RALEIGH — The South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation wants to build a $340 million casino in Kings Mountain. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opposes the competition. Most N.C. state senators say the federal government has no business approving the resort.
The Cherokees claim the proposed 16-acre site would encroach on their aboriginal territory. They also say a Senate bill authorizing the casino would bypass Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requirements. The requirements include extensive federal consultations with local, state, and tribal governments for economic, environmental, and infrastructure impact assessments, and the governor’s right to support or oppose a casino recommendation.
The fight over land claims, ambiguous federal settlements, and concerns about state sovereignty has languished for more than a quarter-century. It’s stalled in the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. (See Carolina Journal stories here, here, and here.)
Republican U.S. Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr and Thom Tillis of North Carolina filed legislation to let the Catawbas build a 220,000-square-foot gambling facility and two hotels featuring 750 rooms, a restaurant, entertainment outlets, and retail stores.
The project would create a projected 4,000 jobs in a high-unemployment area, with a regional economic impact of $350 million annually, along with $100 million in state revenues each year.
“The Catawba Nation has been treated unfairly by the federal government, and our legislation rights that wrong,” Graham said in a March 14 press release when S. 790 was filed.
N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and 37 other state senators laid out their opposition to the bill in a letter to the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Tillis’ support for the Catawbas is an about-face. As N.C. House Speaker in 2013 he was one of more than 100 lawmakers who signed a letter to then-U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell opposing the Catawbas. The tribe wanted to acquire North Carolina land, put it in federal trust, and operate a Las Vegas-style gambling facility.
Tillis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday, May 21, a Burr aide gave Carolina Journal a statement including these points:
• In 1993, Congress passed the Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act. It nullified the Catawba Indian Nation’s treaty and land claims in North and South Carolina in exchange for federal recognition and a 4,200-acre reservation. Today, the Catawba reservation is slightly more than 1,000 acres.
• Congress always intended to let the Catawba Nation acquire land in North Carolina in an area they have historically occupied. But because of unclear language in the law, the Catawbas’ claim is still being disputed.
• All major negotiators of the 1993 laws — including members of Congress, the Interior Secretary, and North Carolina and tribal officials — believed the tribe would be able to acquire land in North Carolina.
• The Catawba Land Clarification Act will help clarify Congress’ intent and the language of the 1993 law, allowing the tribe to acquire land in its North Carolina service area.
• This legislation would subject the Catawba Tribe to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act for the first time. The act regulates virtually all tribal gambling in the U.S.
• The Catawba Tribe has a long connection to North Carolina, particularly King’s Mountain. The Catawba Trail that once connected the tribe’s villages across the Carolinas cuts across the proposed land acquisition site. The Catawba-Wateree River Basin was once home to the tribe, who referred to themselves as “people of the river.” And the tribe’s current federal service area reflects its former treaty-based hunting rights.
Elizabeth Harris, Catawba Nation tribal administrator, did not respond to a request for comment.
Catawba Chief William Harris appeared before the U.S. House Interior, Environment Appropriations subcommittee on March 7 and provided written testimony about the tribe’s goal of economic self-sufficiency.
“For the Catawba Nation, this goal is immeasurably complicated by the terms of our 1993 settlement act with the state that inhibits meaningful tribal economic development,” Harris said, including a gambling ban on tribal land.
Harris said census data shows 24.3% of all Catawba families — and 57.6% of female-headed Catawba households with children — live in poverty. The casino would help more members of the tribe escape poverty, he said.
The Eastern Cherokees on Monday issued a press release opposing the Catawba casino. The Cherokees operate the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort about 130 miles west of King’s Mountain, and the newer Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel, about 190 miles west.
Graham, Haywood, Swain, Jackson, and Cherokee counties, along with several municipalities in western North Carolina, passed resolutions opposing the bill.