Casino Wars in the Carolinas: Two tribes that have battled for centuries are at odds once again

This time, what they are battling over isn’t water or captives or trade routes. It’s tourists.
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In North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found a way to take care of their people: In 1997, they opened a casino on their lands. Now South Carolina’s Catawba tribe wants to do the same. But there is a problem: The land the Catawba have settled upon for their casino—land they assert belonged to their ancestors—is also claimed by the Cherokee. As accusations fly and politicians take sides, two tribes that warred for centuries find themselves at odds once again. Only this time, what they are battling over isn’t water or captives or trade routes. It’s tourists.

 

An ancient story tells of a battle over hunting grounds that took place between the Cherokee and the Catawba centuries ago. Passed down through generations, the tale describes a violent clash between the two tribes deep in the southern Piedmont. For three days and three nights, they fought without ceasing, until both sides feared they might perish. On the fourth day, their leaders met in secret on the land to which they both laid claim. Instead of continuing to wage war on one another, they decided to create a boundary and divide the grounds. It was better, they determined, to live with only part of the land than to die in the struggle for it all.

In western North Carolina, in a fog-ribboned valley among the peaks of the Smoky Mountains, 16,000 Cherokee reside within the Qualla Boundary. Spanning some 56,000 acres, the land has waterfalls and forests, hiking trails and trout-filled streams. Outsiders often refer to this territory as a reservation, but it was not given to the Cherokee by the government—tribal members assembled it through a series of purchases during the early nineteenth century. In 1925, it was placed in federal trust.

Of course, the Boundary (as residents call it) has been Cherokee-claimed land for hundreds of years, along with vast territory throughout the southeastern United States. When Europeans began encountering the Cherokee in the sixteenth century, they estimated there were more than fifty Cherokee villages with a combined population of 100,000.

Those numbers nosedived when European diseases, especially smallpox, ravaged the tribe. By the time of the American Revolution, only 20,000 Cherokee survived. Those who remained fought alongside the British, believing King George’s 1763 proclamation that he would forbid any white settlements in or west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Their allegiance would prove costly in lives and land. Thousands died in the war, and the tribe wound up forfeiting most of their South Carolina acreage. Still, after the fighting ended, the Cherokee managed to establish a capitol (New Echota, in northwest Georgia), develop a written language (thanks to a now-famous tribal member named Sequoyah), and print the first American Indian newspaper (The Cherokee Phoenix, which included articles in both Cherokee and English). Though they had suffered greatly during the Revolution, the Cherokee experienced a renaissance.

Then, in 1830, the Indian Removal Act was signed into law, forcing five Southeastern tribes to give up their ancestral lands and move to federal territory west of the Mississippi. Of the 16,000 Cherokee sent to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, only 11,000 survived. “It was an incredible blow to a vibrant nation,” says Russ Townsend, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

Some of the Cherokee who marched to Oklahoma eventually made their way back, joining the approximately 1,000 tribe members who had either been allowed to stay or who had hidden in the mountains. It would be almost four decades before the North Carolina government formally recognized them as the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. And it would be sixty years more before the value of their land in the Qualla Boundary unexpectedly skyrocketed: In 1935, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established along the Boundary’s northern border.

Suddenly, hundreds of cars full of families began driving through the Boundary on their way to the park. By the 1950s, even more cruised into town to hop on the newly constructed Blue Ridge Parkway, which winds nearly 500 miles from the Boundary to Virginia. The Cherokee found themselves in the center of a tourism boom.

They did all they could to capitalize on it. “Roadside Chiefs” stood in dramatic headdresses outside souvenir shops, beating drums and beckoning passersby to come in. One-story motels opened along the main drag. Unto These Hills, an outdoor drama about the history of the Cherokee people, took to the stage in an outdoor amphitheater. The economic engine of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians began to hum.

But business was always seasonal. June through September, hotels were full and restaurants had waits; October through May, most of those hotels and restaurants closed. With such sporadic income, Cherokee poverty rates hovered in the double digits, occasionally jumping to fifty percent. It wasn’t until 1994 that the tribal council authorized a new kind of tourism, one that would take place entirely indoors all year long. That kind of tourism was gaming.

Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Photograph by Gabriel Hanway

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is home to nearly 3,000 dinging, blinking slot machines. Open since 1997, it offers games like blackjack, roulette, and poker at 147 tables, day and night. Invitation-only gaming rooms see tens of thousands of dollars won and lost in a single hand. The casino is home to a mammoth spa and a 3,000-seat concert venue, ten restaurants and a sparkling pool lined with cabanas. Eleven-hundred guest rooms are spread among its three towers, making it the largest hotel in the Carolinas. “Everyone who comes here for the first time is shocked at the scale,” says Brian Saunooke, the resort’s regional vice president of marketing and a Cherokee tribal member.

The resort’s sister property, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel, opened sixty miles southwest in Murphy in 2015 and occupies roughly one-third the space. Together, the casinos see five million visitors a year. The nearest gaming resorts that can compare are four states west in Biloxi, Mississippi.

It all amounts to big business for the Cherokee. Last year, the resorts’ profits totaled $400 million, according to the Bristol Herald Courier. After expenses (including Harrah’s unpublished management fee), the tribe distributes the resort’s revenue. Each tribal member receives two checks a year (Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, says those checks currently add up to approximately $12,000); those pursuing secondary education also receive financial aid. Over the years, the money has gone toward an $83 million hospital, affordable housing, healthcare supplements, a Cherokee language-immersion academy for tribal children, and a K-12 school system. Cultural attractions—the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, Unto These Hills—are heavily supported by gaming revenue.

It is notable that not nearly as many people visit these cultural attractions as they do the casino. (The museum nets 82,000 visitors a year—less than two percent of the number who go to the casinos.) “People who come here to game, come here to game,” Sneed says. Yet even if gamers pay no attention to the history and culture of the tribe that owns the casino, even if they eschew the living-history village and museum and play, much of the money they spend flows back to the Cherokee. The house always wins.

Catawba Chief Bill Harris

Photograph by Gabriel Hanway

The Catawba were among the fiercest American Indian tribes on the East Coast. Scattered across the Carolinas and Virginia, the Siouan-speaking people were seasoned hunters who knew their land intimately and guarded it mercilessly. Rather than fight the Catawba, many a smaller tribe assimilated into it. When the Spanish arrived in the region in 1540, they estimated the Catawba population to be 25,000.

With the entrance of Europeans, the Catawba saw an opportunity to leverage their hunting skills and take part in the fur trade. “Fur was the first and most popular trade in the New World,” says Bill Harris, the Catawba chief since 2011. “Animal hides outperformed cotton, indigo, and rice.” But maintaining control of fur-trade routes was dangerous business, and the Catawba lost many lives in defense of their territory.

Then, in the 1730s, smallpox broke out. It was an adversary against which the powerful tribe was utterly defenseless. Within months, half the population perished. Twenty years later, a second outbreak killed still more. The English began moving onto Catawba land with impunity, leading the weakened tribe to negotiate a 1760 treaty with King George’s surrogates in America. The Catawba relinquished the majority of their land in exchange for sworn protection of 144,000 acres along the modern-day border of South Carolina and North Carolina. Undeterred, English settlers continued to encroach.

During the Revolutionary War, the Catawba’s distrust of the English spurred them to side with the Patriots. Yet even their fortuitous choice of antagonists didn’t ultimately serve them: By the early 1800s, the tribe’s numbers had dwindled to approximately 100—a number so small, the Catawba were exempt from forced relocation and the Trail of Tears. In 1840, the impoverished few who remained sold their South Carolina acreage and moved to Cherokee lands in western North Carolina.

The arrangement didn’t last long. The two tribes, who didn’t share a common language and had a history tainted with aggression, did not mix well. Old wounds broke open, made even more painful by the trauma the Cherokee had suffered during the recent expulsion. Within two years, most of the Catawba left, returning to settle on 630 acres of South Carolina land deeded to them by a sympathetic businessman.

And that is where the tribe resides today, near the banks of the Catawba River, next to Rock Hill, South Carolina, and thirty miles south of Charlotte. Almost 3,400 people now call themselves Catawba, the majority of them living on the reservation or within its service area—the area in which members may enroll in social-service programs and receive financial assistance. Streets named Tomahawk and Singing Bird are lined with prefabricated houses and double-wide trailers. A small cultural center showcases turkey-feather headdresses and sells Catawba pottery. An annual cultural event, the Catawba Pow-Wow, has gone dormant due to funding issues. The tribe’s poverty rate is twenty-three percent, eleven points higher than the national average. “We haven’t prospered,” Harris says. “To grow, we need our own source of economic development.”

