Longtime Tribal Leader, Fred Sanders, passed away at 87

Fred Sanders, a former vice chief for the Catawba Indian Nation and an ardent supporter of Native American rights, died Thursday at the age of 87 after a battle with cancer.

Early Fred Sanders was a leading figure in the Catawba nation’s protracted fight for federal recognition, which was realized in a 1993 settlement with local, state and federal governments. He served as vice-chief of the York County-based tribe for two decades, working closely through two different administrations.

Sanders remained active in tribal leadership into his late 80s, serving as a member of the tribe’s executive committee after retiring as vice-chief in the early 1990s.

Sanders recalled tough times growing up on the reservation in an autobiographical account published in a 1999 tribal newsletter.

It wasn’t until he was 18 and enlisted in the army in September 1944 that he “was exposed to different races and classes of people,” had “three consistently scheduled mealtimes,” and indoor plumbing.

“It opened up for me an understanding of the world outside the reservation,” Sanders wrote of his service, noting that he faced discrimination and racial slurs while he served and could not vote when he returned to the U.S. in 1948.

He lived briefly in Utah before returning to South Carolina in the 1960s, where he would become involved in tribal politics. He later faced opposition from some tribal leadership when Catawba voting practices were legally challenged.

Sanders worked closely with Bill Harris, the current Catawba Indian chief, to improve living conditions and opportunities for tribe members, pushing for greater Native American rights and for the tribe itself.

“We were working from the outside trying to get change,” Harris said. “Fred was a person who was able to see two sides to every situation.”

Brent Burgin, director of the archives at University of South Carolina at Lancaster, called Sanders a “ consummate politician,” adding that “he never stopped, he was on the go the whole time.”

Burgin worked with Sanders to curate the state’s largest collection of archival documents created by a Native American. Sanders gathered 40 years worth of legal, federal and state documents that shed light on tribal politics and history for USC-Lancaster’s Native American Studies Archive.

Sanders played a large role in the Catawba Indian Nation’s battle to regain federal recognition, which began in 1973 after the tribe’s federal status was terminated in 1959. The nation settled its land claims with federal, state and local governments in 1993, giving up rights to portions of land in the state, but regaining federal status along with an economic development grant.

The Catawba Indian Nation remains the state’s sole federally recognized tribe with close to 3,000 members.

But the deal that the nation brokered wasn’t ideal for Sanders. “He basically felt it was a flawed deal, he thought the Catawba could have gotten a better deal,” Burgin said.

Harris said Sanders considered the “limited” agreement “a blessing and a curse,” and was constantly vouching for greater self-rule such as the nation’s rights to operate its own police force. The tribe is currently locked in a legal battle with the state over gaming rights to operate a casino in York County.

A graveside service will be held in the cemetery behind the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, Catawba Ward, at 3 p.m. Tuesday.