Andrew Dys

Chief pursues 'new day of reason' for tribe

Donald Rodgers talks on Monday about his role as the new chief of the Catawba Indian Nation.
Donald Rodgers talks on Monday about his role as the new chief of the Catawba Indian Nation.

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION -- Monday was some day for a 39-year-old credit counselor with a loving wife who called him to say so, and three kids he wants to go to college some day.

Donald Rodgers' cell phone rang countless times, and a secretary at the Catawba Indian Nation Longhouse took message after message.

Get elected chief of the Catawba Indian Nation, seems everybody wants to talk to you.

Christy, the wife, called, and Rodgers answered. "Hey, honey, I'll have to call you later. I might be late getting home. Busy? It's been non-stop. I love you."

But while the euphoria of getting elected chief of the Catawbas early Sunday hasn't worn off, Rodgers has a tribe to run. He doesn't have a nameplate that says he is chief. No business cards. He doesn't have a salary yet and says he won't have one until the tribe receives federal grants from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

He had to take the day off from his regular job Monday -- an unpaid day because he has used up all his vacation -- to get started. He visited the Catawbas Cultural Center where for 10 years he worked. "We had 750 school kids come through last year, and at one time we had 10,000 a year," he said. "That's what we need to get back to."

He talked with tribal members who came by and went to see others.

He had to bring a to-go box back with him from lunch because he was so busy. I don't think he had time to finish.

"I got my go-cart," said Rodgers, comparing the election to a Christmas present. "Now the work comes."

A Catawba woman named Karrie Adams, who grew up next door to Rodgers on the reservation, showed up. Rodgers, like a big brother, shooed away bullies and suitors from Adams 20-plus years ago.

"A lot of new voices need to be heard, and Donald's is the voice we all need to hear most," Adams said.

Rodgers takes the helm of a tribe that has had bickering over accountability inside the tribe, and problems with York County and the state and federal governments over bingo and video poker outside the tribe. He inherits a tribe facing some poverty and unemployment, the loss of money from a closed bingo hall on Cherry Road, health-care concerns, lost federal grants and more.

Rodgers said he can't fix the tribe's problems in one day or one week or one month, although he spent the day telling people he would waste no time getting started. First is greater access for tribal people.

"I was elected by the people, and I am accountable to them," Rodgers said.

Rodgers already has called a General Council meeting for Aug. 4, although the tribe isn't required to have one until January. The lack of meetings over the years, the perception of the lack of popular democracy, is one reason he listened to tribal elders -- who inexplicably call him "Merv" -- when they asked him to run for chief.

Back when the Catawba Indian people called him "Duck" or even "Quack" because he was a self-described "chubby kid who looked like Donald Duck," Rodgers and his buddies would peek into the tribal meeting windows while the adults met at an old school.

"We wanted to see and hear everything," Rodgers said.

The adults would pass around what was called a talking stick, said executive committee member Butch Sanders, and take their turn addressing each other and the leadership. Then the elders would decide what to do.

"This can be a new day of reason," Sanders said.

Rodgers must deal with the serious issues of working on a new Constitution, looking at new York County and other state sites for bingo that the 1993 settlement with the state and federal government guarantees the tribe, and more. But first he must allow people to see him, and themselves, as working together.

He wants positive publicity for the tribe after years of negative.

Today, Rodgers will go to work at his regular job, then work running the tribe after work. He will work as chief on weekends, too, until he can be the chief full time.

"My people have entrusted me with a great responsibility," Rodgers said.

On Saturday, Rodgers was a credit counselor, husband and father. Today and next week he is an Indian chief. The phone will ring. Catawba people will want answers.