Big election for Catawbas

Whatever the results of Saturday's Catawba tribal elections, the event is likely to be a momentous one for the tribe's future.

Most significantly, the Catawbas will select a new chief to replace Gilbert Blue, who led the tribe for nearly 40 years. Blue stepped down in March, surprising tribal members and opening the door to the election of a new chief.

Four candidates -- Timothy "Dean" Canty, Buck George, Bill Harris and Donald Rodgers -- are vying for the post. The tribe also will elect an assistant chief, secretary-treasurer and executive committee members.

In recent years, the tribe has split into two factions, one supporting Blue and other long-time tribal leaders, the other upset at the way tribal affairs have been run since the settlement of the Catawba land dispute in 1993. That settlement resulted in both federal sovereignty for the tribe and $50 million in reparations to expand the reservation and pay for health and educational benefits for members.

In a very real sense, the settlement represented the rebirth of the tribe. But it also spawned bitter feuds and questions about how and where the settlement money was spent.

We hope that whoever becomes chief will find a way to reconcile those disagreements, imbue the tribe with new purpose and move forward. The rift between dissenters and the old guard must be healed if the tribe is to prosper.

Representatives of both groups are to be found on the slate of candidates. And both hope to emerge victorious when the votes are counted. But we hope that the declaration of winners will be the beginning of the end of acrimony and that winners will reach out to the opposing side.

Tribal officials also are pursuing a new bingo operation in Marion County on U.S. 501 along a popular route to Myrtle Beach. The new bingo hall would be built on a 200-acre site that also could feature a casino, an RV park, an equestrian arena, a hotel and an active-adult retirement center.

This could provide new economic opportunities for the tribe and, along with the election of new leadership, a fresh start. We hope this new start will include a more participatory style of leadership, in which members have a larger voice and leaders are more accessible to them.

And, finally, we hope that this weekend's elections are conducted fairly and openly, and that all will be able to abide by the results. In short, let these elections mark the end of the rancor and the beginning of a stronger, unified Catawba Indian Nation.