Former SC chief justice at late Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue’s funeral: ‘It was an honor to know him’

Chris Blue receives the flag from his father’s casket as former Catawba Nation Chief Gilbert Blue is laid to rest Wednesday.
Chris Blue receives the flag from his father’s casket as former Catawba Nation Chief Gilbert Blue is laid to rest Wednesday. Special to The Herald

There can be only one chief. At any given time – just as America has a single president, South Carolina has a single governor – the Catawba Indian Nation and its reservation in eastern York County can have only one chief.

The man called “Chief” for 34 years, Gilbert Blue, was buried Wednesday. For generations of Catawba Indians, and to presidents and little kids, he was simply “Chief Blue.”

Chief Gilbert Blue, leader of the tribe from 1973 until he retired in 2007, was a U.S. Navy veteran who lost a battle with mesothelioma Saturday.

At the graveside after the simple and jam-packed Mormon funeral at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the reservation, a sudden rainstorm pushed in. Most people did not even flinch. Gilbert Blue was more important than rain.

Among them was a woman who stood straight as a flagpole. Her shoes got wet, and her clothes and her hair. She never flinched.

Her name is Jean Toal, and she just retired a few months ago from her job as the chief justice of the S.C. Supreme Court. But before that, Toal was one of the lawyers for the tribe who fought for equality for the Catawba Indians.

“Gilbert Blue was a great man, a great leader,” Justice Toal said. “It has been an honor to be part of this great Catawba family for all these decades.”

Toal chuckled as she was asked why she stood in the rain. There was never any doubt she would stand until she was soaked. She stood because she knew, respected and loved Gilbert Blue, who modernized – and for many, saved – the Catawba tribe.

“It was an honor to know him,” Justice Toal said.

Gilbert Blue’s shadow is the longest in the history of the tribe, whose people have lived on the lands adjoining the Catawba River in York County since there were humans in North America. Blue negotiated the 1993 settlement with the federal and state governments that brought the tribe from poverty and disarray into the modern social, political and educational era.

Before, during and after the funeral and at the graveside, people said the name “Chief Blue.” The elders, the men and women, the teens and the kids. Gilbert Blue was a bluegrass-singing, guitar-picking, cowboy-hat-wearing man who was larger than life. His hat for so long, and he wore it when he signed treaties and settlements, when he met former President Bill Clinton and when he entertained kids, simply said “Chief Blue.”

At the graveside, Carson Blue, who served on the tribal executive committee with Chief Blue, said simply: “Chief Blue was a great man. For the Catawba, he was our greatest leader.”

Monty Branham, a Catawba cultural elder, played a song on a Catawba instrument, a pipe similar to a recorder. It was called “Iswa” – God’s Flowing River.

The Catawba River flows nearby.

The river and the tribe named Catawba, on the day the spirit of the tribe’s greatest leader was felt by all.