Laurens County, South Carolina – Tyler “Standing Bear” Williams and his mom, Lynette Lockey were looking over thick necklaces, many of them made by hand by members of the PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation SC located just off Metric Road between Gray Court and Laurens.
They were there early, having come in from Charleston to help celebrate the opening of the Tribal Grounds Gift Shop and the renovated meeting house, as well as a Laurens County Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting ceremony.
These PAIA Tribal Grounds have been here for many years now, but getting funding for any upgrades has depended on rare grant funds and donations from members, many of whom are scattered across and even beyond the Southeastern states.
However, conversations this past year between Chief Dexter “Yellow Hawk” Sharp and County Administrator Thomas Higgs proved valuable, as the county decided to help the group out with funding for long-needed upgrades.
It wasn’t a result that Sharp was seeking when he called Higgs.
“I get a call one day from (Chief Sharp) and it was like I made an immediate friend in the first few minutes of talking to him,” Higgs said. “It wasn’t a call for money or anything like that. It was a call for a strategic partnership to help culminate in what we have here today, and that’s this culture.”
Higgs said when the county learned another transfer of American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds was coming in, talks with council members confirmed his desire that they should all go to the PAIA Lower Eastern Cherokee Nation SC.
“A lot of credit goes to (County Councilwoman) Diane Anderson,” Higgs said, “who made the nomination for that expenditure. It was a challenging process for council due to a lot of great organizations asking for money, but we only had so much we could stretch out equitably.”
The lion’s share of the funding went for the construction of a restroom and other needed updates to the often-used meeting house. The opening of a gift shop, just a 12 minute drive from downtown Laurens, provides local residents with the opportunity to purchase culturally accurate items such as leather pouches, necklaces with Trail of Tears stones and other jewelry made by tribal artisans.
Prices are low but will bring in modest funds to help cover the costs of electricity and other expenses.
Meanwhile, other tribal members are working on a partnership with the Laurens County Museum which obtained a South Carolina Arts Commission grant. They’ll bring in experts to work in the museum’s Native American room this October and hold and identification day event, and then in the spring field trips to the tribal grounds will help fourth graders learn about the culture of the region’s first residents.
“Today’s kids have their faces in phones and that’s where we’re deriving our culture from these days,” Higgs said. “But I can remember as a kid the things that stood out to me the most were the cool field trips. And the PAIA is a resource here in Laurens County that can provide that culture to our children.”
“The Cherokee have been here since the 1600s,” Sharp said. “We were the first people that inhabited Laurens County and most people don’t know that. We’ve been here a long time and we’re not going anywhere.”
They plan to bring back Boy Scout troops to camp on the tribal grounds again and invite school groups.
The 16th Annual Pow-Wow is planned for Saturday, Sept. 30 and it’s always open to the public. The tribal grounds are located at 3688 Warrior Creek Church Rd., Gray Court.
The newly established gift shop will be open to the public on the second Saturday of each month, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer hours when members are already there to work on the grounds and in the meeting house. Cards are accepted as well as cash.
The tribe is constantly seeking more members, and documentation is not complex. For more information contact Sharp at 864-906-5111.