All or nothing? Cherokee ponders whether to tailor upcoming alcohol vote

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians might have the chance to decide whether they want alcohol in their individual communities this spring, but Tribal Council is still trying to decide if and how it would include the option on the alcohol referendum.

Tribal council approved a referendum in the fall that will give members of the Eastern Band the chance to vote on whether alcohol sales should be legalized on the reservation. Currently, the reservation is dry with the exception of the casino.

The Rev. Noah Crowe from Snowbird appealed to Tribal Council last week, asserting that individual communities should have the option of banning or permitting alcohol sales. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

“The issue of alcohol in our community as tribal members has been very powerful — and not in a positive way,” Crowe said. “I think a question like this gives power back to the community.”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks appeared at the tribal council meeting and backed the resolution brought forward by Crowe.

“I appreciate Mr. Crowe coming in. I know this has always been an emotional issue,” said Hicks. “I think that our communities are different in their makeup. An issue of this magnitude should not be forced on a community.”

Hicks has previously expressed concerns over alcohol sales being allowed in every corner of the reservation. Should the ballot measure be passed as currently written, convenience stores selling booze could potentially crop up anywhere.

The reservation is comprised of six communities: Birdtown, Wolftown, Big Cove, Painttown, Snowbird/Cherokee County and Yellowhill.

Snowbird, a remote and isolated portion of the reservation in the rugged mountains of Graham County, has an older population and is known for being more traditional. Snowbird is the only community that voted against allowing the casino to sell alcohol in another ballot measure two years ago.

No matter what, members of the Eastern Band will vote on some form of the referendum on April 15.

Massaging the verbiage

Although the council seemed amenable to the idea, legal conundrums continued to crop up.

“There are some significant issues,” said Tribal Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky. “Right now the way that this reads, you would have a problem in Painttown.”

The casino is located in Painttown, and the current wording of Crowe’s amendment would make alcohol sales in the casino illegal should the community vote down the alcohol referendum.

“I just want to make sure there is an informed decision,” Tarnawsky said. “There are a lot of things we need to look at.”

The reservation-wide ban has prevented businesses from coming to the reservation. Some restaurants have chosen to skip over Cherokee and open chains elsewhere.

“That has definitely been an issue in the past,” Hicks said.

Tribal Council chose to table Crowe’s proposal until its Feb. meeting in order to give the attorney general’s office more time to tweak its language and to avoid a rushed decision.

“I don’t want to see it fall through the cracks,” Crowe said.

A couple of council members indicated that they thought their constituents would approve of adding Crowe’s question to the referendum.

“My community strongly wants a say,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove.

Diamond Brown, a tribal council member from Snowbird, said that he believes residents of his community would like to have the option as well.

“If I were to get out and do a survey with the Snowbirders, the Snowbirders would be against it,” Brown said.

And, for his community, voting down alcohol would not affect businesses. Residents of Snowbird must already travel to Robbinsville or other nearby towns to shop.

“We don’t have a town; we don’t even have our own post office,” Brown said. “We don’t even have convenience stores.”


The count down

On April 15, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will go to the polls to decide whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation. The three-part ballot will allow voters to approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

If Rev. Noah Crowe’s proposal is approved, tribal members would also be able to chose whether or not they want alcohol sold in their community. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

The option may give the referendum a better chance of actually passing. The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past and even stopped before a vote could take place. Many Cherokee are strong Christians and the tribe has a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making some inclined to oppose alcohol.

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