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Endangered Nation 

Will infighting and bankruptcy doom the Catawba Nation and its language?

Chief Gilbert Blue was a hero to his tribe after leading the effort in 1993 to secure a $50 million settlement -- the culmination of nearly 20 years of campaigning.

click to enlarge STORY TIME: Keith Brown carries on the Catawba storytelling tradition at the Schiele Museum - ANGUS LAMOND
  • Angus Lamond
  • STORY TIME: Keith Brown carries on the Catawba storytelling tradition at the Schiele Museum

Finally the Rock Hill-based Catawba Nation was recognized federally. The illegal treaty of Nation Ford, signed in 1840 with the State of South Carolina, in which a barrel of whisky with cups hanging from hooks was left in a field for Catawba prior to treaty negotiations, was voided. Gaming privileges were given to the tribe that allowed them to open a bingo hall, ensuring long-term economic stability.

The good feelings didn't last long.

The money generated from the settlement created fighting, and when threats were voiced in the General Council to vote Blue out of office, he shut the entire Nation out of any decision-making for good.

A faction of the tribe, commonly referred to as the Dissident Group, has litigation pending against Blue and his Executive Committee. The Dissidents allege Blue has disenfranchised the tribe, failing to hold General Council meetings twice a year as the Catawba Constitution requires and purposefully delaying elections. Furthermore, the plaintiffs believe Blue is responsible for the impoverished state of their nation, either by making financially imprudent decisions or by criminal wrongdoing.

Part of the suit, which the defense is currently appealing, has called for the Executive Committee to submit financial records to account for the $50 million of settlement money.

General Council meetings including any Catawba members over the age of 18, which the old constitution mandates occur on the first Saturday of January and July, haven't been held since 1998. In a 2002 deposition in federal court, Blue explained why he cancelled meetings. (The suit was eventually thrown out when a judge decided the matter was a state issue. It is now being heard in state court.)

"There were things going on that was being disruptive ... People were hollering, cussing at one another, telling me to shut up, that he wasn't through, and all kinds of things. It was just not conducive to taking care of business." When asked to clarify "disruptive," Blue said, people were calling for elections.

In the deposition, Blue also admitted to extending his powers beyond what was specified in the old constitution. "Even though [the constitution] says January and July, there's nothing that says you can't postpone [meetings], as I said earlier, to another week or even cancel it. There's nothing in there, to my knowledge, that says we can't take care of financial business as far as looking into endeavors for economic development of the Nation."

For the Dissidents, this argument is proof of the chief's dictatorial reign. If the constitution says the General Council will meet twice a year on specific dates, it is self-evident that the chief cannot wantonly cancel those meetings. Contrary to Chief's testimony, the old constitution does stipulate that the General Council, has the right "to regulate the use and disposition of Catawba property and funds' so taking care of the financial business without consulting the General Council is violating the constitution.

James Mosteller, the attorney for the plaintiffs, says he was surprised by the candidness of Blue over denying his tribe liberties guaranteed to them by the Civil Rights act of 1968 and their own constitution. Mosteller says the lawyer of the defense, Jay Bender, "had his head in his hands the whole deposition. I was surprised he didn't tell him to shut up."

"Do I empathize that some people feel like they don't have a voice in the tribe? No," says Mosteller.

Bender points out that one year ago, two positions on the Executive Committee opened up due to death, and everyone in the tribe was eligible to run. Twenty or so candidates applied and everyone was allowed to vote. "I don't think that people who are saying them been disenfranchised are being honest about it." (The Dissident Group says the two officials promised to keep them informed of the Executive Committee's decisions but have turned their backs to the Dissident side after taking office.)

The old constitution provided a way for a disenfranchised group to empower themselves. The Dissident Group gathered a quorum of 86 members and attempted to have the July meeting in 2002. But Blue locked the group out of the Longhouse and later acknowledged that he threatened to fire any tribal employee who tried to attend the gathering. The group held elections anyway, which were subsequently ruled invalid by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"Internal Politics is something we don't get ourselves involved with," says Franklin Keel, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Eastern Region Director. "The reason we don't get involved is because we respect their tribal sovereignty. The tribal governments work within the balance of their governing documents."

The defense has argued that the chief, who hasn't stood for election since 1975, is not obligated to do so until a new constitution is passed. Previous attempts to ratify a constitution have been impossible with all the tension and infighting. The Dissident Group says constitutions proposed by the Executive Committee have put too much power in too few hands. Although it has been a 13-year process, Bender is optimistic a new constitution will be worked out and elections can be held in short order. Bender says that lawyers from both sides will have a greater role in forthcoming constitutional negotiations.

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