After long wait, jobs return to the Longhouse

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- Several white fliers are taped on the doors at the Longhouse, the Catawba Indian Reservation's government center. They read: "Jobs available. Check bulletin board inside."

For the first time in nearly three years, the Catawba Indian Nation is hiring new employees. The tribe learned this week a major piece of its federal funding has been reinstated, Chief Donald Rodgers said, meaning the beleaguered tribe can immediately begin hiring and paying about 10 employees. More jobs will be added next year.

Rodgers learned the money was on its way only hours after the U.S. Supreme Court denied to hear an appeal that may have allowed video poker on the reservation, an industry some tribal leaders said was necessary for economic survival.

"We've just been trying to stay afloat for a while now, but now we can pull ourselves up out of the water," Rodgers said about the money. "For me, that far outweighs any gaming issues."

The federal money, commonly referred to as "683 grants," is awarded annually to American Indian tribes by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Catawbas began using the money to fund their payroll shortly after their 1993 land settlement with the U.S. government, but have been without since 2004 when the checks stopped coming and about 60 employees were laid off. Rodgers said the money was cut off after former tribal leaders failed to perform annual audits required by the U.S. government. Since then, the Longhouse has often been empty and the tribe has stayed afloat thanks to volunteers and secondary revenue sources.

"It's almost like we're starting all over again," said Rodgers, who was elected in July along with six other tribe leaders. "Things might not have been done the right way the first time, but we're gonna make sure it's done right going forward."

The $1.4 million grant will be used to pay for a full-time tribal administrator, economic development director and a social services director. It also will pay for a support staff, new computers, infrastructure projects and assist with salaries for elected officials, Rodgers said. But before a dime is spent, Rodgers wants people to understand the culture around the Longhouse needs to change.

"The main thing is you have to be qualified. If you're not qualified, don't apply," Rodgers said, adding tribal leadership will give preference to registered Catawbas but all parties are allowed to apply. "Before, we had everybody's brother, sister, grandma and grandpa working here. We can't do that this time. We have to be accountable because the Bureau of Indian Affairs has to approve all new hires."

The federal funding, paid quarterly, comes with a few strings attached. Rodgers said the tribe has to complete 30-day audits, allow random federal audits and work toward approving a new tribal constitution.

"We'll have to be frugal because we've got a watchful eye and a magnifying glass looking over us," he said. "But that's gonna be good for us."

The job openings are a welcome sight for many tribe members. According to BIA statistics, the Catawba tribe has an unemployment rate above 40 percent.

"I've already put my name in for a couple jobs," said Betty Driggers, a receptionist at the Longhouse who was laid off when the money ran out in 2004. She returned recently as a part-time volunteer, but hopes to get back on the payroll soon.

Driggers, who grew up on the reservation before moving to Newport, said she's excited about the changes around the Longhouse. She said the new leadership is restoring a sense of openness and accountability.

"With all we've been through, some people's trust was damaged. We were ready for the change," she said. "I just can't wait until we get a full staff of people back in here. I'm excited."

Rodgers said the federal money will be seed money for the tribe. Once an economic development director is hired, he expects the tribe to increase tourism by invigorating the Catawba Cultural Center and to find new sources of revenue. He said it also will boost spirits. With workers and services back in the Longhouse, Rodgers hopes the building will again become a popular place to gather for tribe members.