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April 7, 2011

With elections looming, Catawbas take center stage

Members of Catawba Indian Nation are in the middle of work, school and raising kids in York County. But starting Friday night with their second annual pow-wow and continuing for the next couple of months during tribal elections, the Catawbas take center stage.

Members of Catawba Indian Nation are in the middle of work, school and raising kids in York County. But starting Friday night with their second annual pow-wow and continuing for the next couple of months during tribal elections, the Catawbas take center stage.

The pow-wow comes with drums and songs in a language that most non-Indians do not know or understand. Yet the grace of it will make your spine tingle. Because a pow-wow is simply a celebration.

As American as apple pie, too.

The Catawba pow-wow, which runs Friday night through Sunday in conjunction with Rock Hill's Come-See-Me spring festival, in just its second year is already the largest event of its kind in the state. More than 30 Native American tribes from the United States and Canada will send drummers and dancers to the competition.

The Catawbas are South Carolina's only federally recognized tribe. They have danced and drummed and raised families in this area through the generations during social gatherings that brought together the people of the nation.

The public pow-wow is a chance to share that cultural connection with others, said Ronnie Beck, the exhibits and pow-wow coordinator at the Catawba Cultural Center on the tribe's reservation - and a traditional dancer himself.

"Tribal members getting together, gathering, is part of what has been done here as long as there have been Catawbas," Beck said. "What we are doing now is taking it to a place where the traditions are shared with others, and with other tribes."

More than 50 Catawba members will perform and compete, along with hundreds of others from tribes from as far away as Texas and New Mexico - even Aztecs from Mexico will be here.

Nobody can explain that uniqueness of the Catawba people better than Gilbert Blue, who was chief of the tribe from 1973 until he retired in 2007. Blue was the driving force behind taking the tribe and reservation from a people unrecognized and discriminated against, a people who faced tremendous poverty because of their race, into what he calls "the mainstream of America." The Catawbas in recent years have had remarkable political, social, economic and educational gains by the tribe as a whole and individuals in countless fields.

Yet the cultural history of the Catawbas has not withered away as tribal members achieve in other areas of American culture and success. Catawba pottery, unique to this area in method and design, is considered among the finest in the world. The pow-wow is another way to show off the Catawba's heritage along with the heritage of other Native American peoples, Blue said.

Last year, the first event, was a success because it brought in so many different tribes, Blue said. This year looks to be bigger and better, Blue said.

"People who might not have any other chance to see the Native American traditions, to hear it with their own ears and see it with their own eyes, get a chance at this pow-wow," Blue said.

This year's pow-wow comes on the cusp of elections for the tribe's executive committee, which runs daily tribal affairs. There is no way to talk about the Catawbas without talking about the politics of the tribe, which is vocal and often involves vigorous debate over the direction of the tribe. The tribe became a political force in the state and nation in 1993, when a land claim tribal members brought to court culminated in a $50 million settlement with both the state of South Carolina and the federal government.

Chief Donald Rodgers, elected to succeed Blue in 2007, has weathered political storms yet faces two other candidates in July to keep his job as chief of the tribe.

Some might call what happens among the tribe bickering. Yet it surely can be argued that the tribal debate is an example of the greatness of democracy and popular involvement in so many aspects of life. Messy at times, loud and public when private displays might be neater, but with the Catawbas' best interest at the heart of it all.

Catawba elections draw intense interest and scrutiny from the people themselves - which is what democracy is supposed to be all about. For five seats on the tribe's governing executive committee in the upcoming July 23 elections, 17 candidates have filed to run in an attempt to help lead the tribe. Look at recent elections for South Carolina's Legislature, York County Council and Rock Hill city elections: Those races recently have featured many unopposed candidates who face no public scrutiny at all.

On April 16, the candidates for the tribe's executive committee will have a candidate forum at the tribal Longhouse in advance of the July elections, said Amy Canty, chair of the tribe's election committee.

But before the tribe deals with its own political future, this weekend it will show off its cultural greatness.

Daryll Bird, a Winnebago tribe member and dancer who lives in Pineville, N.C., will serve as head judge for the Catawba competition.

"The Native American way is measuring your wealth by sharing with your family and your friends," Bird said. "This is a chance to give even more to more people."

Blue, the chief for almost 35 years who is still called "Chief" out of respect by anyone who meets him, a man who has met presidents and congressmen and still sings country music and bluegrass on Friday nights, will be there. Rodgers, the current chief and accomplished traditional dancer in his own right, will do much of the announcing while in traditional tribal dress.

The Catawbas may be political, but this pow-wow is about a unity of tribal spirit that trumps anything else and illustrates yet again that York County gains tremendous benefits by having the great Catawba people in its midst.

Beck, who spent the past year putting this pow-wow together, expects nothing short of greatness Friday through Sunday with more than 500 entrants from those 30-plus tribes.

"Come-See-Me is a big part of Rock Hill, a signature for all of us," Beck said. "For us to have the pow-wow during it, when so many people can enjoy it, it is an honor for the tribe."

An honor for the rest of us, too.

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