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Bid for casino near Charlotte splits tribes, NC officials

May 21, 2019

The Catawba Indian Nation wants to build a casino west of Charlotte, creating a rift with the Eastern Band of the Cherokees and among North Carolina elected officials.

The Catawba are based in South Carolina – the tribe’s reservation includes two small parcels on the Catawba River east of Rock Hill, S.C. – but they maintain that federal law extends their territory into North Carolina, including the Kings Mountain area where they want to build a casino.

U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is sponsoring a bill in Congress that would clear the way for a Catawba casino, and 38 North Carolina senators have sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee, urging members to reject the proposal.

“This unprecedented legislation ... is a last-ditch effort to game the system on a flawed application,” the letter states, noting that the Catawba have failed to get Bureau of Indian Affairs approval for the casino and are making an end run around that process.

The letter also notes that a Catawba casino would encroach on Cherokee territory and “deal an economic blow” to western North Carolina, where the tribe runs its own casinos.

“The Catawba bill is founded on horribly flawed policy that undermines the interests of state, county and Eastern Band governments,” Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, said in a statement. “Opposition from elected officials in North Carolina should come as no surprise.”

The Catawba suggested the North Carolina Senate involvement might be connected to years of campaign donations from the Cherokee.

“The letter is one of several unfortunate maneuvers by the Cherokees to obstruct and hurt our tribe,” Catawba Chief Bill Harris said in a statement.

Harris cites Catawba County, Catawba College and the Catawba River as evidence of the tribe’s longstanding relationship with North Carolina and argues that a casino would be an economic boon for Cleveland County.

“The Catawba Indian Nation does not seek preferential treatment. Instead, we only seek to be treated fairly and equitably by the U.S. government as our Cherokee brothers and sisters are treated,” he said.

In addition to pitting two tribes against each other, the casino proposal has divided elected leaders in North Carolina.

North Carolina’s Republican U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have signed on to the Catawba bill as co-sponsors, a move that stunned North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

“This bill that was introduced by a South Carolina senator to allow property in North Carolina to be given to a South Carolina tribe is something that I would hope our representatives would fight,” Berger said Tuesday.

Berger, R-Rockingham, said the major reason the Catawba want the Kings Mountain site is because they haven’t been able to persuade South Carolina lawmakers to approve gaming in their home state.

“Seems to me like, if the Catawba Indians want to build a casino, they ought to advocate for that in their home state,” agreed Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, whose district includes Cherokee lands.

Six years ago, Tillis opposed a Catawba casino in North Carolina when he served as speaker of the North Carolina House. He was among dozens of House members at the time to sign a similar letter to the U.S. Department of Interior as the one the state senators recently sent to Congress.

A spokesman for Tillis said local and county leaders have changed his mind about the casino.

Gov. Roy Cooper also opposed a Catawba casino when he was state attorney general, saying it infringed on state sovereignty. But a Cooper spokesman said the governor has no position on the current bill in Congress.

House Speaker Tim Moore also has no position on the bill, according to a spokesman. Moore, R-Cleveland, would have the casino in his district if it gets built.

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