Courtesy Cawtaba Indian Nation
An artist's rendering of the proposed casino on 16 acres located in Cleveland County, North Carolina.

Eastern Cherokee Opposition to Catawba Casino Fuels US Senate Race

Gale Courey Toensing
September 25, 2013

The South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation wants to build a casino just over the state line in North Carolina in a county that is within its federal service area and part of its aboriginal lands. But the Nation faces fierce opposition from the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who own and operate the successful Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort some 130 miles away as the crow flies.

The Catawba’s casino plan is also opposed by North Carolina legislators who have received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Recently, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and more than 100 House legislators wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to block Catawba’s land into trust application, which was filed September 4. Nearly every legislator who signed the letter received campaign donations from the EBCI in 2012 ranging from $500 to $4000, the amount Tillis received, according to Follow the Money.

The Catawba Nation has asked Interior to take into trust a 16-acre parcel near King’s Mountain in Cleveland County, North Carolina. near an interstate highway about 30 miles west of Charlotte and 30 miles northwest of its reservation at Rock Hill, SC. The Nation plans to build a $340 million resort casino with 220,000-square-feet of gaming space and 750 guest rooms. The project is expected to bring 4,000 jobs to an area where unemployment hovers over 10 percent.

The controversy over the Catawba casino proposal is heating up and may impact the North Carolina Republicans’ efforts to knock off U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-North Carolina) in next year’s midterm elections. Hagan’s seat is seen as the tipping point for GOP Senate control, according to The Hill. The Republican Party needs to pick up a net of six seats to win the majority. “North Carolina is lining up to be ground zero for this election,” one national GOP strategist told The Hill. With Tillis (R) competing with North Carolina State Senate President Phil Berger (R) for Hagan’s seat and speculation that EBCI Principal Chief Michell Hicks may throw his hat into the mix, some political insiders say the Indian gaming issue has already spilled over into the election race.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris views the EBCI’s lobbying efforts philosophically. “It is the system that operates within America. It’s all about campaign donations by tribes—well, not just tribes, it’s all over America—lobbying on behalf of certain causes. When you look at the system that’s been created for allowing legislation to go through you can say, no, it’s wrong, or it’s just part of the system and what makes it work. You help me, I’ll help you,” Harris told Indian Country Today Media Network. “What we’re hoping is that the merits of the situation will hold and it won’t be a matter of who is being influenced by whom, it will be a matter of what is written into the law.”

The law Harris cites is the 1993 Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act, which documents a sad history of broken promises and bad faith deals between the tribe and the federal government. The Catawba’s aboriginal lands included most of present-day North and South Carolina, an area of several million acres. The Pine Hill Treaty of 1760 with the British established a 15-square mile reservation in South Carolina.  The Catawba allied with the Americans during the Revolutionary War, providing scouts for General George Washington. But that didn’t stop the American settlers from encroaching on Catawba land and by 1826 the reservation was reduced to one square mile. Further encroachments took place until the Nation was left virtually landless. In 1943 the United States entered into an agreement to provide services to the tribe and to take 3,434 acres of land into trust. In 1959, however, the federal undid the 1943 agreement and terminated its trust relationship with the tribe. Thirty years later, the Nation petitioned the federal government for restoration of the government-to-government relationship and in 1980, sued the federal government for its lost land.  

In 1993—13 years later—Congress passed the Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, restoring federal recognition to the Nation. The Act recognizes the Nation’s ties to both North and South Carolina and confirms its right to acquire—on a mandatory basis—a reservation up to 3,600 acres or, under certain conditions, up to 4,200 acres. But the State of South Carolina has blocked the Nation’s efforts at land acquisition and economic development at every turn  and today—20 years after passage of the Settlement Act—Catawba has acquired only 1,006 acres. So now the Nation, with 2900 enrolled citizens, is seeking to expand its trust land in North Carolina. Under the Federal Catawba Act, the Secretary is authorized to take land into trust both contiguous and non-contiguous to the South Carolina reservation. The Act defined North Carolina’s Cleveland, Mecklenburg, Gaston, Union, Cabarrus and Rutherford counties as part of the Nation’s service area, entitling Catawba members living there to receive all the programs and benefits the tribal government offers. “And it also gives us the right, we feel, to obtain trust lands in those six counties,” Harris said.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Michell Hicks does not agree, according to Cherokee One Feather, where he voiced his concerns over the Catawba casino plan on September 11. “Since becoming aware of the Cleveland County casino project, we have been closely monitoring and attempting to evaluate the impact it would have upon Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.  Based on the newly released information provided by Cleveland County, we are greatly concerned that this development will negatively impact job growth and revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and for the western region of North Carolina.  We will continue to monitor the project and make a full determination as to the full impact it will have on Cherokee.”

Hicks could not be reached for an interview, because he was away hunting, according to his chief of staff Jeremy Hyatt. Hyatt agreed to answer questions by email, but did not respond to the questions sent. The EBCI’s state lobbyist John Metcalf of The Policy Group and its Washington lobbyist Wilson Pipestem of Ietan Consulting received but did not respond to emails seeking comments.

