Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

'Meanspirited': Eastern Cherokee chief responds to attack on his people

Senator Richard Burr’s Attack on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Senator Richard Burr published an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer that attacks the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee people for opposing his Catawba off-reservation casino bill and his Lumbee recognition bill. He also attacks a bipartisan group of North Carolina General Assembly members for daring to cross him and oppose his Catawba off-reservation casino bill.

On behalf of the Eastern Band, a Tribal Nation that has called North Carolina home since before the creation of the United States, I must respond to Senator Burr’s meanspirited and outright false statements about our Nation and our people.

First, if Senator Burr’s Catawba bill (S.790) is enacted into law, the Catawba Nation will not need a Tribal-State compact to have a casino. This is Indian Law 101. The Catawba Nation would be able to quickly open a casino with electronic gaming machines without a compact. As one example, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama owns and operates uncompacted casinos in Alabama. With revenues from these non-compacted casinos, the Poarch Band purchased the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem in Pennsylvania.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) is seen in his official portrait.

Further, Senator Burr’s legislation exempts the Catawba Nation from going through the federal consultation and approval process. Federal law requires the Department of the Interior to formally consult with state, county, and tribal governments about the gaming facility to decide whether the facility has any “detriment to the local community.” If the Department of the Interior approves the application, the Governor of the state in which the casino would be located has the right to veto the application. Senator Burr’s Catawba bill absolutely prevents the Governor, the North Carolina Senate, the North Carolina House, counties in North Carolina, and the Eastern Band from having a voice in the proposed project.

Second, Senator Burr claims that the Eastern Band has “aggressively” opposed his Lumbee recognition legislation (S.1638) to protect our “gaming business.” Actually, the Eastern Band has opposed Lumbee recognition legislation for literally a century, long before tribal gaming. The Lumbees have claimed to be a Cherokee tribe and at least three other historic tribes over the years, and their identity as an historic tribe and as individual descendants of an historic tribe has been questioned for many, many years. The Lumbee and other groups have tried to appropriate our Cherokee culture and identity, and the Eastern Band and other established tribes have opposed this appropriation. As Senator Burr knows, the Eastern Band and other tribes support the Lumbees going through the federal acknowledgment process at the Department of the Interior to get a fair shot at federal recognition but oppose Senator Burr’s bill that would circumvent the federal administrative process.

Third, the allegation that the Eastern Band seized property from an Eastern Band citizen to acquire land for a casino is simply not true. In that case, there was disagreement regarding the legitimacy of the enrolled member’s governing will. The disagreement went to Cherokee Court and the Court issued a judgment that the language of the governing will complied with Tribal law. Tribal Council passed a resolution consistent with the Court’s judgment, and the first-generation descendants (the non-Cherokee citizen children of the deceased) were given their rights in the Tribal trust lands as provided in Cherokee law.

This case demonstrates that Eastern Band Cherokee governmental systems work – the Cherokee Court did its job and Tribal Council did its job and the law was applied and honored. The Cherokee Court issued a judgment and Tribal Council followed the law and the judgment of the Court.

By the way, Senator Burr never mentioned concerns about this case to us. We learned about his concerns through his angry piece.

These kinds of public attacks against the Eastern Band, or any constituent, should be beneath the dignity of any public official. Senator Burr should apologize for his false and harsh comments and withdraw the flawed legislation that he’s championing.

Richard Sneed serves as Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a federally recognized tribe in North Carolina. He proudly served in the United States Marine Corps, started his own business and served as pastor at Cherokee’s Christ Fellowship Church until his election in 2015 as vice chief. He became chief in May 2017.

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