Women win two top spots

Melissa Funderburk and Leigh Anne Bickett are leading the Catawba Indian Nation back to its foundation.

The pair became the first Catawba women to win an elected office and the first to serve in a governing role since 1973 when they were elected to the tribe's Executive Committee last Saturday. They join new chief Donald Rodgers, assistant chief Gene Blue, secretary/treasurer Jason Harris and fellow committee members Butch Sanders and John Williford as the top decision-makers for the tribe.

"A key was turned for women in the 1970s," Funderburk said, referring to Frances Wade, the first female appointed to office, who served one year on the committee in 1973. "Now, the door has been fully opened."

The election of women by the tribe is a step back to ancient Catawba traditions. According to the oral history of the tribe -- there are no written records -- the Catawbas were once a matriarchal society. Tribe historians claim a group of women once made key decisions and the chief was merely a figurehead.

But when European settlers moved into the Carolinas almost 400 years ago, they refused to trade or conduct affairs with Catawba women.

"They (Catawba women) saw that the Europeans wouldn't work with us," Funderburk said. "In order to sustain ourselves and survive, we had to put our men at the table to negotiate."

And since that time, men have dominated Catawba politics, while women stayed at home. Until Saturday.

"It just proves that our tribe is moving with the times. It's a wonderful way to say, 'Women don't just cook and clean anymore. They're running our tribe,'" said Bickett, a 28-year-old housing manager for ISWA Development, the tribe's housing company. "I'm very honored, and I'm up for the challenge to work with all these men."

Newly elected Chief Rodgers said he is excited about working alongside female leaders. He said Funderburk and Bickett will bring balance to the tribe's officials.

"After European contact, the men went out and did things on their own. Unfortunately, sometimes it was to their own detriment," he said. "It's good to have a woman's perspective. Sometimes us men will be moving along and the ladies will throw us a curve ball, and it's just the curve we need."

Facing a tribe fractured by disagreements over a new constitution, gaming operations and government secrecy, Funderburk and Bickett believe the time is right for women to rejoin the negotiating table.

"I want to mend fences and heal wounds," said Funderburk, the 37-year-old program director of the Catawba Head Start program and a former social services worker on the reservation. "I'm honored that so many people have put their confidence in me. I think people respect me and expect me to do good things here. I've walked the talk."

Bickett, a Chester resident and the only member of the new leadership team who doesn't live on or near the reservation, said women will bring unique abilities to the committee.

"We can bring the compassionate side to the table, and that will help influence decisions with this new committee," said Bickett, who has a husband and one young son. "In some ways, women are more efficient and hold closer to family values."

Funderburk agrees. She said her ties to children, education and family issues as a loving wife and mother of three will influence her decisions. She already has ambitious hopes to reform the education system.

As it stands, reservation residents are required to pay tuition for their children to attend public school. It was part of the agreement with the federal government in 1993 that exempted reservation homeowners from paying property taxes. Funderburk said it's time for that to change.

"Why that was agreed on, I'll never understand," she said. "Now, we have the woman's touch that says, 'Let's look after our children.'"

Early in the week, the women already were diving into their new responsibilities.

After a full day of work, they spent half an hour talking to The Herald before meeting with the new leadership team. Then it was home to take care of their families.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy for taking this on," Funderburk said. "But I have a lot of love and compassion for my people, and I obtained an education in order to help my people."

Bickett said changes are on the way and promised to begin undoing the secrecy that drew criticism for previous leaders.

"Our tribe has been in disarray for so long. We want to build trust in this new group," she said. "It's gonna take all seven of us working as a team to bring peace. We no longer have to be behind closed doors."