in 1759. The Catawba's military history ends there, though they sided with the Colonists in the Revolutionary War.

They were awarded the first reservation in the Southeast, in 1762. They never really accepted Christianity, but a majority converted to Mormonism in the 1920s. In 1993, after nearly a century of legal actions, Congress awarded the tribe $50 million in reparations. About 1,400 Catawbas remain.

The Catawba language is said to be "the most aberrant of all known Siouan languages." An early linguist described their words for communicating their state of peace with the English:

Catawbas might say of the colonists that the two nations were "born of one womb, ate from one spoon, smoked from one pipe, slept by one fire. If all was well the path between the Catawbas and Colonial capital was said to be clear.

The Catawba's main contributions to English are in the name of the tribe, which entered the language as the word for a wine (1846), a grape (1857) and a tree (1832). The meaning of the tribe's name itself is unknown, and it is not even known if the Catawba called themselves Catawbas.

Red Thunder Cloud was a singer, dancer and storyteller and also earned money by selling a line of herbal teas that he made from herbs. In the 1940s he worked with scholars from MIT and the Smithsonian to record songs and information about the Catawba language.

Red Thunder Cloud learned Catawba from his grandfather, Strong Eagle and from tribal elders. A close friend said that the language sounded like "Spanish mixed with English or German, or something like that." Red Thunder Cloud was married for a time to a Blackfoot woman but the union dissolved. He left no known survivors.

Although Red Thunder Cloud, also called Carlos Westez, was said to be the last known speaker of Catawba, another writer claimed the last speaker died in 1959; who knows the truth?