PERSPECTIVES ON THE CATAWBA INDIAN NATION IN 2003
by Thomas J. Blumer, Ph.D.
The Catawba Indian Nation is one of the few Southeastern Indian tribes to retain its ancient form of government. The Catawba, from the most ancient of times, have been ruled by its General Tribal Council. This group is most akin to the ancient Greek democracy. Today the Landesgeminde of the Swiss Forest Cantons may be looked at as a close parallel; however, the Catawba General Council from ancient times has been so democratic to include women in its ranks. Today the General Council consists of all enrolled Catawba men and women over the age of eighteen. When in session, the General Council governs the Nation by passing resolutions, approving tribal actions, and in general tending to all tribal business.
The Catawba first promulgated a written Constitution in 1944 upon the reception of Federal recognition. Though this constitution seemed a new document, it is very ancient. The age of its various acts and their concepts are totally unknown, but obviously date back to the far reaches of prehistory. Upon contact with Europeans in the 16th century, the first strangers to meet the Catawba mentioned Council Houses to which the Indians resorted to make decisions. Even in pre-Columbian times, the General Council consisted of all adult men and women. Catawba women were excluded from nothing including the position of chief, and even held the coveted rank of War Captain. All in attendance at a General Council meeting, by custom, were free to stand and address the Council on any issue of concern. This freedom of expression remains in today’s General Council, but the Indians are fighting a lonely struggle to restore democracy in their small tribal community.
While the Catawba lost most of their culture between the American Revolution and the present, the Indians have retained two highly important cultural treasures, for which the State of South Carolina can be proud of the Indians. The most obvious to the casual observer is the Catawba pottery tradition. It is certainly the oldest clay-based art form east of the Mississippi. Its Woodland Period of origin makes the Catawba tradition possibly older than that craft practiced by the famed Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. The other cultural treasure is not quite so easily perceptible to outsiders. It is the Catawba Indian Nation General Council and the tribalism which supports its functions. These two cultural treasures, the pottery and the General Council, have breathed life into the Catawba Indian Nation for unknown centuries. Without the two, the Catawba would cease to exist as a distinct community.
So important is the General Council that it remained in function during the fourteen years between Termination and reorganization. Soon after the Tribe reorganized in 1973, the General Council, free from any outside influence whatsoever, promulgated the Constitution of 1975. It remains in force today. Both constitutions are based on ancient tribal law. If the Catawba find it to their advantage to promulgate a constitution to replace that of 1975, it too with have ancient democratic roots.
According to the Settlement Act of 1993, the Catawba Indian Nation Constitution of 1975 would remain in effect until a new constitution was promulgated by the General Council. In 1994 the Director of the Eastern Area office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bill Ott, upon studying the Constitution of 1975, declared it could continue to serve the Catawba well for years to come with only a few general modifications. It was expected that the new constitution when drafted would reflect the constitutions of 1944 and 1975 and thus ancient Catawba tradition. That a new constitution has not been promulgated is not due to the General Council’s neglect. The fault lies with the anti-democratic Gilbert Blue Administration’s determination to retain power in perpetuity. The Gilbert Blue Administration’s goal has been the systematic fleecing of Catawba resources. As one of the Indians said to me years ago, “They won’t let go of the goose that lays the golden eggs.” It seems today that this dictatorial Administration has killed the goose and sold the feathers to the highest bidder.
Proof that the Gilbert Blue Administration has successfully robbed the Catawba Indian Nation of an unknown amount of money may be seen by looking into the figures of almost every Long House Department (the Long House is the official center of Catawba governmental activity). The most obvious source of financial information may be provided to the curious by the bingo figures submitted to the South Carolina Department of Revenue by the Gilbert Blue Administration. A quick review is provided by a Catawba Bingo Spread Sheet. When available, more will be said by the results of several ongoing investigations into the financial improprieties committed by Gilbert Blue and members of his Administration. The appended Spread Sheet shows that between 1997 and 2003, a total of $87 million was realized by the tribe. Of this amount, the Spread Sheet shows that a total of some $1.5 million came to the Tribe in profits. No one knows the fate of even this paltry $1.5 million. I use the term “paltry” because the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act demands that ALL of the profits from gambling of any kind go to tribal welfare.
In 1993, the Gilbert Blue Administration did make a feeble attempt to follow the constitutional demands outlined by the Settlement Act. A Constitution Committee was duly created to draft a new constitution. According to Catawba tribal demands, the ancient democratic form of government was crucial to the Catawba Indian Nation’s survival. Over the centuries, the Catawba have known no government other than absolute democracy. To a person, the committee members refused to abandon democratic principles taught them by the “old Indians.”
