A New Catawba Tribal Constitution

by Cynthia Walsh, J.D.

Catawba from the James and Elizabeth Patterson Catawba lines -- denied enrollment by Chief Gilbert Blue though his grandfather, Chief Sam Blue stated my mother Viola E. (Patterson) Garcia belongs to the Catawba Nation via a federal historic document dated 1937 which is a Certificate of Indian Blood

Now that the federal court action has motivated the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move the Catawba roll process along, the BIA and the Catawba Executive Committee Members will no doubt at long last “permit” the citizens of the Catawba Nation to consider a new tribal constitution. It is amazing that the BIA has been able to rush to publication the Catawba membership rolls on which they have been holding back for years. For example, the Proposed Final Membership Roll, according to Franklin Keel (Director, Eastern Regional BIA Office), has been in the possession of the BIA since November, 1994 -- interesting since this is the same month and year that the Base Membership Roll was published, asking folks to see if their names were or were not on this roll so that corrections could be made on the next publication the Proposed Final Membership Roll. That means that for over six years the BIA failed to publish the Proposed Final Membership Roll until the federal judge in South Carolina began to make legal inquiries of the BIA. Suddenly, the BIA dusted off this old, retained document and published it. This of course moved the roll process to finalization with of course its full range of legal defects.

Of course the court did not compel the BIA to publish the Proposed Final Membership Roll that it held in its possession since November, 1994, but just the interest of a federal judge to ask, “Why haven't you published the Proposed Final Membership Roll?” did the trick. The requests from the Catawba citizenry and other interested individuals never had such an impact upon the BIA. It is clear that the Catawba people should give the federal judge in South Carolina praise for moving a stonewall known as the BIA into action.

But of course a new constitution could have been voted upon even without a new and final Catawba tribal membership roll. The claims that a constitution and elections cannot be done without a final roll is totally absurd. Be that as it may, the Final Membership Roll has been published and will now face legal challenges because of its defects, and now the rumors are that a “new constitution” exists and will be shown at long last to the Catawba people.

Deciding upon a new constitution is an important event in which all members of the community need to have had the opportunity to participate in developing. A poorly written constitution can bring ill tidings to an Indian community. A constitution that is written without the full participation of the tribal membership universally brings generations of horrific problems to the people and the governing bodies of the Indian nation.

There are rumors that a “new” constitution has already been written without the full participation of the Catawba People. Such rumors are frightening because of the concerns of the content of such a document.

I would like to suggest that when this “new” constitution is at long last dusted off from its years in storage and presented as the “must have” constitution, the Catawba people realize that there are other options available to them than this particular “new” document. First, remember that the current constitution can be kept in place forever. Second, the current constitution can be voted to be kept in place, and at a future time when the entire membership has had an opportunity to participate in the development of a new document, then this new constitution can be voted upon. Third, of course, is the possibility of voting for the existing “new” constitution which the tribal members have never seen before and in which only a select few individuals have had the opportunity to create.

So how does a tribal nation develop a new constitution -- through working meetings as were once held on the Catawba Nation until this working committee was ordered to be disbanded by those in political power. One can hire out this work to professional Indian organizations or Indian law professors who specialize in such work. Or a combination of such efforts can be done.

Just remember -- a tribal constitution is a very important document. Each member of that Indian community has a right to fully participate. If YOU have not done so, please, don't simply accept a document in which others have told you it is good for you. You have the power in your hands to shape the destiny of the Catawba Nation. The future of Catawbas rests in your hands. This is a heritage that you will pass on to your children, grandchildren and generations of your line to come. Will these generations look back to their ancestors with pride and or contempt? The choice, of course, is up to you.

Contact other tribal governments which have constitutions. The Cherokee in Eastern Oklahoma is an excellent source of information as they re-write their constitution on a regular basis. Currently they are going through such a development process in which they have community representatives to work regularly on their new document created by all the Cherokee people to be voted upon by the Cherokees. This is how the process should be done.

Your comments and feedback is welcome. Contact webmaster@catawba-people.com