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20 CES preserves Native American history

Native American artifacts that were found at Poinsett Electronic Combat Range in Wedgefield S.C.

Native American artifacts that were found at Poinsett Electronic Combat Range in Wedgefield S.C. November is federally recognized as Native American Heritage Month. The 20th Civil Engineer Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base has a year round mission to protect over 149 archeological sites at the Poinsett Electronic Combat Range and two on the base. (Courtesy Photo)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- On Aug. 3, 1990, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the month of November as National American Indian Heritage Month. However at Shaw Air Force Base, preserving Native American history and culture is a year-round mission.

“We have laws that require us to protect certain properties,” said Irvin Ridgeway, 20th Civil Engineer Squadron cultural resource manager. “Most of what’s out on (Poinsett Electronic Combat Range) are Native American artifacts dating back 5,000 to 10,000 years.”

Throughout history, the land at Poinsett and Shaw AFB have been occupied by various Native American tribes.

"In the early historic period, this region was occupied by the Siouan tribes of central South Carolina including the Santee, Wateree, Waxhaw, and Congaree,” said Ridgeway. “These tribes were all members of the Catawba language division."

Having all of these protected sites near a bombing range and area used for military exercises can cause a conflict of interest.

“At the range we have two drop zones, the north target and the south target,” said Ronald June, 20th CES natural and cultural resources chief. “Back in the 90s they wanted to expand the southern target, but it would have affected a site eligible for the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. So we had some archeologists come out and dig up all of the artifacts and gather the information, which is archived in the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology in Columbia, and they were able to clear it and now we can drop bombs there.”

When archeologists come out and examine the sites, they are able to determine what tribes were in the area and where they came from.

“Archeologists really like coming out to the range because it’s a fairly undisturbed area,” said June. “They can take the fragments they find and figure out who made it, how many people were there and when they were there. It’s the information about the people that’s important, and that’s what they are looking for.”

The research done by the archeologists has helped to preserve the heritage of the tribes in the area and identify which factions of the Catawba have lived or passed through Poinsett.

“I think that it is a great honor for not only myself but for the Department of Defense and the Air Force to be in the position to protect these sites and provide the tribes with the respect they deserve,” said Ridgeway. “Government lands individually, and as a whole, provide a unique opportunity to preserve and protect these important pieces of Native American history.”