Tribal leader elected

CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION, S.C. - A 39-year-old who grew up on the reservation has been elected chief of the Catawba Indian Nation - the first new chief in almost 35 years.


"I could just feel the relief, but also the weight of responsibility," Donald Rogers said Sunday afternoon after an all-night vote-counting session. "It was almost symbolic because I feel like this is a new day for our people."

Election supervisor Steve Rast said Mr. Rodgers, a counselor for Alliance Credit in Charlotte, N.C., had 260 votes.

That was enough to win out over three other candidates, including Buck George, who decided to run for chief after 36 years as assistant chief.

Mr. George, who helped the tribe negotiate a settlement with the federal government in 1993, said the newcomers will have their hands full.

Mr. Rodgers is the first chief elected since Gilbert Blue won the position in 1973.

"Gilbert did a good job for the time he was there," Mr. Rodgers said. "But it's time for a change."

Mr. Blue resigned in March amid criticism about the way the tribe's finances and other issues were being handled.

"I grew up on the reservation, and I have a great love for all these folks," Mr. Rodgers said. "We need to forget about all the bickering and fighting. The only thing that matters about the past is our heritage."

Mr. Rodgers says he plans to hold an open meeting of the general council Aug. 4, to hear from tribe members before tackling some issues facing the nation.

"This is not 'The Donald Rodgers Show,'" he said. "This is the 'We' show. Big decisions like casinos, bingo, land purchases and changes to the constitution, those need to go before the people."

In other election results, Gene Blue was elected assistant chief with 253 votes and Jason Harris, a former member of the executive committee, was elected secretary/treasurer with 393 votes, Mr. Rast said.

Four at-large candidates were elected to the executive committee. Melissa Funderburk, Butch Sanders, Leigh Anne Bickett and John Williford were the top four out of a six-candidate field, Mr. Rast said.

An amended constitution failed with 314 votes against compared with 295 in favor.

Mr. Rast said a total of 642 mostly mail-in ballots were cast.

Almost 1,800 Catawbas nationwide, out of 2,600 total tribe members, were eligible to vote, he said.

Mr. Rast, chairman of the York County Election Board, was hired by the Catawbas as an election consultant.

Handwritten ballots were read one at a time and the vote tally was observed by an election board appointed by the Catawba executive committee.

"Last night proves that even with our differences we can come together, laugh, have fun and move forward," Mr. Rodgers said. "This is an exciting time for our people."