Dr. Stephen Criswell has worked in the fields of folklore and anthropology for over twenty years. A 1997 graduate of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, he has concentrated on the study and preservation of South Carolina traditions, customs, and cultural practices. His most prominent contribution is his work as an advocate for Native American culture, with a special focus on Catawba potters and contemporary expressive traditions.
In 2005, the University of South Carolina Lancaster hired Criswell and challenged him to build and direct USCL’s Native American Studies program. Thirteen years later, the Native American Studies Center (NASC) houses the largest fully intact collection of Catawba pottery in existence, an extensive archival collection, and a staff dedicated to celebrating and promoting Native American culture. Criswell has worked closely with South Carolina tribal leaders and members, the Catawba Cultural Preservation Project, and a variety of arts and cultural agencies, to bring greater attention to the history and culture of South Carolina Native communities. Under his leadership, the NASC has mounted thirty-two exhibitions, covering a range of subjects. Since opening in 2012 in the heart of downtown Lancaster, the NASC has seen 30,000 visitors from all over the world, a clear demonstration of raising awareness of the history, culture and traditions of Native people of the South.
Criswell has conducted oral history interviews with a host of Catawba potters, including Eric Cantey, Evelyn George, Elsie George, Bertha Harris, Beulah Harris, Cora Harris Hedgepath, and Elizabeth Plyler. His work with these artists provides a public forum that gives voice to Native American community members of whom many might otherwise be unaware. In 2013, the NASC launched the Native American Artist-in-Residence Program, which provides Native artists a venue to present their culture and heritage to a wide audience of students, teachers, community members, and tourists.
Criswell’s philosophy is grounded in knowing who we are, who we all are, embracing our different cultures, and learning from each other through the richness of our shared heritage. With this zeal he has written grants to secure funding to create and sustain programs that bring the Native American experience into the conversation of contemporary South Carolina culture. To date, he has secured more than $360,000 in funding from such notable sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, the South Carolina Arts Commission and the Duke Endowment. This funding has created a platform that brings people together to learn, share, and connect through an important, though underappreciated, aspect of South Carolina culture.
Traditional artist and educator Beckee Garris of the Catawba Nation states, “Dr. Stephen Criswell has made part of his life’s mission to help people understand the vast cultural histories of the natives in South Carolina. He preserves these histories by collecting our stories and respecting us in the process. I am very fortunate to say he is my mentor and also my friend.” A dedicated scholar, advocate, and mentor, Criswell is a tireless supporter of the traditional arts in South Carolina. Criswell received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2018.