Catawbas yearn for 'new start'

When they convene this weekend at the tribal Longhouse east of Rock Hill, members of the Catawba Indian Nation will do more than elect a new chief.

They also hope to infuse their tribe with a sense of direction after years of bitter feuds and uncertainty over the future.

"You've heard the old saying about too many chiefs, not enough Indians. Some of that was going on," tribal member Gene Blue said. "We need new people in here to make better decisions."

The election comes four months after the abrupt resignation of Chief Gilbert Blue, who led the Catawbas for nearly 40 years but faced growing criticism toward the end of his tenure.

Dissident tribal members describe Blue, 73, as out of touch with the demands of his job -- and unwilling to listen to opposing viewpoints. They accuse him of mismanaging the tribe's finances and say he refused to hold elections on a regular schedule in keeping with the tribal constitution.

Blue denies the charges but acknowledges the timing is right for a new leader.

"My only concern is that whoever gets in there is someone who will have concern for the tribe," Blue told The Herald last week. "Things in the past have shown that some aren't of that thinking. I think the election can be good -- it all depends on the people who get elected."

The Catawbas hope as many as 1,000 ballots will be cast Saturday in the four-person race for chief, mostly through absentee voting. An assistant chief, secretary-treasurer and executive committee members also will be elected. The tribe has 1,800 eligible voters nationwide and 2,600 total members.

"In a way, this is kind of a scary time because you don't know what you're going to end up with," tribal member Jason Harris said. "If you have an all new executive committee with no experience, you don't know if that is going to be a setback. But this is what everybody wanted."

A number of pressing issues confront the Catawbas. The new administration must review financial records considered by some to be in disarray and help resolve plans for video poker facilities elsewhere in the state. A new constitution is needed. Housing and health-care programs also need attention.

Blue said he has told immediate relatives whom he supports for chief but will not go public. He already has submitted his ballot and won't go near the Longhouse on Saturday -- he might even be out of town.

"I'm enjoying my retirement," Blue said. "I've been involved in the political scene for so long. It's nice just to worry about Gilbert Blue and his wife and family. I don't have to be so concerned about what other people are thinking."