Artist's rendering of proposed Catawba Nation casino in North Carolina. Image: Catawba Nation Project Brief

'Sad': Catawba Nation fires back after Eastern Cherokees slam homelands bill

A war is erupting between the Catawba Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in connection with a new bill in the U.S. Congress.

S.790, introduced on March 13, clarifies that the Catawba Nation can restore its homelands in the state of North Carolina. The bill would essentially pave the way for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve the tribe's land-into-trust application for a casino.

"When approved, this resort will be a huge economic driver for the Nation," the tribe said in a March 13 post on social media.

But the Eastern Band isn't happy. The tribe, which already operates two gaming facilities in North Carolina, is calling S.790 a "modern day land-grab by the federal government of Cherokee aboriginal lands."

"This action circumvents the existing process for the Catawba Indian Nation to acquire lands in South Carolina, is unprecedented in US history, and a federal government bully-tactic that should not be part of modern governing," Chief Richard Sneed said in a March 14 statement.

The Catawba Nation fired back later that day. The tribe pointed out that its service area -- as defined by Congress -- includes six counties in North Carolina, in addition to areas in neighboring South Carolina.

"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," the statement read.

The Catawba Nation asked the BIA more than five years ago to acquire the land for the gaming project. But no decision has been made, for reasons that have never been made public by either the Trump administration, or the prior Obama administration.

“The Catawba Nation has been treated unfairly by the federal government, and our legislation rights that wrong,” Sen. Lindsey Graham R-South Carolina), the sponsor of S.790, said in a press release. “I hope this legislation will be quickly passed through the Congress and signed into law so we can once and for all bring resolution to this issue.”

After being terminated in 1959, the tribe was restored to federal recognition by Congress in 1993. The Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act includes Cleveland County in North Carolina in the tribe's service area.

Cleveland County is where the casino would be located, in a city called King's Mountain, which is about 30 miles west of Charlotte, the most populous city in the state.

The Eastern 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. Both are in the far western part of North Carolina.

Generally, land acquired in trust after 1988 can't be used for a casino. But Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act contains an exception that applies for tribes with land claim settlements.

The exception has only been utilized twice since 1988. The Wyandotte Nation and the Tohono O'odham Nation opened casinos on lands acquired in connection with their settlements but only after lengthy legal and political battles.

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians cited its land claim settlement in applications for two casinos in Michigan. The Trump administration rejected the proposals in July 2017, claiming the acquisitions did not comply with the law, especially since the sites are so far from tribal headquarters.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Chief Bill Harris / Catawba Nation

The Catawba Nation is based in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The gaming site in North Carolina is located off a major interstate near King's Mountain, about 47 miles away from tribal headquarters.

The Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act does not appear to require the BIA to take distance into account when examining the tribe's land-into-trust applications.

The law, however, bars the tribe from following IGRA on its homelands in South Carolina. The state prohibition does not seem to apply to any lands in North Carolina.

"As a sovereign nation and industrious people, we are committed to achieving economic self-sufficiency," Chief Bill Harris said in testimony to Congress earlier this month. "For the Catawba Nation, this goal is immeasurably complicated by the terms of our 1993 settlement act with the state that inhibit meaningful tribal economic development."

"It is our hope to come back to the Congress and ask for amendments to our settlement act that would restore some of our lost sovereignty and free-up our economic potential," Harris told members of the House Committee on Appropriations who write Indian Country's funding bill on March 7. "In the interim, we continue to explore innovative avenues for economic growth. We urge Congress to invest in economic development programs for non-gaming tribes to further the federal government’s policy of promoting tribal self-determination and economic self-sufficiency."

S.790 was referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Read More on the Story
US Senate bill pushes for Kings Mountain casino (The Shelby Star March 15, 2019)
U.S. Senators introduces legislation supporting Catawba Indian Nation gaming facility in N.C. (WRHI March 15, 2019)
New bill marks first move to bring Indian tribe casino to Cleveland County (WBTV March 14, 2019)
Senators introduce legislation on Catawba Indian Nation Application (News 2 March 14, 2019)

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