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After the Department of Interior said yesterday that it would accept transfer of about 17 acres of North Carolina land into trust, the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina announced today that they will be building a casino in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, about 30 miles outside of Charlotte. The North Carolina-based Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians already operate two casinos in Murphy and Cherokee. The band said it will sue to try to stop the project from happening.

Tara Sweeney, Interior assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, wrote to Catawba Chief William Harris. “Once acquired into trust, the Nation may conduct gaming on the site,” she said.

The Catawba Nation held a press conference where they unveiled plans and renderings of the casino to be located off of Interstate 85.

“The Nation is very thankful for the department’s decision to take this land into trust, enabling us to achieve the promise of self-determination through economic development,” Harris said in a statement. “The land is close in proximity to our current land holdings (Rock Hill, S.C.) and is our ancestral land in an area that the Catawba people have used and occupied since time immemorial.”

William Harris

The Catawba tribe says the project will provide 5,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, claims that the land for the Catawba project is Cherokee land, and the tribe plans to sue to prevent the project from happening. Sneed, through a statement, called the federal government’s action illegal and corrupt. He also said the action threatens Cherokee cultural lands and the environment and violates laws.

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

“The federal government has no right or authority to create a new reservation for the Catawba Nation across state lines, into Cherokee historical territory, just to build a casino.” Sneed said that a dangerous precedent is being set for all federally-recognized tribes where lobbyists and developers can “use” politicians to determine which laws are followed or ignored. “This decision cannot and will not stand.”

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The Catawba Nation submitted an application to the Department of the Interior to transfer the Kings Mountain land into trust in 2018. The Interior determined that while the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act prohibits gaming on trust lands acquired after 1988, there are exemptions, and this exemption was based on restoration of lands for a tribe with restored recognition. The tribe’s federal relationship was terminated in 1959 and restored in 1993. The Interior says the Catawba Nation has historical ties to the North Carolina land.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, also submitted legislation to authorize taking the land into trust for the purpose of gaming. Both of North Carolina’s senators, Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, were the bill’s only cosponsors. The last action was a hearing held in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in May of last year. Despite Burr’s and Tillis’ support, many of North Carolina’s state politicians opposed the bill. Neither North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, nor Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger could be reached for comment. Tillis and Burr could also not be reached for comment.

Harris said his tribe will work with Cooper’s office, and thanked Graham, Burr and Tillis for their support. “We look forward to sharing details on the project as we move forward.”

Burr has been critical of the Eastern Band’s opposition to the Catawbas’ efforts. In a June 19, 2019 op-ed piece in the Charlotte Observer, Burr accused the Cherokee of “bullying” other tribes in North Carolina. “The Cherokee are doing everything in their power to prevent the Catawba Tribe from acquiring land near Kings Mountain for ‘economic development’ (also known as a casino),” Burr said. “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.”

Sneed said that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has acknowledged the presence of artifacts on the land, which he claims is located in traditional Cherokee territory. He said there has been no consultation for protection of cultural resources, and he said that violates the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act. He also said the Catawba project violates the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act since the tribe would have to follow South Carolina law in regards to gaming on and off of Catawba land.

“The Department of the Interior’s decision not only violates the rights of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians but also the will of the people of North Carolina,” Sneed said. “The North Carolina legislature, the elected voice of the citizens of North Carolina, has repeatedly stated its opposition to the proposed Catawba casino, and federal officials circumvented laws that require consultation with North Carolina communities.”

Harris said that the Eastern Band is continuing to perpetuate a tribe-against-tribe narrative, and he said that’s unfortunate. “The Catawba Nation has reached out many times to the leadership of (the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) to try to work together. In the past Chief Sneed has asserted that he isn’t against federally recognized tribes going into the gaming industry, but he wants all tribes to follow the (Interior’s) established regulations,” Harris said.

“In the Catawbas’ decision letter from the Department of Interior, it clearly outlines that the Catawba followed the process from beginning to end, and the decision also demonstrates our cultural and historical ties to this area. The Eastern Band has the right to react however they want to the decision from (the Interior), but we have done and will continue to do all we can for the betterment of our nation as well as extend the hand of friendship and cooperation to other Native nations.”

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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.