Instead of the absolute democracy required by ancient Catawba tradition, the Gilbert Blue Administration immediately discarded democratic tradition for an absolute dictatorship. This new form of government was not led by the intellect of Gilbert Blue but by a hired, not elected, tribal administrator Wanda George Warren. When Warren discovered that the Constitution Committee was dominated by ancient Catawba tradition, a force she did not respect, she disbanded the Constitution Committee and locked its members out of its working space. This crime against democratic thought process occurred soon after the Settlement Act of 1993 went into effect.
Once the tribal administrator felt she had killed and buried ancient Catawba democratic tradition, she was free to work out a new form of government which would exclude the Catawba people. This government would be free to pillage tribal funds of every sort imaginable, both Federal and State in origin. Her basic problem was that the ancient tradition remained a strong force among the Indians. Catawba tradition would not easily roll over and die for the Gilbert Blue Administration or its tribal administrator. Warren’s family had spent years denying their Catawba blood, and this fact helped set the stage for the Gilbert Blue Administration’s actions. Feeble attempts were made to use the General Council. These did not work. The democratic thought process begins to take shape in small children as they attend General Council meetings with their elders. As Indian youths they proudly watch their parents stand to speak in the General Council. To accomplish her goal, Wanda Warren had to circumvent the General Council, in effect put it on its historical shelf.
This was done in 1997 by the secret and illegal institution of the “Federal Charter of Incorporation” form of government. Federal Law states that any Native American tribe may resort to a Corporate Charter, but this may only be done with tribal approval. None was sought, because in the case of the Catawba Indian Nation, such approval needed by law to come from the General Council. It is interesting that the General Council did not learn of the Corporate Charter for over a year after the Gilbert Blue Administration secretly submitted the Charter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This document was illegally signed into force by Ada E. Deer, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, on September 8, 1997. Today it is thought that a member of Deer’s staff put the document on Ada Deer’s desk and said, “Here, sign this.” She signed it into law without proper tribal approval. The Indians have theories as to who committed this crime and put the Charter on Deer’s desk for her signature. I do not think it is appropriate to speculate on the identity of this person at this time. It is enough to say that the Corporate Charter form of government was never approved by the General Council and was kept secret from the General Council for as long as possible.
One of the primary results of the secretly and illegally promulgated “Corporate Charter” government was a top-secret bingo contract. The bingo manager Terry Collier holds this contract but refuses to present a copy to the traditionalist Catawba. As a result, no one knows the identities of those, Indian or non-Indian, who are benefiting from Catawba bingo. It is a known fact declared by the Gilbert Blue Administration that the tribe’s government has received few economic benefits from gambling. Federal law states that all profits except those paid to the manager and promoter are to go to tribal welfare. Something is wrong here.
During the early years when the Gilbert Blue Administration’s dictatorship was forming on the Catawba Reservation, the Indians made regular pleas for help. It is a sad comment on the democratic thought process in the United States that all Catawba pleas were ignored. The local Herald newspaper, traditionally a bastion of free speech in York County, South Carolina, turned a deaf ear to the cries of help coming from the Indians. Letters to the editor were suppressed. Staff writers who expressed any sympathy with the Indians’ plight were silenced. All news items published reflected and still echo the policies of the dictatorship established by the Gilbert Blue Administration. The truth could not be heard through the press in the entire York County area. The Indians have theories as to who is guilty of committing years of crimes against freedom of the press in York County. No one in the Herald leadership seems to understand that we live in the greatest democracy ever devised by mankind. At this time, I will not speculate on the identity of the person responsible for killing freedom of the press for the Catawba. It is enough to say that, as I write, the Herald continues to ignore freedoms enjoyed by all Americans when these freedoms apply to the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina.
Even officials of the United States turned a deaf ear to the Catawba cries for help. Letters written to Members of the United States Congress were systematically ignored. The Catawba General Council was left to its own meager resources at a time when democratic principles were being crushed into a layer of dictatorial mud. These crimes did not happen in Communist Eastern Europe or some Muslim nation in the Middle East. It happened in South Carolina, and only the Indians seemed aware of the crimes being committed against them by the Gilbert Blue Administration. In spite of the fact that all outside ears were deaf, the General Council remained firmly fixed in the hearts, minds and souls Catawba Indians.
Almost immediately after the illegal “Corporate Charter” form of Catawba government was established in secret, things started happening without the General Council’s knowledge. Land was bought and sold. From all appearances, the trust accounts were squandered, perhaps even stolen, by the Gilbert Blue Administration. Only 299 acres were added to the reservation while the Settlement Act of 1993 called for a 4,200 acre increase in reservation lands. This was done even though the Settlement Act required a regular schedule of reports and an annual audit. The only source of information for Tribal General Council members continue to be occasional notices in the Herald newspaper. The constant complaint heard from the Indians has been “we are told nothing unless it appears in the newspaper.” Only some business transactions have appeared in newspaper notices. The General Council has not received one report. Millions changed hands under the Gilbert Blue Administration. The financial records are such a mess that it has taken a team of auditor/investigators over a year, and they are far from finishing following a confused paper trail created by this Administration.
