Catawba belongs to the Eastern Siouan language family and was once spoked widely throughout the Piedmont regions of what are today North and South Carolina, as well as parts of southern Virginia. After the arrival of European settlers, and a century and more of oppressive laws designed to force the assimilation of indigenous peoples into American culture and society, in part by forbidding the teaching of native languages, by the mid-20th century only a very few fluent speakers of Catawba remained. Indeed, the last fluent, native speaker, Chief Samuel Taylor Blue, died in 1959, the same year that the tribe’s federal recognition was terminated.

In the years that followed, as the Catawba Nation fought to restore their federal status, it seems that the Catawba language might be lost. It certainly became endangered. Fortunately, the danger was recognized, and the Catawba took steps they to save their language. Recordings of Chief Blue and others speaking Catawba were preserved. Incomplete, but vital dictionaries and pronunciation guides were written down and kept, and those who knew how to speak even a little Catawba worked to pass their knowledge on.

When the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project was launched in 1989, the efforts to preserve and revitalize the Catawba language entered a new phase. Today, the Catawba Language Project has created elementary level curricula, and is progressing to middle and high school linguistic instruction to ensure that future generations of Catawba will be able to read, write, and speak their own language again. The Catawba Indian Nation Archives is enormously proud to be a part of this effort, and to help preserve the precious materials that helped to keep the Catawba language alive when it could so easily have been lost forever.