That source, Harris believes, should be a Catawba-owned gaming resort.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort

Photograph by Gabriel Hanway

Kings Mountain, North Carolina, is close enough to Charlotte to be considered one of its suburbs, but far enough away to have missed out on most of its success. For much of the twentieth century it was a textile town, but the majority of its manufacturers have downsized or left. Its poverty rate is nineteen percent.

The old-timey downtown strip has a smattering of shops and restaurants—and plenty of “For Sale” signs posted in vacant storefronts. Situated in the midst of them is an old Colonial Revival post office, now a history museum, with an exterior brick wall featuring a giant mural of the Battle of Kings Mountain.

That 1780 battle, which Thomas Jefferson said helped “turn the tide of success” in the American Revolution, saw the Catawba take a pivotal role in the war. The tribe knew the lay of the land and served as scouts for the Patriots, helping them launch a surprise attack on a much-larger British militia. “We had home-court advantage,” Harris says. The Patriots’ unexpected victory at Kings Mountain and the British retreat that followed are the stuff of history books, and the humble town’s greatest claim to fame.

The Catawba’s contributions to that victory are also a primary reason the tribe believes they have a right to put a casino on seventeen acres of land in Kings Mountain, thirty miles northwest of their reservation in Rock Hill. Yes, the area in question is in North Carolina, and they are officially a South Carolina tribe. But the site is well within their designated service area. What’s more, “The borders we recognize in 2020 are not the borders of the Revolutionary War or earlier,” Harris says. “We have an ancestral right to be here.”

It is a point that matters greatly, as the Catawba cannot open a gambling resort on their South Carolina reservation. Twice they have sued the state for the right to do so, and twice they have lost. North Carolina, by contrast, has a clear precedent of allowing such an operation.

Kings Mountain Mayor Scott Neisler says residents of the town are overwhelmingly in favor of the proposed gaming resort. “It would be a real shot in the arm,” he says. A recent economic impact study estimates that such a resort would generate more than $350 million annually and create 4,000 jobs. It would also help the Catawba tribe build their own school, provide healthcare for their people, and get off government assistance.

But there are voices raised in opposition to the Kings Mountain casino, and the loudest among them is that of the Cherokee. They, too, claim Kings Mountain as their aboriginal turf. In fact, they ceded it to North Carolina near the turn of the nineteenth century. They have the documents to prove it.

What’s more, they don’t like the way the Catawba are going about things. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has strict rules in place for tribes attempting to take new land into trust for the purposes of gambling. When Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Thom Tillis and Richard Burr of North Carolina submitted a bill for a Catawba-run Kings Mountain casino in March 2019, it exempted the tribe from some of the most stringent requirements—including paying for myriad impact studies and receiving the approval of the North Carolina governor.

But without this exemption, the process of acquiring land in Kings Mountain for a casino could take up to a decade and cost the Catawba millions of dollars they do not have. “The Catawba Nation has been treated unfairly by the federal government, and our legislation rights that wrong,” Graham says. “I hope this legislation will be quickly passed through the Congress and signed into law so we can once and for all bring resolution to this issue.”

But critics say that giving the Catawba a pass on these regulations—an unprecedented move in Indian gaming—is tantamount to letting the Catawba cut to the front of the line. “Instead of going through the proper channels with state and local officials in North Carolina, this casino is trying to circumvent the traditional process,” says Representative Mark Walker of North Carolina.

Cherokee Chief Sneed agrees. “No other tribe has received this sort of treatment,” he says. “We all have to play by the rules.”

Of course, Sneed has plenty of reasons to oppose the casino that have nothing to do with policy. If a Catawba gaming resort is built in Kings Mountain, it will no doubt siphon off a portion of the tourists who currently travel up I-85 to Harrah’s Cherokee to gamble. The degree to which it will impact the resort, no one knows. But Harris says that’s no reason to oppose the Catawba tribe’s efforts: “Greed should not be the thing that says, ‘You aren’t entitled to it.’”