Today the Gilbert Blue Administration claims that the tribe has gone belly up financially because of South Carolina’s Lottery Law. If the records submitted to the South Carolina Department of Revenue Service by the Gilbert Blue Administration are examined, one does not have to be a certified accountant to see the truth. It is clear, no change in profits has been experienced by the Blue Administration as a result of the South Carolina Lottery Law. What has happened is that the Gilbert Blue Administration’s greed for money knows no bounds. The crimes committed by this Administration are legion, and we can only touch the surface here. For instance, while the Catawba were in the process of raking in over $87 million from the bingo operation located in Rock Hill, Catawba finances continued to fail.
The failure of the Catawba’s relationship with the Indian Health Service is a case in point. Many of the Catawba are very poor and work at minimum wage jobs with no benefits. The Gilbert Blue Administration is very aware of this fact. Gilbert Blue’s own family background attests to this sad reality. To make matters worse, the Catawba have unique health problems, not the least of which is diabetes of epidemic proportions. This disease can be monitored and controlled on a daily basis, but the process is expensive. Monitoring sugar intake on any schedule is impossible with the money earned by an Indian working at the minimum wage. In short, the Indian Health Service is crucial to the wellbeing of many Catawba Indians. The Gilbert Blue Administration is aware of this fact and has not shown any concern for needy tribal members. For instance, at one point the Administration was given a Indian Health Service grant for $450,000 to build a state-of-the-art health clinic on the reservation. This large sum of money evaporated. No clinic was constructed. On another occasion it was reported by Long House eyewitnesses that when other Indian Health Service money arrived, Wanda Warren snatched the check out of the Catawba Health Service Administrator’s hands saying the money was needed for salaries. Health service deteriorated.
Almost the first tragedy to be suffered by Catawba Health Service happened soon after the Settlement Act went into effect. Dental services were cancelled in spite of the fact that a tribal member is a practicing dentist and remains in the employ of the Gilbert Blue Administration. This individual reportedly lives in the lap of luxury on tribal money in one of York County’s premier neighborhoods. Tribal dental service has long been a thing of the past.
The result of this mismanagement is that the Indian Health Service has taken over Catawba health benefits. The Gilbert Blue Administration is obviously cannot be trusted in the handling of money with any degree of honesty. The secrecy initiated by the “Corporate Charter” form of government has fostered this mismanagement – in reality embezzlement – and has allowed it to reach monumental proportions. If the Gilbert Blue Administrate had not nullified the General Council’s right to monitor tribal monies, this pillage of tribal funds never would have happened. The Constitution of 1975 contains the necessary checks and balances, but these have been nullified by the Gilbert Blue Administration.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) unfortunately became the primary cause of much of the financial anarchy which reigns supreme in the Gilbert Blue Administration. However, the BIA has also pulled the plug on funds allotted for its programs. In the future the BIA will provide on-site monitoring of all financial matters relating to its grants. In the meantime, the Indians stand bewildered and wonder who to trust, if anyone. They obviously do not have confidence in the Gilbert Blue Administration. I keep hearing the Indians say, “If I stole $15.00 I’d be under the jail, and this Administration has stolen millions of our money;” or “They have given us a bad name when the Long House refuses to pay bills while Gilbert Blue and his friends go on expensive pleasure trips outside of South Carolina;” and “When will this nightmare end?”
The Catawba are making a valiant effort to turn a very bad situation into a good one. Thankfully the Traditionalist Faction founded by Samuel Beck during the Termination Period is very much alive and working to set things right. The traditionalist Indians have fought the Gilbert Blue Administration from the very beginning. At the times called for by Catawba Law, times demanded by the Constitution of 1975, the Indians have held General Council meetings. The Gilbert Blue Administration has acted like a true Third World Dictatorship. Gilbert Blue has consistently refused to allow the Indians to use the Long House, a building paid for with their own hard earned money. According to Gilbert Blue, the Indians do not have the right of public assembly. Meetings, democratically called assemblies, have been held, by force from the Blue Administration, in the Long House parking lot in the extreme heat of the South Carolina sun. Other meetings have been conducted in the York County Law Center. The last meeting held in July of 2003 was held in the Catawba Civic Center. This shelter from the sun only occurred because the Indian who leases the building for a child daycare purposes had compassion and provided keys to the Center. The elderly were saved from roasting in the sun and risking possible sunstroke. The heartless Gilbert Blue Administration wants to maintain its dictatorship and has closed all Catawba tribal buildings to the Indians who built them. As an Indian told me years ago, and as I hear repeated from time to time, “Tom, They will not let go of the goose that lays the golden eggs. They are heartless.”
