Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Catawba fight for economic survival

Tribal Affairs

South Carolina’s Resilient Native People, the Catawba, Fight for Economic Survival (excerpt)


The irony isn’t lost on Donald Rodgers. Dressed this day in a polo shirt, slacks and running shoes, the professional credit counselor is just weeks into his new mandate - and no doubt the greatest vocational challenge of his life: to lead his people out of a wilderness of near financial ruin, lawsuits, mismanagement and internecine conflict.

Last month Rodgers was elected chief of the Catawba Nation of South Carolina, the state’s only federally recognized Native American tribe. He succeeded the embattled Gilbert Blue, who resigned under pressure last March after a 34-year tenure that began during the Nixon administration.

Rodgers understands the job won’t be easy, citing “backbone” as an essential asset for a tribal chief.

“I knew this was going to be a tough ride,” he says.

Several years ago the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs suspended the Catawba’s approximate $1.5 million annual federal grant, pending a long overdue audit of its financial records. And earlier this year, its Rock Hill bingo operation, the tribe’s other major source of income, was shut down.

The financial bind is so dire, there’s no money to pay Rodgers’ salary. He supplements a small tribal stipend by continuing to work part-time at Charlotte’s Alliance Credit while his wife has taken a job as a dental assistant to help support the family’s three children.

There does appear to be some light at the end of this dark fiscal tunnel, however. BIA has agreed to reinstate the Catawba’s grant - probably by this fall - and a consultant is working with the tribe to update its bookkeeping practices.

Meanwhile, the new chief is concentrating on healing deep-seated internal strife. Division between supporters and critics of Blue’s administration that Rodgers compares to the legendary Hatfields and McCoys dispute became so hostile that deputies from the York County Sheriff’s Office were assigned to maintain order at Catawba tribal meetings.

And there are even thornier issues awaiting the new leadership, including the need to provide for the long-term economic survival of the Catawba. This could depend on the settlement of a lawsuit against the state of South Carolina currently before the U.S. Supreme Court. On an even more basic level is the tribe’s struggle to preserve its self-determination in a dominant culture often indifferent to its right to exist.

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