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N.C. Senator, Cherokee chief spar in opposing op-eds

A rendering of the proposed Catawba Indian Nation casino. A rendering of the proposed Catawba Indian Nation casino.

In his first public statement on a bill he cosponsored in March, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., wrote an op-ed published in The Charlotte Observer June 19 decrying the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ opposition to legislation that would pave the way for a Catawba Indian Nation casino in Kings Mountain. 

“The episode is only the latest example of the Cherokee’s willingness to disenfranchise other tribes in order to protect their own lucrative gaming monopoly,” Burr wrote.

 

Burr’s argument 

In the piece, Burr implies that the tribe’s opposition to efforts from the Catawba — a federally recognized tribe based in South Carolina — is hypocritical given that earlier this year the EBCI, which is based in North Carolina, purchased 122 acres in Tennessee for economic development. If casino gaming should become legal in Tennessee, such economic development could include a new gaming establishment, though that’s far from being a certain outcome. 

In discussing the Eastern Band, Burr paints a picture of a tribe that is exploitative and self-interested, pointing out Cherokee’s substantial donations to candidates in state government and accusing the EBCI of attempting to take land from its own members in pursuit of its economic ventures — in 2011, he said, the tribe took 200 acres a tribal member had left to her children in hopes of building a “mid-range gaming facility.”

Burr also brings up what he terms Cherokee’s “aggressive tactics” when it comes to the Lumbee Indians, a state-recognized tribe in North Carolina that has long sought federal recognition — an effort that the EBCI has consistently opposed. 

“The Cherokee have long lobbied against Lumbee recognition because they view it as a threat to their federal benefits and gaming business,” Burr claimed. 

Outside of a desire to continue their monopoly on the casino business in North Carolina, there’s no reason for the Cherokee to oppose the legislation, Burr wrote. 

“The Catawba’s case is simple,” he wrote. “Congress intended for the Catawba to be able to acquire land within their North Carolina service areas as part of their 1993 land settlement, but unclear language in the law itself left the question in limbo. The bill I’ve introduced with other Carolina Senators would clarify the language. The Cherokee have implied our bill would cut the state out of the process, but that is patently untrue.”

If the bill were to become law, Burr said, the Catawba would still have to negotiate a compact with the state before opening a casino, giving the governor and legislature the final say. 

He concluded the piece with an appeal to North Carolina leaders. 

“Whether it’s the Lumbees or one mother’s home, it seems that nothing is too big or too small for the Cherokee to oppose if it affects their bottom line,” Burr wrote. “I hope North Carolina rejects such bullying tactics from any tribe and considers each case, including the Catawbas’ and the Lumbees’, on its merits. The stakes are too high.”

 

Sneed’s response

The op-ed was certainly devoid of sugarcoating, but according to EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed’s written response, it was largely devoid of truth as well. 

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

S.790, introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham on March 13, is co-sponsored by the two North Carolina Senators, Burr and Thom Tillis. If passed, it would authorize the Catawba to own a gaming facility on a 16.5-acre piece of land in Kings Mountain and allow the Secretary of the Interior to take that land into trust for the tribe. The bill would require the facility to comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act except for Section 20, from which it would be exempt. That section, which applies to any Indian tribe seeking to open a gaming facility outside of the main reservation, triggers a complicated approval process requiring endorsement from the Secretary of the Interior and the governor of North Carolina, as well as consultation with local stakeholders. 

In his response to Burr, published June 20 in The Cherokee One Feather and June 21 in The Charlotte Observer, Sneed’s first priority was to rebut the senator’s characterization of the bill and its impact if enacted. 

“Senator Burr’s legislation exempts the Catawba Nation from going through the federal consultation and approval process,” Sneed wrote. “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.”

Further, he said, the Catawba would not necessarily need a state compact to begin gaming operations on the land. 

“This is Indian Law 101,” Sneed wrote. “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.” 

In order to open the type of casino proposed, the Catawba would indeed need a compact with the state. However, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act requires such compacts only for Class III gaming, which includes slot machines, blackjack, banking card games and baccarat, among others. They aren’t required for Class I and Class II gaming, such as bingo. The Poarch Creek Indians operate uncompacted Class I and II operations. 

Sneed also pushed back against Burr’s characterization of the Cherokee as aggressively protective when it comes to gaming revenues. Burr claimed that Cherokee’s opposition to his Lumbee recognition legislation is based on a desire to protect its gaming revenues, but Sneed said it’s based on a desire to prevent undeserved appropriation of its culture. 

“The Eastern Band has opposed Lumbee recognition legislation for literally a century, long before tribal gaming,” Sneed wrote. “ ... 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.”

Sneed also said that Burr’s characterization of the 2011 incident is incorrect. 

“In that case, there was disagreement regarding the legitimacy of the enrolled member’s governing will,” he wrote. “The disagreement went to Cherokee Court and the Court issued a judgment that the language of the governing will complied with Tribal 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.”

Finally, Sneed stated that Burr had not previously shared his concerns with the tribe, writing that the EBCI instead learned about them through “this angry piece.”

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on S.790 during a May 1 meeting, but no further action has yet been taken on the bill. The next step would be a positive recommendation from the committee and placement on the Senate calendar for a vote. The bill can be viewed or tracked online at www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/790

 

Read the op-eds

Sen. Richard Burr’s entire statement on the Catawba legislation is online at www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article231717118.html. Sneed’s response is available at www.theonefeather.com/2019/06/chief-sneed-responds-to-sen-burrs-mean-spirited-op-ed.

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