Three longtime congressional friends of Indian country have urged the Interior Department to approve the Catawba Indian Nation’s trust application for land in North Carolina where it plans to build a casino, arguing that justice will be served by doing so. But the Nation still faces fierce opposition from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians--a tribe that wants to lock out all gaming competition in the state.
In recent letters to the Interior Department, Congressman Jim Moran (D-Virginia), Congressman George Miller (D-Calif.) and former Democratic Congressman and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said now’s the time for the federal government to fulfill its trust responsibility and the promises made in the 1993 Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act.
On June 9, Moran wrote to Interior Department Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn “in strong support of the Catawba Indian Nation 's application to take land into trust within the Tribe's Federal service area in King's Mountain, North Carolina.”
The South Carolina-based Catawba Nation asked Interior last fall to take into trust a 16-acre parcel in Cleveland County, North Carolina, near an interstate highway about 30 miles northwest of its reservation at Rock Hill, SC. The Nation plans to build a $340 million resort casino and hotel. The project is expected to bring 4,000 jobs to an area where unemployment hovers over 10 percent.
Moran says taking land into trust for the Catawba Indian Nation is a matter not only of justice but also of law.
“I have no political or personal interest in this issue. I wrote to the BIA solely as a matter of justice,” Moran told ICTMN. “It’s just horrible, in my view, the way the Catawbas have been treated by North and South Carolina. They have a mandatory right to thousands of acres, but they’ve been denied the ability to implement what the law requires.”
Interior spokeswoman Nedra Darling said Catawba’s application is pending, but she could not comment further.
In his letter to Washburn, Moran outlines the history of “this fabled tribe” that helped win the American Revolution’s Battle of King’s Mountain--a victory Thomas Jefferson called “the turn of the tide of success” for the North. “The Catawbas have been faithful allies of the United States, and yet their lands and rights have been eroded by a combination of federal and state action,” Moran wrote. “It is a familiar story in the long and tragic history of federal Indian policy, but with a twist -the tribe's rights were further undermined by Congress during my service here through passage of the Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993.”
The1993 legislation restored the tribe's federal recognition which the federal government had taken away during the Termination Era but the big promise that the Nation has the right to a reservation of up to 4200 acres never materialized. “Two decades later, the tribe's reservation is a mere 1,006 acres, with the State of South Carolina working to block the Catawba Tribe at every tum,” Moran wrote.
Miller, who was chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources when Congress passed the Catawba Settlement Act, asked Washburn to act quickly. “I believe that it is in the interest of justice that the Interior fulfill the intent and promise of this legislation by moving forward expeditiously on the Catawba's trust application,” Miller wrote.
Moran and Miller, longtime congressional colleagues and advocates for Indian country, have a combined 65 years of service in Congress. Both men are retiring at the end of the year.
Richardson was chairman of the House Indian Affairs Subcommittee in 1993 when the Catawba Settlement Act was passed, he told Washburn and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in a May 27 letter. “The Subcommittee was well aware of the Tribe’s unique history, the vast lands in South and North Carolina they once owned, and the injustices visited upon them throughout their history,” Richardson wrote. “Even the Act as passed in 1993, although intended to bring a measure of justice to the Catawbas, included extraordinary jurisdictional and other restrictions in South Carolina that were insisted upon by the South Carolina delegation.”
No such restrictions were included for North Carolina, where the subcommittee extended the Nation’s service area into six counties, Richardson wrote, urging Interior to approve the trust application on a priority basis “so that this Tribe may finally have a chance to realize its potential consistent with the promises made to it over 20 years ago.”
The Catawba Nation also has the support of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. “The Lumbee and the Catawba have suffered historic injustices, and we believe the approval and development of this project will go a long way towards redressing those wrongs for both Tribes,” Lumbee Chairman Paul Brooks said in a letter of support for the Catawbas. “As our friends and neighbors, the Catawbas have demonstrated a commitment to working together for the mutual benefit of both Tribes, and we are proud to stand with our brothers and sisters of the Catawba Indian Nation in full support of this important economic development project in North Carolina.”
No such inter-tribal solidarity exists between Catawba or Lumbee and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and its powerful Washington lobbyist Ietan Consulting. Ietan lobbied successfully for more than a decade against federal acknowledgement of the Lumbee Tribe, Senate Office of Public Records disclosure documents show.
The EBCI, who own and operate the successful Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort some 130 miles away the Catawba’s proposed casino site, vigorously opposes the Catawba’s casino proposal. ECBI Principle Chief Michell Hicks has said the Catawba casino would negatively impact job growth and revenue at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and for the western region of North Carolina.
Almost every North Carolina legislator is also against the Catawba proposal. Last fall. North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and more than 100 House legislators wrote asking Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to block Catawba’s land into trust application. Nearly every legislator who signed the letter received campaign donations from the EBCI in 2012 ranging from $500 to $4000, the amount Tillis received, according to Follow the Money. The EBCI spent almost $1.3 million on campaign donations between 2004-2012, Follow the Money reported.
Now the North Carolina Republican Party has held its convention in early June at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort where Tillis was nominated to challenge Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan for a Senate seat this fall. Hagan’s seat is seen as the tipping point for Republican Senate control, according to The Hill.
Hicks praised the Republican candidates in a speech at their convention. “I am encouraged by the folks who are running for office,” Hicks said, according to the Cherokee One Feather reported. “This is a year that we set a new foundation for ourselves.”
Lumbee Chairman Paul Brooks told ICTMN he’s saddened when he thinks about the time former Gov. James Hunt was in office and the Lumbees enthusiastically supported the EBCI’s efforts.
"Gov. Hunt consulted with the Lumbee in 1994 regarding compacting with EBCI, which was a year after Catawba received its federal service area in North Carolina. We were extremely supportive of EBCI and thought it would pave the way for us to compact with NC too,” Brooks said. “It was a heart breaker for me when I and my tribe learned of ECBI turning on their native brothers and sisters as demonstrated by their 13 year fight to block our federal recognition. Now the EBCI are all alone with only their money to keep them company."
Ietan did not respond to an email seeking comment.