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New Catawba leader faces uphill climb

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CATAWBA INDIAN RESERVATION, S.C. - Chief Donald Rodgers, newly elected leader of the Catawba Indian Nation, said his tribe is at the bottom of a hill but beginning to climb up.

''I see us starting to get up that hill,'' he said recently. ''We made it out of that rut. We've got to climb that hill.''

In tribal general elections held July 21, Rodgers - the great-great-grandson of former Chief Ben Harris - was elected, beating three other candidates. Rodgers has always lived in the area.

''I was born in the city of Rock Hill, in the old York County Hospital,'' said Rodgers, 39 and the father of three children. He lived with his family in the city until he was 4, when his mother, a Catawba, was given land on the reservation and they moved to live there. For 32 years, he lived on the reservation. Only during the last three years did he live in another part of the county. He has since returned to live on the reservation.

He graduated from the local high school. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he served a two-year mission in Santa Rosa, Calif. After he returned, he worked for the York County Museum, advancing to a supervisory position after 16 years. He also worked as the program director for the tribal cultural center. He sang with a drum group from the center.

When he graduated from York Technical College three years ago, he went to work for a credit counseling company in Charlotte, N.C. He resigned when he became chief of the tribe. Recently, Rodgers was an emcee for Catawba pow wows.

Faced with issues like rebuilding the tribal government, unifying a divided membership and re-establishing the tribal bingo hall, he felt that he is not alone at the top.

''We've got to make these people understand that, we new folks, on the block,'' he said. ''We're the new guys. There was a reference before, they, they, they. They ain't us. They were then. We are we. We're not the old folks who were here.''

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Rodgers explained that he was there to listen. ''We're here to be open,'' he said. ''We're going to be honest. My door will be open.'' But there will be times when he needs to shut his door for confidential business, he explained.

He compared his tribe's dilemma to water stagnation in the nearby Catawba River: ''Our people are just like the river that has been stagnated. We just have not progressed. We've got to move that dam out of the way and start flowing again, so we can get our waters running and purified.''

Rodgers laughed at the tribal financial situation that he inherited. ''You can't do nothing with nothing,'' he said. He said he hoped the Bush administration will soon release funding through Public Law 93-638, the Indian Self-Determination Act. The funds have been approved for this year, he said.

''We have the commitment. The 638 funds are coming. At what point, we don't know,'' he said. He hoped the administration will not wait until October, the beginning of the 2008 fiscal year, to release the funds.

About three years ago, the BIA cut off funding because of improper accounting. Rodgers said that during the past two years, audits of tribal expenses came clean. ''With that in mind,'' he said, ''We're going to have funds that will give us the opportunity to provide services for our people, which we need.'' The tribe has some grant-funded programs to run, plus some income from tribal utilities.

In addition to regaining federal funds, Rodgers wanted to welcome back tribal members who became disenchanted with the previous leadership. He felt that he needed their help with future decisions, including those for the new location of a tribal bingo, payments to local school districts for the education of reservation children, retaining tribal lawyers, and a court decision on video poker that is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.

These decisions will not be his alone, Rodgers said. ''It's not going to be my decision; it's going to be our decision.''

He felt that he had good support to accomplish his goals. He said, ''Except for the assistant chief, everybody has overwhelming support here.'' The assistant chief won by only 13 votes: ''That's a close call, real close.'' The rest won with good margins, he said.

Elected with Rodgers were Assistant Chief Gene Blue, Secretary/Treasurer Jason Harris, and councilmen Melissa Funderburk, Butch Sanders, Leigh Anne Bickett and John Williford.