Sneed bristles at this kind of narrative, which he summarizes as: “Wealthy tribe oppresses poor tribe.” In fact, he says, there’s more behind the Catawba casino than most people realize.

Wallace Cheves is the owner of Sky Boat Gaming, the developer of the Catawba’s proposed casino in Kings Mountain. According to the Charlotte Observer, since 2015, Cheves donated almost $50,000 to the three senators sponsoring the casino bill. In 2016, he also co-chaired Graham’s presidential campaign. What’s more, Kings Mountain attorney and North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore happens to be a lawyer for Sky Boat Gaming. (Moore has recused himself from commenting on the project.)

According to the Charlotte Observer, the wealthy Greenville, South Carolina, businessman has had a long career in gaming, beginning with a video-poker company, then a sweepstakes company, then a riverboat gambling operation. Some of his businesses have wound up in court; at least one was raided by government officials. “He’s a bad actor,” Sneed says.

But the Cherokee aren’t without their own operatives. The tribe’s political action committee (PAC) spent $135,000 lobbying in Raleigh last year and donated $162,000 to political campaigns on both sides of the aisle, making it among the largest and most influential PACs in North Carolina. Under pressure from the Cherokee, thirty-eight (out of fifty) North Carolina senators have signed a letter to the United States Indian Affairs Committee opposing a Catawba casino. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has also come out against it.

It’s all fascinating to Jim Morrill, a longtime Charlotte Observer political reporter who has covered Indian gaming extensively. With behind-the-scenes negotiations, ugly accusations, and billions of dollars at stake, “It’s sort of the Indian War of the twenty-first century,” he says.

One day soon—no one knows exactly when—the United States Department of the Interior will render a decision on whether the Catawba may move forward with their plans for a gaming resort in Kings Mountain. If the Catawba prevail, the ruling is sure to be contested. If they do not? “I really don’t know,” Harris says. “I don’t know any other card I have to play.”

Regardless of the decision, it is sure to become part of a story that both the Cherokee and the Catawba tell for generations to come. A story of a great battle over history, over land rights, over survival. One in which boundaries will either be redrawn or harden into stone. As with most stories involving these two tribes, there will be casualties along the way. And this time, common ground seems impossible to find.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

Photograph by Gabriel Hanway

Catawba Cultural Attractions

Catawba Cultural Center
A small museum showcases the artifacts and history of the Catawba tribe; the adjoining shop sells Catawba-made pottery, paintings, and jewelry.

Cherokee Cultural Attractions

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Interactive displays illuminate the Cherokee tribe’s 11,000-year history. Contact the museum about cultural heritage opportunities, such as observing Cherokee dance performances and learning Cherokee-language basics.

Qualla Arts & Crafts Mutual
Founded in 1946, this is the country’s oldest American Indian cooperative. Pick up baskets, carvings, masks, jewelry, and other items made within the Qualla Boundary.

Oconaluftee Indian Village
Take a guided tour of a recreated 1760s Cherokee village, complete with dancing villagers, weavers, and canoe builders. Don’t miss the medicinal gardens blooming with ancient remedies such as purple thistle, yellow root, and bloodroot.

Unto These Hills
First performed in 1950, this outdoor drama depicts the history of the Cherokee people from 1780 to the present, including a moving reenactment of their experiences on the Trail of Tears.

Cherokee Outdoor Attractions

Golfing
Robert Trent Jones II designed this eighteen-hole public golf course with panoramic views of the Smokies.

Fishing
With thirty miles of freestone streams, fly fishing here is legendary. More than forty local shops offer fishing permits, and many also sell flies, tackle, and bait.

Mountain biking
The newly created Fire Mountain Trails offer ten miles of biking opportunities; options range from easy to highly technical.

Cherokee Gaming Attractions and Lodging

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort
Home to 150,000 square feet of gaming, ten restaurants, an event center, and the largest hotel in the Carolinas.

Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel
Find 50,000 feet of gaming, six restaurants, and 300 hotel rooms.

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published, the U.S. Department of Interior approved the Catawba tribe’s request to put sixteen acres of land in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, into trust for a casino and resort. The Eastern Band of the Cherokees has promised to fight the decision in court.

This article appears in our Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Southbound.

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