Cherokee defending gains made possible by casinos

Cherokee defending gains made possible by casinos

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates two casinos in North Carolina – the only legal such operations in the state. The Catawba and the Lumbee could change those odds. (Photo: Joe Killian)

This week the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously approved the Lumbee Recognition Act, bringing the North Carolina tribe closer to the federal recognition it has sought for more than a century.

Reaction from other tribes — particularly the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians  — was swift and negative. They said questions remain about the origins and authenticity of the Lumbee, who have at various points claimed descent from four different tribes.

“The use of congressional authority to ignore and avoid investigation of such serious questions about the Lumbees’ authenticity is an outrageous injustice to all federally recognized Tribes,” said Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, in a statement Tuesday. “History and facts must guide the process, not politics. We call on the Senate to reject this legislation and allow the Lumbee claims to be examined through the Office of Federal Acknowledgement in the Department of the Interior.”

In an interview with Policy Watch earlier this month, Sneed — a usually genial and even-keeled Marine Corps veteran — sounded tired, exasperated.

“We didn’t invent these rules and this process,” Sneed said. “But we have played by the rules, we have respected the process. We expect other tribes to as well.”

Federal recognition can be life-changing for the tribes. It means hundreds of millions in federal aid for housing, health care and education for people who have faced government-sanctioned discrimination and genocide for hundreds of years. But federal recognition can also unlock a much more powerful engine of change — the potential for casino gambling on tribal land.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

“The federal government doesn’t provide a lot of funding for Indian communities and there are strings attached to it — we’re told how to spend that money,” said Lawrence Locklear, a Lumbee tribal member and associate professor of American Indian Studies at UNC-Pembroke. “But with unrestricted casino monies, you can spend that ever how you want to. If you want to start businesses you can. If you want to give per capita checks to tribal members, you can.”

The Eastern Band operates two casinos in North Carolina — the only legal such operations in the state. Gaming has transformed the Cherokees’ fortunes, generating hundreds of millions of dollars that have allowed the tribe to build new schools and hospitals, reacquire tribal lands that were once lost and preserve their culture and heritage.

The Cherokee already face new competition from the Catawba Indian Nation. That South Carolina-based tribe recently crossed the state line to break ground on a new casino resort in Cleveland County. That was only possible through a circumvention of the normal process, the tribe pursuing changes to law and Indian gaming policy introduced by politicians to whom a Catawba business partner has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Cherokee have sued the Catawba to prevent the development.

Another North Carolina tribe gaining federal recognition — and with it, the attendant benefits — through an act of Congress? Through political machinations rather than the difficult federal process and grueling legal battles his people faced? Sneed sees it as not just unjust but a potential existential threat.

You don’t have to travel very far up the winding mountain roads to the Cherokee reservation to see why.

The road to prosperity

Cherokee Indian Reservation (Photo: Joe Killian)

Along U.S. 19, through the small western North Carolina towns, tourism is the last industry standing. Mining and manufacturing largely died out along this route, but people are still drawn hundreds of miles to the enduring natural beauty of the area — camping, skiing, fishing, rafting and motorcycling trips in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Clustered along the highway, the small motels, RV parks, miniature golf courses and two-for-$10 T-shirt shops cater to tourists, and allow locals to eke out a living. The number of boarded-up and long-abandoned businesses throughout the area make clear the tourism economy was troubled even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

But those troubles slowly fade as you pass the sign: “Welcome – Cherokee Reservation”

There are still restaurants and souvenir shops — but also museums, theaters, public art and native sculpture on the street corners. International chain hotels replace the mom-and-pop motor lodges. “Mine for Gems” tourist traps give way to quaint local produce markets proudly advertised as “Indian Owned and Operated.” All of it seems carefully designed and regulated; old-timey mountain town charm meets modern planned community.

And then, suddenly, there it is. Rising incongruously from the hillside, the towering enterprise that makes it all possible — Harrah’s Cherokee Resort Casino.

Many attractions along the way bear signs reading “closed for the season.” But the casino is still aggressively open for business — 24 hours, seven days a week.

Even at 10 on a Tuesday morning the place is buzzing, with a mostly older crowd playing digital slot machines, live blackjack and roulette. Some patrons are already nursing their second beer to the sounds of a Olivia Newton-John recording, as she belts out “Let Me Be There.”

(Photo: Joe Killian)

The players and dealers all wear masks, as does the staff, who sweep through to wipe down surfaces every few minutes. But pandemic-era health questions, temperature checks at the entrance and the near impossibility of effective social distancing aren’t deterring visitors. The line of eager gamblers stretches from the elevators connecting the 1,000-plus room luxury hotel all the way to the gaming floor, which is roughly the size of three football fields.

“It’s the biggest economy west of Asheville,” said Brett Riggs, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Western Carolina University whose work has concentrated on the Cherokee for more than 40 years.

“What gaming really has done is alleviated entrenched poverty,” Riggs said. “The apex of tourism for the tribe was a time when television sets were full of Westerns. That interest was why people wanted to go to Cherokee and the work for Eastern Band members was seasonal, by and large, like most tourism. They would have work for six or eight months out of the year maybe, if they were lucky. And that was waning.”