Working against tremendous odds, the General Council called for tribal elections in September of 2002. It was the first election since the Settlement Act of 1993 went into effect. During this period, the State of South Carolina elected several governors and the United States had presidential elections every four years. The Gilbert Blue Administration lives on in dictatorial fashion, and has prevented all elections called for by the Constitution of 1975. In the summer of 2002, a full slate of Catawba Indians was nominated for chief, assistant chief, secretary/treasurer and two positions of councilmen. The election was appropriately held by secret ballot. It was democratically open to any Catawba tribal member who wished to run for office. All Catawba over the age of eighteen were encouraged to vote. No one in the Gilbert Blue Administration ran for office though they were free to participate. Gilbert Blue did not try to retain his position as chief. Democratic institutions are far from the dictatorial thinking of the Gilbert Blue Administration. Tribal employees were threatened with firing from their jobs if they exercised their sacred right to vote. Those who live in tribally owned housing were threatened with the loss of a roof over their heads if they voted. In spite of these very real intimidations, something unheard of in the United States, the Catawba Indians voted in record numbers.
All of those elected are from the Traditionalist Faction. Elected Chief William Harris is the grandson of Chief Douglas Harris and the great grandson of Chief James Harris. Heyward Jack Canty is the new assistant chief. He comes from a family with long traditionalist support. Samuel M. Beck is the new secretary/treasurer. He is the son of Samuel Beck who founded the traditionalist faction in the 1950s and who was secretary/treasurer for many years. The position of first councilman is held by E. Fred Sanders, the son of the Chief John Idle Sanders and the celebrated Catawba potter Arzada Sanders. The position of second councilman is held by Gene Blue, the son of much honored Catawba potter Doris Wheelock Blue. All these newly elected members of the Catawba Executive Committee are traditionalists who are determined to see financial honesty return to the Catawba Indian Nation and the exercise of democratic freedoms a regular part of life in the community.
The results of this legal election held in compliance with the Constitution of 1975 are not pretty when one studies the reaction of the Gilbert Blue Administration. The Executive Committee under Gilbert Blue has refused to vacate the Long House. The BIA, afraid of its complicity in the anti-democratic actions of the Gilbert Blue Administration, is standing on the sidelines waiting for something to happen. As a result, the Catawba Indian Nation has dual government, a situation the fumbling BIA could end with the stroke of a pen, an act no BIA bureaucrat is brave enough to do. The Gilbert Blue Administration, an illegal dictatorship, remains in control of what little of Catawba resources are left after years of squandering and outright embezzlement. It is apparent that only gambling resources remain at the disposal of the Gilbert Blue Administration. Today, Gilbert Blue must expand this money resource to stay in power. Additional gaming facilities are the answer, since all other funding has been cut off.
“Perspectives on the Catawba Indian Nation in 2003” does not pretend to outline all of the social, economic and other crimes committed by the Gilbert Blue Administration. Mammoth crimes have been committed against those civil rights enjoyed, taken for granted, by all Americans. What we have endeavored to produce here is a review of what has happened to the ancient, absolute democracy practiced by the Catawba Indians from time immemorial until 1993. The Catawba Indians need help in restoring democracy in their small but historically important South Carolina tribe of unknown antiquity. They must be free to vote, free to run for tribal office, without fear of loosing their homes and jobs. The Indian Health Service was created by the United States Congress many years ago. Native American health concerns are real and have been brutally neglected by the Gilbert Blue Administration. While a large portion of our population remains concerned about the morality of gambling of any sort, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was promulgated by the United States Congress to help American Indians get on their feet economically. Indians who are opposed to gambling have hoped the economic benefits would be realized by the Catawba Indian Nation. This has not happened. The Gilbert Blue Administration has turned the tribe’s bingo profits over to a secret group of non-Indians who appear to have mob connections. A handful of Gilbert Blue Administration flunkies who live the good life seem to have enjoyed the benefits of mismanagement and outright embezzlement . Catawba Indians who need assistance suffer. This fact is criminal. The results may be calculated with ease. The benefits of the Settlement Act of 1993 have been squandered on every front. While the United States defends democracy in a world-wide field of action, while American men and women die daily in the Middle East in an attempt to make the world safe for democratic peoples, the democratic process has been killed in a small Indian community in South Carolina. It is time for a rescue, not across the seas but right here in America.