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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Thomas "Butch" Cornelious Sanders loved to share his culture with others and was a shining light for many.

His second oldest child, Deborah “Jeannie” Sanders, said his smile was contagious.

“He always, no matter what was going on, had a smile on his face when he greeted someone or even if you were having a bad day,” she said.

Butch, Catawba Indian Nation, died Nov. 21 from COVID-19 complications at the age of 74. He is survived by four children, three grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

He was born in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and served nine years on the tribe’s executive committee and on the housing board.

“He always had a smile on his face and was known for being an advocate for the tribe,” the tribe said on its Facebook page. “This is an unimaginable loss and to say he will be missed is a huge understatement.”

Jeannie said her father would hear what a person had to say and work with them as part of his executive committee duties.

“He never picked and chose who he would help or who he would stand with; he always tried to be fair,” Jeannie said.

She added that he got involved with the Catawba Indian Nation’s government because of his pride for the tribe and to leave a lasting legacy for his descendants.

“His grandkids, his great grandkids would be able to know that we still had a tribe, that we were still here,” Jeannie said.

She said that the Catawba Indian Nation’s Two Kings Casino project will be dedicated in his memory.

His granddaughter, Cheyenne “Donnie” Sanders Drakeford, who was adopted by Butch, said “he just loved helping his tribe. He just wanted to see our tribe grow and to be better for our people.”

Sanders was also a committed family man and enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren.

“He loved going on vacations with us anytime we went anywhere,” Cheyenne said. 

Thomas "Butch" Sanders with his family. Photo Courtesy of Deborah "Jeannie" Sanders.

Butch played golf, pool and particularly liked to play softball in his free time for Bailey’s Gulf. He also taught Cheyenne how to play.

“He would teach me the things that he already knew when I was growing up. He would help me with pitching and stuff,” she said.

Cheyenne said they used to live next to the Catawba Cultural Center and when it was closed, visitors often asked Butch how to get to the nature trails that run through the reservation.

“He would take them down and show them where the trail starts. And he would talk to them about our people, any questions that strangers had,” she said.

Battle with COVID-19

In early November, Sanders tested positive for COVID-19. He already dealt with pre-existing conditions like asbestos in his lungs and diabetes.

He stayed at the Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill for about three weeks.

On Nov. 21, about 30 to 40 tribal citizens, including his grandchildren, went to the hospital's parking lot and danced for him.

“We were trying to do a healing dance for him, but it kind of was like a last goodbye,” Jeannie said.

They filmed a video for Facebook Live and showed him their support over the phone.

“He could hear everything that we were saying...he was just telling them into the phone over and over, ‘I love ya’ll, I’ll see ya’ll soon’,” Cheyenne said.

He died that day after multiple heart congestive failure and loss of oxygen to his brain.

Cheyenne said the family doesn’t know how he contracted the virus.

Thomas "Butch" Sanders with his family. Photo Courtesy of Deborah "Jeannie" Sanders.

Cheyenne remembers a time when her family lived with Butch temporarily, and she would come home in the afternoon and see him sitting on the floor, teaching his grandchildren the Catawba language.

“He didn’t know a lot of the language, he only knew a few words, she said. “But with the kids learning it at school and everything, he would always want them to come in and count for him in Catawba. They would pull up powwow videos...and they would dance around in the living room.”

Jeannie said that their father made a real effort to have them know about their culture, and it was a gift they greatly appreciated.

“He wanted to make a lasting impression on us to love our tribe as much as he did,” she said.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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