The Carolinas’ two biggest Indian tribes are locked in battle over a proposed Charlotte-area casino, reigniting a feud over centuries-old land claims, Vegas-style gambling and big money.
At stake — a piece of the $32 billion Indian gaming industry.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has introduced a bill that would authorize the Interior department to clear the way for the Catawba Nation to acquire 16 acres near Kings Mountain for a casino complex that was first proposed in 2013. GOP Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina are co-sponsors.
Supporters say the project would mean 4,000 jobs and bring an annual economic impact of $350 million to Cleveland County, 35 miles west of Charlotte.
But the Eastern Band of the Cherokees, which has operated its own casino in western North Carolina since 1997, calls the attempt unprecedented, and “nothing more than a modern-day land grab.”
“This comes back to the issue of aboriginal homeland and one tribe migrating into another’s homeland,” Principal Chief Richard Sneed told the Observer. “This ignores volumes of federal policy and federal law.”
The Catawbas say they’re within their rights.
“It is sad that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is trying to enforce a state border on another tribe when, like us, they were here long before state borders existed,” says tribal administrator Elizabeth Harris. “The Eastern Band . . . is simply trying to protect their own economic interests based on inaccurate historical information.”
The stakes on both sides are high.
“It’s a billion dollar industry,” says Kathryn Fort, director of the Indian Law Clinic at Michigan State University. “If you have a successful gaming operation, you can fund your entire tribal government. It’s a huge revenue generator.”
Both tribes claim the Piedmont as their ancestral homeland.
Historians say the Catawbas roamed what would become the Carolinas for 10,000 years. They even helped the Patriots secure a victory at the Revolutionary War Battle of Kings Mountain. The Cherokees also have called the land home for centuries.
A succession of wars and treaties sharply contracted those lands. The Catawbas now have a 700-acre reservation in York County. The Cherokees live on a 56,000-acre reservation known as The Qualla Boundary near Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
In a 1993 agreement, the Catawbas agreed to drop their claims to surrounding land around York County in exchange for $50 million and federal recognition. The state of South Carolina drew the line at gambling, which is illegal in the state.
But it’s another provision of the 1993 settlement that Catawbas say opens the door to North Carolina.
That provision gave the tribe a “service area” in six North Carolina counties, including Mecklenburg and Cleveland. Catawbas living in those counties are eligible for the same federal benefits and services as those living on the South Carolina reservation.
Harris, the tribal administrator, says the service area also gives the tribe the right to pursue projects like the casino on the land.
Sneed disagrees. “Their arguments that the service area somehow grants them access to North Carolina is a bogus argument,” he says.
The Catawbas made that argument in 2013 when they first attempted to build a Kings Mountain casino.
The tribe asked the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to put 16 acres along I-85 in trust, a designation that would give it the right to develop a casino and resort. Federal approval would let the tribe host certain kinds of gaming such as bingo. The Catawbas would need a separate compact with the state of North Carolina to add slot machines, blackjack and roulette.
Boosters hailed the project as a win for both Cleveland County and the Catawbas. Former Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan was among those who backed the request. In a letter to federal officials, he said the 1993 settlement restricted tribal sovereignty and that approval of the casino project would right “many historical wrongs.”
But the proposal ran into a wall of opposition.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and then-Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper opposed it. Leading state senators, including Republican leader Phil Berger, asked federal officials to deny the request as a “dangerous precedent.” So did over 100 N.C. House members, including then-Speaker Tillis.
“We write to express our serious opposition to any attempt by a federally recognized tribe from outside the State of North Carolina to have lands taken into trust by the Department of the Interior and have those lands deemed eligible for . . . Indian gambling,” the lawmakers wrote.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs has taken no action on the 2013 request.
The Catawbas say their current plan is essentially what it was in 2013. Developer Wallace Cheves said construction plans are already underway for what he says would be a world-class casino and resort. If Graham’s bill wins approval, he says, the project could start as early as this year.
Opponents are already flexing their muscle.
“It is concerning and quite disheartening that both of our senators have signed onto this bill,” says John Rustin, president of the socially conservative North Carolina Family Policy Council. “While it may bring some jobs to the immediate community, it will also bring jobs in the form of prostitution, crime, drug dealers, human trafficking — many of the problems the legislature is trying to address.”
Asked why Tillis, who is up for re-election next year, co-sponsored the new Senate bill after opposing a similar effort six years ago, spokesman Daniel Keylin said the senator “understands and appreciates the perspectives of North Carolinians who either support or oppose the project.”
“That’s why the legislation simply clarifies what authority the (Interior Department) has and then defers to local and state leaders and the (department),” Keylin says.
Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said the bill helps clarify language from the 1993 settlement “that has created confusion for decades and reflects Congress’ original intent when the . . . legislation was passed.”
Cooper, now governor, has not taken a position on the bill, according to spokesman Ford Porter.
The Cherokees have political muscle of their own.
Bob Hall tracked campaign money for years as former executive director of Democracy North Carolina. This month he reported that the Cherokees’ political action committee gave legislators, political committees and other candidates $570,400 in the 2018 election. With a total of $1.3 million over the last three elections, it ranks among the state’s three biggest PACs.
The state Republican Party held its 2014 convention at the tribe’s gleaming Harrah’s casino resort.
‘A brighter future’
Testifying to a Congressional subcommittee in 2015, Catawba Chief William Harris cited his tribe’s per capita income of $11,096. It’s poverty rate, he said, was more than double that in the rest of South Carolina. He also cited the federal government’s pledge in the 1993 settlement to ensure his tribe’s “economic self-sufficiency.”
To the Catawbas, he said, the casino project represents the fulfillment of that pledge.
There’s little doubt that gaming has been a boon to the Cherokees.
They own two casinos, in Cherokee and in Murphy. Last summer they broke ground on a $250 million expansion of their casino development that will include a convention center and hotel. Last year the tribe, hit hard by drugs, opened a $16 million residential treatment center and in 2015 an $80 million hospital.
Each adult Cherokee gets up to $14,000 a year from casino revenues.
This week Catawba Chief Harris spoke about the proposed Kings Mountain casino to the Cherokee newspaper.
“It is our hope that both the Catawba and Cherokee tribes will benefit from this project,” he told the Cherokee One Feather, the tribe’s newspaper. “(We) hope one day to speak with our Cherokee brothers and sisters about ways we can work together. . . All Indian nations understand the challenges all our tribes have faced. We look forward to a brighter future.”