Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs - Legislative Hearing to receive testimony on S. 279, S. 790 & S. 832 - May 1, 2019

Catawba Nation asks Congress to fulfill promise in land claim settlement

The Catawba Nation settled its land claim against the United States almost three decades ago but the tribe has yet to reclaim the territory promised by Congress.

When the Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act became law in 1993, the tribe had a 1,017-acre reservation, Chief Bill Harris said in testimony on Wednesday. Only 317 acres have been acquired since then, far less than the 4,200 acres that were promised by Congress.

To help move closer to the goal, the tribe is hoping to add a mere 17 acres to its land base. S.790 authorizes the Bureau of Indian Affairs to acquire the land, located in North Carolina, and ensures that gaming can be conducted there.

"We are staying in our heartland," Harris told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the hearing, The Shelby Star reported.

Chief Bill Harris of the Catawba Nation testifies before a hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on May 1, 2019. Photo: SCIA

The tribe submitted a land-into-trust application for the site more than five years ago. But the BIA hasn't publicly issued a decision, which prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham R-South Carolina) to introduce S.790 in hopes of resolving any uncertainties regarding the 1993 settlement act.

"The tribe is locked in poverty and the tribe's understanding that it had negotiated to acquire land within its Congressionally-established service area in North Carolina has been disputed, largely due to poor drafting of the act," Graham said on Wednesday. He is not a member of the committee but was invited to present a statement during the hearing.

The 17-acre site is located in Cleveland County, which is within the service area defined by Congress. It's about 47 miles away from tribal headquarters in neighboring South Carolina.

"It's clear that the benefits that Congress intended for the tribe through the settlement act have not been realized and this has resulted in disparate treatment for this tribe, when compared to other federally recognized tribes," John Tahsuda, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, said at the hearing.

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

Despite that favorable comment, Tahsuda did not outright commit the Trump administration's support for S.790. However, he did not present any major obstacles to passage of the bill and his written testimony merely offered technical suggestions that he said would ensure the land could be placed in trust for the tribe.

The committee did not hear from any opponents of the bill at the hearing. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has raised objections.

"The proposed casino off of I-85 in Cleveland County would encroach upon Cherokee aboriginal territory - territory ceded by the Cherokee by treaty, and territory recognized as Cherokee territory by the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. The Catawba have no valid aboriginal or historical claim to Cleveland County," Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement on Wednesday

Generally, land placed 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, such as the Catawba Nation.

The exception has only been utilized sparingly. Since 1988, only two tribes -- the Wyandotte Nation and the Tohono O'odham Nation -- have opened casinos in connection with land claim settlements and only after lengthy political, legal and regulatory battles.

S.790 seeks to avoid such uncertainty by outright confirming that the land acquired for the Catawba Nation in North Carolina can be used for a casino.

The tribe otherwise is barred from following IGRA on its lands in South Carolina. The 1993 settlement instead authorized bingo halls for the tribe, subject to a tax paid to the state.

The operation eventually closed in 2017 due to limited viability. In his written statement, Chief Harris said the state got $12 million in taxes.

"As a result, the tribe essentially paid for its own settlement," he said.

The Eastern Cherokees operate the Harrah's Cherokee Casino Resort and the newer Harrah's Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel. Both are in the far western part of North Carolina, more than 130 miles from the area in which the Catawba Nation is seeking to open its establishment.

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