Sunday, May 7, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Last' Catawba-language speaker not really of tribe, linguist says

The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The man cited as the last native speaker of the Catawba Indian language and praised as a preservationist of the tribe's culture was not Catawba at all, a Smithsonian Institution linguist says.

Chief Red Thunder Cloud, who died in 1996, had Rhode Island and Maryland forebears and not the South Carolina tribal roots he claimed, said Ives Goddard, who runs the Smithsonian ethnology department.

Still, he said, Red Thunder Cloud contributed to understanding and protecting native cultures, particularly the Catawba language, which tribal leaders have struggled to preserve.

"Red Thunder Cloud's accomplishment in becoming a speaker of Catawba puts him outside the class of ordinary impostors," Goddard wrote in an article released Friday by the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas.

"He made a contribution, there is no question about it," Goddard said. "He did field work on this native language. . . . He had papers on it that we hope someday to have access to. I wouldn't pass judgment on the guy."

Wes Taukchiray, an expert on Catawba history and genealogy, said Goddard's research did not change the image of the man with whom he corresponded for years - the man who corrected his Catawba pronunciations.

"What I'm interested in is that he learned how to speak the Catawba language conversationally," Taukchiray said. "I'm not really concerned about his ethnic origin."

Goddard tracked down family trees and public records available on the Internet and found that Red Thunder Cloud was born Cromwell Ashbie Hawkins West, not Carlos Ashibie Hawk Westez, the name he gave friends.

He had claimed that he learned Catawba from his mother's father, Strong Eagle, a Yale Law School graduate who died in 1941.

But Goddard said Red Thunder Cloud's true maternal grandfather was William Ashbie Hawkins, one of Baltimore's first black lawyers. He said the man's father was a Newport, R.I., druggist named Cromwell West.

Goddard said he first became acquainted with Red Thunder Cloud in the 1960s through an article that included his supposed Catawba family tree.

But when a friend began working on a book that included Red Thunder Cloud and sought Goddard's input, the linguist began checking his family history.

At the time of Red Thunder Cloud's death in Massachusetts, Foxx Ayers, a friend of Red Thunder Cloud's and a member of the tribe's executive committee, said Red Thunder Cloud was not an official member of the tribe.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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