Former Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue, who fought for tribe’s state and national recognition, has died

Chief Gilbert Blue, pictured here in 1996, was chief for more than 30 years.
Chief Gilbert Blue, pictured here in 1996, was chief for more than 30 years. CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

Gilbert Blue, the legendary former Catawba Indian Chief who was the driving force behind the tribe getting recognition by the United States government and South Carolina, died Saturday. He was 82.

Tribal spokesperson Elizabeth Harris confirmed Blue’s passing late Saturday. Harris said that Blue had been diagnosed with mesothelioma, according to his family, who was with him when he died at the reservation.

The Catawbas, with a reservation in York County, are the native inhabitants of the Piedmont region of the Carolinas and have been in the area for millennia. Yet when Blue took over in 1973, the tribe was in disarray. Through Blue’s forceful leadership and strength in dealing with both state and federal governments, the tribe gained recognition status in 1993 with its landmark land settlement.

Blue is recognized throughout South Carolina and America for saving the tribe during a time of poverty and dissent after decades of struggle. The tribe is South Carolina’s only federally-recognized Native American group.

Blue was a U.S. Navy veteran whose patriotism for America, and his people, was reknowned throughout South Carolina.

“Gilbert Blue was a Catawba statesman, a legend,” said Dr. Wenonah Haire, executive director of the Catawba Cultural Center. “He, for so long, was simply Chief Blue.”

Blue was chief from 1973 through 2007, when he decided to retire from office. He was the negotiator and tribal leader who fought to get the land grant settlement and other concessions for tribal members.

Blue and former U.S. Rep. John Spratt spent more than a decade working out the settlement after the Catawbas filed lawsuits claiming that hundreds of thousands of acres in York County and North Carolina were tribal lands. The tribe settled for $50 million in 1993 and has its 144,000-acre reservation in eastern York County that remains a cultural, social and political jewel.

“Today the Catawba Nation mourns the loss of former Chief Gilbert Blue,” said current Catawba Chief Bill Harris in a written statement. “The tribe will forever owe a debt of gratitude to Chief Gilbert Blue for his leadership in paving the way to our 1993 Federal recognition and the changes that created for the tribe.

“Gilbert will always be known for his friendly smile and love of music. You could still find him playing his guitar and singing at tribal events, even after he left office. His loss will be felt throughout the tribe, but his contributions will never be forgotten.”

Blue, more than any modern Catawba, brought the tribe into the modern era with his leadership, grace, and knowledge, said those who knew him. He also was an accomplished bluegrass singer and musician whose folksy wit, humor, and charm were legendary as far as Washington, D.C.

Blue met several presidents, but one of the most notable encounters was a comfortable meeting with former President Bill Clinton while he was holding his annual Thanksgiving feast and program at Oakdale Elementary School in Rock Hill, near the reservation.

Spratt, the former congressman, was saddened by the death of Blue, who he had known for 40 years.

“In the Bicentennial of 1976, I was invited to smoke a peace pipe with Gilbert Blue, Chief of the Catawba Tribe,” Spratt said. “I will never forget how it tasted or the impression Gilbert Blue made on me on that hot summer day. Gilbert Blue was a Native American and a natural leader.

“At a time when many Catawba were struggling to survive, he led his tribe to federal recognition and what amounted to victory in the federal courts. Native American law can be arcane, but I never took part in negotiations where I doubted Gilbert Blue’s grasp of all that was going on. He was not just knowledgeable but keenly intelligent, a good speaker and a great story teller. Gilbert Blue was one of those rare leaders who made a real difference. What he accomplished will live long after him, and those of us who knew him and were fortunate enough to call him a friend will never forget him and all that we still owe Native Americans.”

Blue played the guitar and was an advocate for Catawba pottery, made from the clay the tribe has dug from the Catawba River’s banks for at least three centuries. The pottery is in museums and galleries and homes of collectors around the world.

The pottery helps remind the tribe’s members who they are, Blue told The (Rock Hill) Herald in 2007. Blue also served for several years on the advisory committee for the South Carolina Folk Heritage Award, given annually by the General Assembly to individuals who have demonstrated excellence in folk art or have been diligent in promoting folk art.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

With State staff reports