Tribe to tackle bingo hall, other issues at meeting

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- New chief Donald Rodgers leads one of his first major functions Saturday when members of the Catawba Indian Nation convene for a tribal meeting.

The gathering, expected to attract as many as 200 people, represents another opportunity for Rodgers to make progress in healing the rifts that have divided the Catawbas in recent years. But he knows that mission will take longer than one day.

"We've tested the waters, and they're pretty deep," he said Thursday. "That old saying is, 'Have you got your feet wet?' They're far beyond wet. I'm trying to get back to the surface. We've got a lot to do."

Rodgers issued a public call for as many Catawbas as possible to attend the meeting so that a full range of opinions can be heard. A higher turnout than usual is expected at what will be the second official gathering under the new administration.

"We want to communicate better with our tribal members and have them in the loop -- and involve the general council like they should've been involved for years," said new secretary-treasurer Jason Harris. "Before, it just didn't happen for whatever reason. We're going to make sure it happens."

Rodgers, who campaigned door to door after being asked to run for chief by a group of supporters, has promised to reach out to members of all ages and viewpoints to begin settling disputes.

Bingo hall on the agenda

The tribe will talk on Saturday about a high-stakes bingo hall it is considering in Marion County. Last month, the Catawbas moved closer to creating the hall when the Marion County Council voted to allow gaming at the Carolina Entertainment Complex.

But a deal is still far from being settled. The Catawbas must negotiate with the developers, and the state Department of Revenue must give the final OK.

It's also possible the tribe could look elsewhere for a suitable site.

"We won't sign any contracts without general council approval," said executive committee member Melissa Funderburk. "It can't be seven people's decision. We've got to build the trust and rapport with our people."

While Rodgers and others sense excitement, they also say that not everyone has gotten comfortable with the new leadership.

Rodgers, 39, defeated three other candidates to succeed Gilbert Blue, who announced his retirement earlier this year.

"We've had some people that are ready to listen and some people who are sitting back and saying, 'Let's see how this is going to run out,'" Rodgers said. "We need everybody's support."