Work begins on casino that’s pitting tribe against tribe

An artist rendering depicts the completed Catawba casino near Charlotte, North Carolina. (Catawba Resort Rendering: Catawba Indian Nation)

Joseph Martin

Construction on the Catawbas' project recently got underway on land Cherokees say is theirs

Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

Construction is underway on a North Carolina casino owned by the South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation, even as additional plaintiffs join a lawsuit seeking to block the project.

The Catawba Indian Nation broke ground July 22 on its Kings Mountain casino near Charlotte.

Early last month, 12 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina joined their tribe as plaintiffs against the U.S. Interior Department over its taking of what they say is Cherokee land into trust for the Catawba.

The Eastern Cherokees seek to reverse the Interior’s action. The additional plaintiffs live at or near the casino site.

Their complaint claims the Catawba project is driven by  a developer with ties to previous gaming businesses that encountered legal trouble. The Eastern Cherokees were unsuccessful earlier in getting an injunction against the transfer.

The attorney representing the Catawba tribe, Daniel S. Volchok, wrote in his answer filed July 30: “The Catawba denies that the Cherokee historical territory encompassed where the Kings Mountain site is located.”

Neither Catawba Chief Bill Harris, nor spokesperson Elizabeth Harris, responded immediately to requests for comment. But according to a statement released July 22, the casino will provide an estimated 2,600 jobs upon its expected opening in summer 2021.

William Harris
Catawba Chief William Harris (Courtesy photo)

“Today is truly about righting a historical wrong, and creating a brighter future for us all,” Bill Harris stated. “These same lands that provided so much for us in the past will now provide again, and not just for Catawbas, but also for the working people of North Carolina.”

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed maintains the project’s backers are wasting money without a final decision from U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg of the District of Columbia

"It’s investors’ money to flush as they see fit,” Sneed said in a statement. “But it does seem like a slap in the face to (Boasberg) to proceed now. The facts are clear that the (Interior) violated federal law in their rushed, politicized decision, and we are confident that the court will ultimately put an end to Wallace Cheves’ shady scheme to force this casino on North Carolina.”

Sneed said the decision by Cheves, the developer, to “rush ahead of the courts and break ground” also leaves the city of Kings Mountain in a difficult spot.

“Once this project is stopped, the city leaders are likely to find themselves stuck with a half-finished building and the full costs of dealing with it,” he said.

As for the support from the individual tribal member plaintiffs, along with the Cherokee Nation, Sneed said: “We welcome the growing coalition that is fighting against the (Interior’s) decision.”

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

The Eastern Cherokees contend Cheves used political influence to establish the casino across state lines regardless of federal law.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a bill to place the Kings Mountain land into trust for the Catawba tribe, though the measure never made it past the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. North Carolina’s two Republican senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, were co-sponsors.

On March 12, Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, approved the acquisition of the Kings Mountain site for the purposes of establishing Indian gaming.

The Eastern Cherokee allege Cheves used his connections to the Trump administration to secure the land.

Cheves has been a frequent contributor to the Republican Party and to Republican candidates, giving campaign donations to both North Carolina senators.

President Donald Trump and Graham also received money from Cheves, according to opensecrets.org, a database operated by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians also has contributed to Burr and Tillis’ campaigns, but not to Trump.

The Cherokees allege Cheves has operated without regard to gaming laws.

Nearly 20 years ago, a company he ran called First Link ran into legal trouble over its use of “Touch Easy Keno” games. Cheves was indicted in federal court in Ohio on illegal gambling and other charges, but the case was later dropped.

In 2013, then-Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange brought action against Segway Gaming Systems of Alabama, a company for which Cheves was a partner. The state seized 691 illegal gambling devices and more than $288,000 in cash.

Cheves has said Segway was caught up in a larger campaign by Alabama officials against the gaming industry, the Charlotte Observer reported. He noted Segway has no connection to the Catawbas’ casino.

Cheves did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Indian Country Today. However, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jean E. Williams, who is representing the Interior, said in her July 30 response to those allegations that they were vague and ambiguous and she denied them. She also said the same about assertions that the Kings Mountain area was Cherokee land.

While Catawba officials didn’t respond immediately to requests for comment on the Eastern Cherokees’ allegations, they did release a post on the tribe’s Facebook page July 9.

“Based on their original complaint, (the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) sought a preliminary injunction asking the court to block our project, and the Court denied that motion on April 30 because of the weakness of their case. The (Eastern Cherokee tribe) has now amended the complaint, which reiterates the same claims they made in the original. ... We remain confident that the judge will find that the (Interior) followed all federal laws and made the proper decision regarding our application.”

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

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