Hicks and the council didn’t always oppose the Catawba casino proposal, according to an EBCI citizen and business owner who doesn’t agree with the EBCI’s opposition to Catawba and asked to remain unnamed. “I can't identity myself and I am afraid to speak with any reporters as this could harm me and my family,” the source said in an email. “We heard about the Catawba casino when they tried to get state recognized and [a] Cherokee representative . . .personally lobbied all the members of the North Carolina board [EBCI council] to ask that Catawba be forced to go through the general assembly to get state recognized, which was not required for the other state recognized tribes.” There are eight state recognized tribes in North Carolina.

“A lot of the councilmen heard about Catawba coming to [build a casino in] North Carolina when the Catawbas themselves, with the Chief, came to meet Michell Hicks, and asked him if he was ok with it. Michell then asked the board about it and supposedly called the Catawba Chief back and said they would welcome their brothers of Catawba to come to North Carolina,” the source said.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris confirmed that the visit to EBCI took place. In April 2012, Harris and four members of the Catawba Executive Committee met with Hicks and a couple of EBCI council members “in a very casual atmosphere,” Harris said. “In this informal meeting there were many topics but the topic of Catawba seeking the Charlotte, NC, area as a potential casino location was mentioned without any objections being raised by Chief Hicks or his Council. I asked the question ‘Would Cherokee Nation consider partnering with Catawba Nation if the potential casino were to become a reality?’ The response from Chief Hicks was he would take the question to his full council. The answer that was relayed to me—by a member of my council from a member of Cherokee council—was the Cherokee Nation would partner with the Catawba Nation,” Harris said.

It is not exactly clear why Hicks and the EBCI turned against the Catawba casino proposal, but the turning point seems to have occurred last spring. At that time Cherokee One Feather reported that Cherokee was being considered as the host town for the 2014 North Carolina Republic Party Convention. That’s also when the EBCI announced plans to build its second casino in the Murphy, NC, area about an hour’s drive southwest of Harrah’s Cherokee resort and around 185 miles west of the Catawba’s proposed King’s Mountain site, according to 500 Nations.

When the EBCI found out that Catawba planned to go to BIA and was seeking the support of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, “then all hell broke loose,” the source said.  “Cherokee turned [lobbyist] John Metcalf loose and he got involved and started lobbying the members of NC General Assembly and helped draft the petition that [was] passed around after a NC Republican caucus meeting.”

An overwhelming 102 of the 120 House members signed the petition sent to  Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, expressing their “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 Class II or Class III Indian gaming.”

The legislators also wrote that gambling “is a matter the federal government leaves within the purview of the states.” And it is—if an Indian tribe is conducting gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and the tribe is looking to conduct gaming on land acquired after October 1988. In that case the governor of the state effectively has veto power over a gaming proposal.  “But here’s something that’s kind of unique to Catawba,” Harris said. “Catawba doesn’t fall under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. When we signed the Settlement Agreement, the leaders at the time said we didn’t wish to be under IGRA.” Nevertheless, Catawba is willing to abide by IGRA regulations, Harris said. “We don’t have IGRA in our Settlement Agreement but Cherokee does and we would fall in line with Cherokee and stay within the guidelines of IGRA even though we’re not compelled to. It would be beneficial to North Carolina to allow us to operate under those guidelines.” And detrimental if it doesn’t: If the Nation gets trust land in North Carolina and the state refuses to enter into a gaming compact, Catawba could offer gaming without sharing profits with the state.

The Band’s generous donations to the state legislators who wrote to Jewell also became an issue, the source said. “Michell and Council were furious that they might lose the North Carolina Republican Convention next spring if too much bad PR got out of Cherokee giving lots of money to the governor and the legislature. Cherokee has been raising money for Speaker Thom Tillis and funding the governor's 504c3 PAC in hopes of blocking a compact with Catawba and Cherokee needs about $60 million in state money for infrastructure for road and bridge in Murphy, North Carolina, where the new casino is being built,” the source said. McCrory came out publicly against the Catawba casino in mid-September, according to the Charlotte Observer.

To complicate the already complicated and dense field of Republicans planning to run against Hagan next year, Hicks announced earlier that he was going to jump into the race too, the source said. “Michell now promises he will not seek another term [as chief]. He has told several people up here that he was going to run against Kay Hagan, but he's now supporting Thom Tillis, since Tillis may support Michell for a US Congress seat instead,” the source said.

Whatever the outcome of the election campaigns in the larger US political arena, the rift between the Catawba and the Cherokee Band over a potential casino is not a good thing, the source said.  “I think it is very sad that greed has taken over Cherokee's fondness for our Catawba brothers and sisters. We have a lot of marrying between us, and this a sickening divide,” the source said. “I remember when we were a terribly poor county and poor people. I can't imagine how Catawba feels after being let down by our people.”