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Support for Catawba’s North Carolina Casino May Be Outpacing Opposition

A former secretary of the Department of the Interior has come out in support of the South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation’s proposal to build a casino just over the state line in North Carolina in a county that is within its federal service area and part of its aboriginal land.

Manuel Lujan Jr. was Interior Secretary from 1989 to 1993 when Congress passed the Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act, restoring federal recognition to the Nation and settling its major land claim lawsuit. The Act recognizes the Nation’s ties to both North and South Carolina and confirms its right to acquire—on a mandatory basis—a reservation up to 3,600 acres or, under certain conditions, up to 4,200 acres.

RELATED: Eastern Cherokee Opposition to Catawba Casino Fuels U.S. Senate Race

“In settling the claim, the Catawbas sacrificed much and lived up to their part of the settlement,” Lujan said in a statement to Indian Country Today Media Network. “However, the Catawbas never received what they were promised. I was in the room. The Catawbas were told that this legislation gave them the right to a 3,600 acre reservation. However, their current reservation is only a little over 1,000 acres. The Tribe’s efforts to take land into trust status at a fair price in South Carolina have been stymied by state and local action.”

Lujan said that Congress made it clear in the federal law that the Catawbas’ ancestral lands included both Carolinas by specifically providing that the Nation’s federal service area included the six nearest counties in North Carolina. “Congress intended the Tribe to have the rights of other tribes in North Carolina. In fairness to the Catawbas, Interior should fulfill the intent of Congress to help the Tribe out of poverty and expedite the acceptance of land into trust in North Carolina. Too much time has already passed,” Lujan said.

The Catawba Nation has asked Interior to take into trust a 16-acre parcel near King’s Mountain in Cleveland County, North Carolina, near an interstate highway about 30 miles west of Charlotte and 30 miles northwest of its reservation at Rock Hill, South Carolina. The Nation plans to build a $340 million destination resort casino with 220,000-square-feet of gaming space and 750 guest rooms. The project is expected to bring 4,000 jobs to an area where unemployment hovers over 10 percent.

Courtesy Cawtaba Indian Nation

The entrance to the Catawba Indian Nation reservation near Rock Hill, South Carolina.

But the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), who own and operate the successful Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort some 130 miles away, vigorously opposes the Catawba’s casino proposal and so does almost every North Carolina legislator. In September, North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis and more than 100 House legislators wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to block Catawba’s land into trust application, which was filed September 4. 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.

North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, recently added his voice to the chorus of opposition. In an interview reported in the News Observer, Cooper said he "has real concerns" about the Catawba Indian Nation's casino proposal. "I think it's a bad idea for our state," Cooper said. "We are busily trying to shut down video poker parlors all across the state and I don't think we need another operation like that to stimulate the economy. There are other industries we should recruit."

Cooper’s opposition to the Catawba’s gaming proposal stands in stark contrast to his position in 2001 when he was the state’s newly elected attorney general. At that time, according to Democracy South, a campaign finance watchdog group, video poker money was pouring into North Carolina politics and Cooper received $29,100 from industry donors. Cooper also received $16,100 in donations from the ECBI, making him the eighth highest recipient of campaign donations from the tribe.

According to a source close to the North Carolina government, Cooper was instrumental in drafting the EBCI-state compact, which he personally supported.

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“It's ironic that he doesn't want these kind of jobs or businesses coming to NC, when he and Governor Bev Purdue allowed the Cherokees to grow two more facilities, one in Murphy which is currently being built,” the source said.

Cooper’s opposition is offset by state Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Republican who shifted his stance on gambling and now endorses the Catawba project, News Observer reported.

In a statement issued by his office, Goolsby said he has "never been a proponent of the state lottery or casino gambling" but sees a need for a consistent approach, given that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians operates a casino in far western North Carolina.

"It is not the role of the General Assembly to pick winners and losers," he wrote. "If state leaders want North Carolina to once again become a non-gaming state, I will agree to shut down the state lottery and petition federal officials to shut down the Cherokee casino. When it comes to gaming policy, the state cannot have it both ways."

Goolsby urged his legislative colleagues to negotiate a revenue sharing compact with the Catawbas. "A Catawba-run casino resort operating under the same rules and guidelines as the Cherokee casino could generate millions of dollars each year and numerous jobs in this economically depressed area of our state," Goolsby wrote. "These funds could be used to raise teacher pay and meet other critical needs.”

Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin has added his name to the list of prominent North Carolina officials opposed to a Catawba casino, the News Observer reported. Goodwin, a Democrat, wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently to ask them to deny the Catawbas’ land into trust application. Goodwin is concerned about the issue of “state sovereignty”; he thinks allowing the Catawba Nation to open a casino in North Carolina would open the floodgates to other tribes. “It would appear that if the Catawba Tribe were to prevail then ANY federally recognized Indian Tribes not presently in North Carolina could seek the same recourse with non-reservation land and thereby establish casinos,” he said, calling it a “slippery slope,” according to the report.

But state Representative Tim Moore, who has recused himself from the discussion about Catawba in the legislature because he works for the Catawba casino developer, says a legal analysis shows no tribe other than the Catawba Nation could establish a casino in North Carolina. “There’s a lot of political hyperbole out there, but it’s clear when you look at federal law that there are only two tribes that can have a casino in North Carolina – Eastern Band of Cherokees and the Catawba. The Eastern Band of Cherokees have done a top job for western North Carolina and the Catawba tribe hold that same promise for [Cleveland County] region of North Carolina,” Moore said.

Martin C.J. Mongiello, chief financial officer of The American Revolutionary War Living History Center, a US Military disabled veterans project, has created an online petition asking President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to “Approve the 4,000+ new jobs for a Catawba Nation resort in Cleveland County, NC.” Mongiello reminds legislators of the crucial role the Catawbas played on the “patriots” side in the Revolutionary War. Quoting from “The People of the River” by Douglas Summers Brown, Mongiello says, “The Catawbas proved highly useful as scouts. But for their friendship, the course of war in South Carolina might have taken another direction. There might have been no victory at King’s Mountain. 

But Charles Carrigan, whose ancestors are Cherokee and Catawba, says he has the most practical reason to support the Catawbas’ plan: “Jobs, jobs, jobs! I live down here in Cleveland County where the Catawbas want to put their casino and I’m a big supporter of it. I’m a businessman and I own four businesses and I’ve got a lot of land here in Cleveland County. I’m sort of well thought of in Cleveland County and most people listen to what I say to them. I’m 74 and the Catawbas are willing to do something nice for the county and I’m willing to help them.”

Carrigan said he doesn’t think the citizens of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are opposed to the Catawba casino. “I think the opposition comes from elsewhere,” he said.

He said Cleveland County is in desperate need of jobs and the destination resort casino will provide them and stimulate other business in the area. “It’s not a casino, it’s a resort. There’s nothing but good can come out of this thing because of people needing the work and needing the jobs and needing the money to feed their families. And the main thing about his casino is it’s going to help Cleveland County keep our young people in Cleveland County if they can find jobs here instead of having to go somewhere else.”

As for inter-tribal conflict, Carrigan said, “All the tribes ought to be united. It shouldn’t be one tribe against another tribe.”