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For Catawbas, today's a day to be heard at the polls

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- Today, Election Day, is a great day to be a Catawba Indian.

Or it should be.

The Catawbas will elect a new chief for the first time in more than 30 years. The tribe also will elect an assistant chief and executive committee members.

There have been past lawsuits about elections, filed by Catawbas against Catawbas. There have been lawsuits over the Catawbas' rights to bingo and video poker, filed by Catawbas against the governments of this county and state.

But at least today there won't be any courts.

Just people who want to decide who their leaders will be. To stand and cast a vote, and be counted.

That is America at its best.

No one knows for sure how many people will vote because all 1,770 members of the tribe ages 18 and older can vote. Unlike the local, state or federal systems, Catawbas don't have to register to vote.

You are Catawba, you can vote.

The question is, will they?

I sure hope so.

But today is not about what I want or what the politicians from York County or South Carolina or the United States want. This is about what the Catawbas want.

The Catawbas were here first. They had to fight to be recognized, and rightly were. It only took hundreds of years.

They have surnames now so familiar to anybody who has lived here more than a few days. Blue and Beck, Canty and Wade, Harris and Sanders and George and more.

They are the lady at the front desk at the York County Library, named Connie, the brightest smile in the place for years.

They are a man named Fred Sanders, 81 years old. Once he was assistant chief.

He was drafted during World War II and he went to Germany. He fought as an infantryman as an American and he was proud because that is who he is. An American from South Carolina who is a Catawba.

I asked Fred Sanders on Friday who would win the chief election and he said he had no idea. Some asked him to run but he didn't.

In America, nobody knows who wins until the votes are counted.

The Catawbas chief for so long, Gilbert Blue, resigned weeks ago. He decided close to 40 years in charge fighting for his people was enough. He told anybody who ever asked how proud he was to be a Catawba Indian. He was given an NAACP award a couple of months ago. He received an ovation. I clapped as loud as anybody.

But today starts the next chief's tenure. What happens to tribal health care and jobs and child care and housing will be decided by that chief, and others.

The tribe has endured poverty and fights with South Carolina and the federal government over land and the proud people have always endured. They have a longhouse and a cultural center and a reservation. They proudly call where many live the Catawba Indian Nation.

They will endure after today. No one knows if it will be as a unified political nation, or a fractured nation.

Politicians and other governments for hundreds of years have told the Catawbas what to do and how to do it. But today, no York County or South Carolina or federal government official has any jurisdiction over what gets done. They have no vote. No congressman or councilman or cop will decide for them today. Just the Catawbas, as it should be.

The Catawbas alone today decide what their future looks like.

The Catawba Indian Nation elections are today from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Longhouse on the tribe's eastern York County reservation.

Tribal members will elect a chief, assistant chief, secretary/treasurer and four executive committee members. Here are the candidates:

Chief

Timothy "Dean" Canty

Evans "Buck" George Jr.

William F. "Bill" Harris Jr.

Donald Wayne Rodgers

Assistant Chief

Claude K. Ayers

Gene Blue

Timothy N. Blue

Heyward "Jackie" Canty Jr.

Secretary/Treasurer

Samuel "Sammy" Beck

Sue Brown-Gunderson

Jason Harris

Executive Committee member

Dewey L. Adams

Leigh Anne Bickett

Jeanette Largo

William Lamont Medlin

Thomas "Butch" Sanders

Melissa Shrake Funderburk

John Timothy Williford

• Also on the ballot is a vote for a new tribal constitution. At least 30 percent of the voting-age members of the tribal roll, or 531 members, must vote on the constitution question for the vote to be valid.

Sources: Hugh Canty, Catawba election commission chairman and Steve Rast, Catawba contract election administrator.

Details on 3B

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