Catawba Nation celebrates after Trump administration changes mind on casino project
Monday, March 16, 2020
By Acee Agoyo
It took nearly seven years but the Catawba Nation has finally won approval to build a casino on ancestral territory in North Carolina, a move that drew a strong condemnation from another tribe with an existing enterprise in the state.
The Catawbas celebrated after learning of the long awaited decision last Thursday. A call from Department of the Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C., came shortly before 4pm, a tribal official told Indianz.Com.
“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 though economic development,” Chief Bill Harris said in a news release.
The decision, signed by Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney, means the tribe can open a gaming facility on about 17 acres near the city of Kings Mountain in Cleveland County. The land falls within the service area that was defined by Congress through a land claim settlement act and Harris said his people have strong connections to the site.
“The land is located in close proximity to our current landholdings and is our ancestral land, in an area that the Catawba people have used and occupied since time immemorial," said Harris.
But as Harris and supporters at the local level were cheering the Trump administration at a city hall press conference the following day, another tribe was simmering. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose ancestral territory extends to the same region in North Carolina, blasted the determination as an affront to its sovereignty.
“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,” Chief Richard Sneed said in a news release on Friday. “This decision creates a dangerous precedent for all federally recognized tribes that empowers corrupt developers and their lobbyists to use politicians to determine what laws and precedents are followed and which ones are ignored. This decision cannot and will not stand.”
The approval in fact represents a dramatic change in course from Washington. It was approved under a new legal framework that was unveiled to Indian Country just days prior, all without prior consultation or notice, but under a cloud of suspicion from tribal leaders.
"This action is not only disappointing, as we expect more from our federal partner, but it flies in the face of DOI’s legal responsibility to consult with Tribal Nations and stands in direct contrast to its previously expressed commitment," the United South and Eastern Tribes Sovereignty Protection Fund, which counts both the Catawba Nation and the Eastern Band as members, said in a statement addressing the shift in federal policy.
Please visit the link below to see the EBCI’s response to the Department of Interior ruling regarding the Catawba Indian Nation.
The decision also marks a turnaround for the Trump administration itself. Just two years ago, Interior was telling the Catawba Nation that it could not secure land in North Carolina because the state was not a party to a settlement approved by Congress in 1993.
But that was before Republican allies of Donald Trump got involved. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), who is one of the most outspoken defenders of the president, introduced legislation last year to ensure the tribe's land gets placed in trust.
"The Catawba Nation has been treated unfairly by the federal government, and our legislation rights that wrong," Graham said of S.790, which had the support of two additional Republicans, one of whom took the extraordinary step of accusing the Eastern Band of "bullying" other tribes, prompting Chief Sneed to defend his people from the "meanspirited" attack.
There was no explanation for the reversal, however. Instead, Trump administration officials congratulated themselves for making a "historic" decision in favor of the Catawba Nation, under documents made public by the Office of the Solicitor at Interior earlier in the week.
“The Solicitor’s Guidance reflects the Department’s experience and expertise gained through processing fee-to-trust applications,” Deputy Solicitor for Indian Affairs Kyle Scherer said in a news release. “In addition to making the process more transparent, we anticipate the Solicitor’s Guidance will decrease costs and review times for each application.”
Whether the new framework benefits Indian Country might soon be tested in court. Sneed is promising to sue the federal government on behalf of the Eastern Band, a threat that the Catawba Nation did not take lightly.
"It is unfortunate that the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians continues to perpetuate this narrative of tribe vs. tribe," Chief Harris said on Friday evening. "The Catawba Nation has reached out many times to the leadership of EBCI to try to work together."
The Catawba Nation is headquartered in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The offices are about 47 miles from the casino site in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.
Under the Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina Land Claims Settlement Act of 1993, the tribe is barred from following the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act on its homelands in South Carolina. The law instead directs the Catawbas to follow state law, which restricts operations to high-states bingo and related offerings.
The law is silent on IGRA's applicability to tribal lands in North Carolina. It nonetheless directs the federal government to acquire land within a service area that include Cleveland County and other parts of the state.
But the Trump administration wasn't ready to accept its responsibilities just two years ago.
"On March 23, 2018, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior issued a memorandum clarifying that the mandatory trust authority of the settlement act did not extend
to the site because it was located outside South Carolina," the decision on Friday recounted. "The Deputy Secretary concluded that the mandatory acquisition provisions negotiated between South Carolina and the Nation could not be applied to a sovereign state that was not a party to the settlement agreement."
The declaration prompted the tribe to withdraw a land-into-trust application that had been submitted in August 2013. A new one was submitted in September 2018, which prompted Interior to take another look at the request.
This time around, the exclusion of the "sovereign state" of North Carolina did not matter as much to Interior, whose leader is Secretary David Bernhardt. In 2018, he was serving as the Deputy Secretary, meaning he was the one who wrote the memo that went against the tribe's interests. In essence, he reversed himself in his rise to power in Washington.
"In sum, there is nothing in the settlement act inconsistent with the Secretary’s authority to take lands into trust for the Nation outside the state," the decision issued on Friday read.
The Catawba Nation has not said when it plans to break ground on the forthcoming facility. The project is expected to generate as many as 5,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs.
“We want to thank Senators Graham, Tillis and Burr for their continual support to correct this injustice to the Catawba Indian Nation,” said Chief Harris, praising. Sen. Thom Tillis and Sen. Richard Burr, both Republicans from North Carolina, in addition to Graham from South Carolina. “We look forward to sharing details on the project as we move forward.”
Harris also said the tribe plans to reach out to Gov. Roy Cooper (D). The state's approval, in the form of a Class III gaming compact, will be needed in order for the Catawbas to offer s slot machines, blackjack and related offerings at the planned casino.
The Eastern Band is based in the western part of North Carolina, where the tribe operates two casinos. The Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel are being closed down at 6am on Wednesday for a period of two weeks in order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in the United States.
I want to thank the leadership with Harrahs Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrahs Valley River Casino & Hotel for everything they do for the EBCI community.
"To be clear, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos to date," a statement issued on Monday read. "However, for the health and safety of our team members and guests, the casino will close beginning Wednesday, March 18."
"This decision is a precautionary measure only, made to ensure we are in compliance with local rules and regulations," the statement continued.
"During the closure, Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos will be paying two weeks of pay to all team members and benefits will not be interrupted," it read.