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Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

Leaders of the North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are forging ahead with the purchase of an Indiana casino despite objections from some high-profile citizens, including three former principal chiefs and two candidates for the office.

The tribe already owns two casinos — in Cherokee and Murphy, North Carolina —but they face competition with a project underway by the Catawba Indian Nation.

The South Carolina-based Catawba tribe has a compact in hand, signed by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, for a new casino outside Charlotte, North Carolina. The Eastern Cherokee are fighting it in court, but work on the property is underway.

(Related: Work begins on casino that’s pitting tribe against tribe)

Those who support the Eastern Cherokees’ multimillion-dollar purchase of the southern Indiana Caesars casino have argued the need to keep gaming revenue flowing with competition coming.

Opponents aren’t convinced it's a good investment.

At a meeting last month, Tribal Council, by a 5-7 vote, refused to hear a protest resolution offered by Robert Saunooke, an attorney and 2007 candidate for principal chief. Saunooke submitted the protest along with 13 others, including former Principal Chief Michell Hicks and current Council Reps. Bo Crowe and Albert Rose.

The opposition united tribal politicians who often have been at odds.

Former Principal Chiefs Patrick Lambert and Joyce Dugan also opposed the purchase, as well as Teresa McCoy, who lost her bid to unseat current Principal Chief Richard Sneed in 2019.

Saunooke alleges the way the purchase was done and the way the operations and management will be set up violates tribal law, particularly because the tribe, he said, will have no say in the property’s management.

On Dec. 14, the council approved a resolution from Sneed to buy the operations of Caesars Southern Indiana in Elizabeth, Indiana, for $250 million, which includes a new lease with annual payments of $32 million. Caesars was required by the Indiana Gaming Commission to divest several of its casinos in the state after its July merge with Eldorado Resorts.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (file photo)

Revenues from the operation are to be allocated to helping fund health, education and welfare services.

“The purchase of Caesars Southern Indiana operating company marks the beginning of an exciting new future for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” Sneed said in a statement. “We are pleased to build upon our long-standing partnership with Caesars as we look to advance our interests in commercial gaming in the coming years.”

He added tribal officials, staff and numerous consultants have reviewed and vetted the project, over a process of several months, and experts in the field approved it.

Those opposed questioned whether the purchase is a good deal.

“As an enrolled member, the actions of the Tribal Council personally impact my ability to receive benefits, enjoy the ownership and control of tribal businesses and secure funding for programs and other services that I enjoy as a member of the tribe,” Saunooke wrote in his protest letter to Tribal Council Chairman Adam Wachacha.

The protest resolution wasn’t placed on the Tribal Council agenda for its Jan. 14 session. Tribal Council’s legal counsel Carolyn West said the protest failed to demonstrate a direct financial impact, and it also failed to show an impact to benefits, which is required by tribal law. However, the council debated whether to hear the protest for nearly an hour.

McCoy, who was on the Tribal Council that approved the management agreement for the Eastern Cherokees’ other two casinos, had many questions about the purchase, like what exactly the tribe would own, taxes and per capita payments to tribal members. The Cherokee and Murphy casinos are branded as Harrah’s but are now operated by Caesars Entertainment.

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The newest gaming property for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel, opened in 2015 (Photo by Joseph Martin).

“What I resent is the secrecy and failure to share information. Twenty five years ago, Council handled the Harrah’s deal, and we read the entire management agreement on public television,” she said. “I believe our members can handle basic business, and as stockholders in this corporation we should have had more access to information, transparency.”

Hicks, who also has been a certified public accountant and the tribe’s budget and finance director, questioned whether the Indiana casino was a good investment.

“I just think we should’ve done a little more diligence on this project,” he said. “I don’t think the community was educated enough.”

That was something Hicks said was partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Jan. 14 council session he questioned the numbers Sneed used to back up the project. He asked about returns on investment and protection of tribal assets.

“I want this deal to go. I want the tribe to diversify, but the numbers gotta make sense. And that’s where I’m having a little difficulty,” Hicks said. “I want to make sure this is a great deal for the tribe — not a mediocre deal, a great deal — (and) that tribal resources are actually coming back.”

The issue brought political foes together in opposition. Lambert, whose impeachment led to Sneed becoming chief and who had unsuccessfully challenged Hicks in 2007 and 2011, was in agreement with Hicks.

Lambert didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. However, on his Facebook page, he also questioned the venture and the wisdom of using the tribe’s treasury for it. He noted that although Saunooke and Hicks had been political adversaries, both were concerned about the tribe’s well-being.

“Casinos across the country generally are in a decline due to online and sports betting. So buying a surplus leased casino for $250 million is highly risky in today’s business environment, in my opinion.”

Dugan, who was principal chief from 1995 to 1999, said the tribe needs to put its focus on the two casinos it already owns, one of which still has an expansion under construction.

Sneed defended the purchase and denied that anything was done secretly.

“My track record shows that I am here to serve (Eastern Cherokee) tribal citizens, and my faith in the validity of this project sustains despite this protest,” he said.

He added he is happy to speak with any tribal citizens who have concerns about the venture.

“I fully believe it is the best next step forward in the (tribe’s) larger economic diversification plan to sustain tribal programs and services in years to come,” Sneed said.

Last year, the Eastern Cherokee sued the U.S. Interior Department over a decision to place land near Charlotte, North Carolina, into trust for the Catawba Indian Nation for the purpose of establishing a casino.

The case, which is pending in federal court, alleges that among other irregularities, the land in question is traditional Cherokee land. The Cherokee Nation has intervened on the Eastern Cherokees’ behalf.

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

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