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Wednesday, 18 January 2006 00:00

Time apparently not right for casino alcohol sales

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The proposal to hold a referendum on whether alcohol could be sold at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino was withdrawn before it got a formal hearing at a recent tribal council meeting. This is a potentially earth-moving change for the Eastern Bandof Cherokee, and it deserves careful consideration and a thorough, open debate before it is put before voters.

The Tribal Gaming Enterprise Board is the entity that brought the idea to the tribal council. Its reasons for doing so are obvious: alcohol sales would increase profits at the casino. The more money the casino hauls in, the more money the tribe will return to the enrolled members. That likely means that the approximately $8,000 that each of the 12,500 enrolled members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee receives would go up, though how much is anyone’s guess. There is a general consensus, however, that having alcohol sales at this casino — or any casino — would definitely increase overall revenues.

It’s not just the individual members of the Tribe who would profit from this move. The tribal government also gets a cut of the casino projects to spend on schools, health care, social programs and whatever else is on its priority list. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation has become Western North Carolina’s richest foundation, providing grants and funding for many important organizations both on and off the Qualla Boundary that are working to preserve Native American culture. It is also funded by gaming profits. In addition, scores of private businesses both on and off the reservation count Harrah’s as one of their best customers, and more profits at the casino would almost certainly mean larger profits for these businesses.

Increased casino profits, therefore, almost certainly will translate to more prosperity for the entire region.

But this potential for more money did not deter those who flooded tribal council chambers. Dredging up stories of family members who have suffered from alcoholism and the potential problems that would follow alcohol sales, a vocal and determined contingent of Cherokee argued against this proposal outside of the council chambers last week. Overwhelmingly, the consensus of those who showed up at the council chambers was that the proposal should not even be put to a vote of the tribe.

Those opposing alcohol sales are also carrying an important cultural concern. Alcohol abuse has long been a significant social and health issue for Native American communities, which means there is also significant resistance to any measures that would make it easier to obtain. When one considers the disproportionate alcoholism rate among Native Americans, this seems an obvious and perhaps wise reluctance.

The contradictions in the alcohol debate are plentiful, and there are many significant issues that the Tribe needs to discuss. Perhaps the best approach would be to hold a series of community meetings where the social, cultural and economic aspects of this divisive issue can be aired out. This approach would at least provide full information so everyone could make an informed decision if the measure every did come to a vote.

At this time, however, it seems that a vocal majority of the very people who would most benefit from having alcohol at the casino don’t want it. If that’s the case, then so be it.

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