In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gambling Regulatory Act, opening the door to a new future for tribes across the country. The ability to offer casino gambling on tribal lands, often in areas nowhere near established gambling venues like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, was a game changer.

But the Cherokee didn’t have an easy time of it in North Carolina. Notoriously resistant to gambling, the state for years rejected it at every turn. Former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt refused to sign a gaming compact with the Eastern Band in the 1990s, leading to battles in state and federal court.

But the tribe ultimately won, opening its first casino on the reservation straddling Jackson and Swain counties in 1997.

What started as a modest enterprise offering only video poker grew into a sprawling resort with hotels, a bowling alley, entertainment complexes and high-end restaurants. Last year there were 4 million visitors, generating around $400 million.

In 2015 the tribe opened the Cherokee Valley River Casino and hotel in Murphy, now a booming and expanding draw which itself drew more than 1.4 million people last year.

Success in gaming has helped to lift the nearly 16,000 members of the tribe out of generational poverty. Adult Cherokees get up to $14,000 a year in per capita distributions from casino revenues and the tribe has put profits where its community most needs them. In 2009 the tribe opened an impressive $124 million pre-K through 12th grade school for children within the Qualla Boundary, the land held in trust for tribal members. In 2015 they opened the $80 million first phase of an expansive medical facility that offers various services, from dental work and optometry to physical therapy and radiology. The second phase is a $16 million residential treatment center for those struggling with addiction and mental health problems.

(Photo: Joe Killian)

The tribe’s Museum of the Cherokee Indian reported nearly 100,000 visitors last year. Its historical stage drama “Unto These Hills” drew more than 30,000.

“There is no denying we’ve had a very successful operation with both the resort and the Valley River property,” Sneed told Policy Watch. “We’re right in the middle of a very expensive expansion of another hotel tower and a convention center. And those decisions to expand are based on projections of business we anticipate we can do based on the market share that we have, based on the rules and regulations that exist.”

Those decisions and projections represent hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as the livelihoods of tribal members and many others throughout the region, Sneed said. They were made with the understanding that the Catawba were restricted to gaming within their home state of South Carolina and that the Lumbee were not a federally recognized tribe. Those facts were consistently reinforced by federal policy and Department of the Interior decisions for decades.

For that reality to suddenly change through an act of Congress could damage the tribe’s economy.

Tribe vs. Tribe?

The fact that gaming is now so vital to tribal culture is, for some, indicative of a larger problem.

Western Carolina University Professor Brett Riggs

“There are some people, even within the tribe, who don’t like it,” said Riggs. “There are people who have moral problems with it and there are arguments against it. There are tribal members who won’t take disbursements from it or who donate the money rather than keep it.”

The tribe has made efforts to diversify its economy, Riggs said, particularly as the pandemic has shown the risks of relying on just one industry. But for now, gambling — and the tourism it generates — is still the economic backbone of the tribe and, increasingly, the region.

That’s a lot more sustainable if competing and neighboring Indian casinos don’t proliferate.

Locklear, the Lumbee college professor, said it isn’t certain his tribe will pursue gaming. But he’d like to see the Lumbee have all the opportunities federally recognized tribes are afforded. If it does open a casino on tribal land in Robeson County, he said, it would certainly compete with the Cherokee casinos.

“We are located in an even more optimal location than Cherokee is,” said Locklear. “Imagine the millions of folks who drive North to South along Interstate 95 and soon-to-be Interstate 74. That goes through Robeson County and they’re right here, as opposed to four or five hours from I-95 in Cherokee.”

UNC-Pembroke associate professor Lawrence Locklear

The proposed Catawba casino, on land also claimed as ancestral territory by the Cherokee, may be even more ideally positioned. Just outside Kings Mountain, it’s about 40 minutes from Charlotte — the state’s largest and most prosperous city.

Policy Watch has repeatedly contacted Catawba tribal leadership but messages have not been returned.

Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler said he’s been in close touch with the tribe. He told Policy Watch it’s unfortunate that the casino issue seems to have pitted tribe against tribe.

Policy Watch has reported on the Neisler family’s land holdings around the proposed Catawba casino site. But Neisler insists his interest isn’t a personal financial one. It will be good for town and the county, he said, and especially for the Catawba.

“The Cherokee have built this amazing, wonderful school, they’ve given their people jobs, they have this new hospital, they’ve been able to preserve their culture and their language — all  because of their success with the casinos,” Neisler said. “Do not the Catawba have the right to do the same thing? Don’t other tribes?”

They do, Sneed said — but in their own states and according to the established process, not through changing standards they can’t meet and political favoritism.

The “tribe vs. tribe” laments are too simplistic, Sneed said — and they miss the point. The Cherokee’s fight isn’t with the Catawba or with the Lumbee, Sneed said.

“It’s with the Department of the Interior,” he said. “They have a responsibility to all federally recognized tribes. They need to live up to that responsibility.”