Skip to main content

Two women become first to hold elected office in Catawba tribe

  • Author:
  • Updated:

ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) - Melissa Funderburk and Leigh Anne Bickett hope their precedent-setting election will help them lead the Catawba Indian Nation back to its foundations.

The pair became the first Catawba women to win an elected office when they won seats on the tribe's executive committee July 21.

They join new chief Donald Rodgers, assistant chief Gene Blue, secretary/treasurer Jason Harris and fellow committee members Butch Sanders and John Williford as the top decision-makers for the tribe.

One woman - Frances Wade - served on the committee in 1973, but she was appointed to the office.

Tribal historians claim a group of women once made key decisions and the chief was a figurehead. But European settlers moving into the Carolinas 400 years ago refused to trade or conduct affairs with Catawba women.

''They [Catawba women] saw that the Europeans wouldn't work with us,'' Funderburk said. ''In order to sustain ourselves and survive, we had to put our men at the table to negotiate.''

Since then, men have dominated politics for the Catawbas, the state's only federally recognized Indian tribe.

''It just proves that our tribe is moving with the times. It's a wonderful way to say, 'Women don't just cook and clean anymore. They're running our tribe,''' said Bickett, a housing manager for ISWA Development, the tribe's housing company. ''I'm very honored, and I'm up for the challenge to work with all these men.''

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Rodgers said Funderburk and Bickett, a Chester resident who is the only committee member not living on or near the reservation, will bring balance to the decision-making.

''After European contact, the men went out and did things on their own,'' he said. ''Unfortunately, sometimes it was to their own detriment.''

Funderburk, 37, is program director for the early childhood education program Catawba Head Start. She also is a former social services worker on the reservation.

''I'm honored that so many people have put their confidence in me,'' she said. ''I think people respect me and expect me to do good things here. I've walked the talk.''

The tribe faces many challenges, particularly finding ways to make up for lost income in its bingo operations since the state began running a lottery.

''Everybody thinks I'm crazy for taking this on,'' Funderburk said. ''But I have a lot of love and compassion for my people, and I obtained an education in order to help my people.''

Bickett said changes are on the way, including operating more in public view.

''Our tribe has been in disarray for so long. We want to build trust in this new group,'' she said. ''It's gonna take all seven of us working as a team to bring peace. We no longer have to be behind closed doors.''