A brief history of alcohol among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

by Nov 16, 2017NEWS ka-no-he-da0 comments



The idea of alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary and on lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been debated for years.  Recently, the issue has surfaced again so the One Feather has decided to delve into the history of alcohol within the Tribe.

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact time and place that alcohol first came to the Cherokee Nation, but one of the earliest examples of it being an issue centered on Yonaguska (Drowning Bear), Head Chief of Cherokee Middle Towns in the early 19th Century.

“The extension of state laws over the Cherokee Nation in the late 1820s freed traders from the restrictions previously imposed on the sale of liquor and allowed unscrupulous speculators, whose appetite for land had been whetted by the discovery of gold in northern Georgia, to employ alcohol in frequently successful attempts to negotiate illegal sales of Cherokee property,” states an article in the “Dictionary of North Carolina Biography” published by the University of North Carolina Press.  “Yonaguska realized that intemperance would destroy both himself and his tribesmen.”

 It continues, “Yonaguska encouraged his people to refrain from the immoderate consumption of alcohol and then instructed his clerk to write down a pledge by which the Qualla Indians agreed to ‘abandon the use of spirituous liquors’.  The chief signed first, and all the residents of the town reportedly followed.  In 1838, (William Holland) Thomas credited Yonaguska with the Oconaluftee Cherokee’s ‘present state of improvement’ because of his devotion to the cause of temperance.”

According to an article in the University of Nebraska – Lincoln’s “Great Plains Quarterly” entitled “The Greatest Evil – Interpretations of Indian Prohibition Laws, 1832-1953”, “In 1832, the Office of Commissioner of Indian Affairs was created by Congress, and the commissioner was given the responsibility of alcohol prohibition.  The act creating the office included a prohibition clause: ‘No ardent spirits shall be hereafter introduced, under any pretense, into the Indian Country.’”

Several years later, Congress approved an Act, on June 30, 1834, to regulate trade in Indian Country which provided a $500 penalty to anyone who “shall sell, exchange, or give, barter, or dispose of, any spirituous liquor or wine to an Indian (in Indian Country)”.

Flash forward to the early 20th Century.  The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, enacted Jan. 16, 1919, called for a nationwide prohibition on alcohol.  Fourteen years later, the 21stAmendment, enacted Dec. 5, 1933, repealed prohibition and put the authority to regulate alcohol in the hands of the states.  Of particular interest, the 21st Amendment was the only one ratified by state ratifying conventions.  In all, 38 of the then 48 states ratified the amendment.  South Carolina rejected the amendment, and North Carolina voters opposed the idea of even holding a convention on the amendment.  The remaining eight states simply took no action.

Prohibition continued in Indian Country though until 1953 when President Eisenhower, known for his termination policies, ended prohibition among Indian tribes.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is in its twentieth year of existence having opened in November 1997.  For the first 12 years, the facility was alcohol-free.  That changed in 2009.

In July 2008, the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise (TCGE) submitted a resolution to Tribal Council calling for a tribal-wide referendum vote on whether or not to allow the casino “to permit the sale of malt beverages, unfortified wines, and mixed drinks, within the premises of the Casino and Hotel”.  That resolution passed on Aug. 7, 2008, and 20 days later, then-Principal Chief Michell Hicks vetoed the legislation.  Tribal Council heard the veto during a special session on Sept. 26, 2008 and failed to override the veto by a vote of 51 to 49 percent.

A Citizen’s Committee then got to work garnering petition signatures to hold the referendum, and on Feb. 5, 2009, the Tribal Board of Elections presented the petitions to Tribal Council with a total of 1,562 certified signatures which was 28 more than the 1,534 required.

The next month, on March 5, 2009, Tribal Council approved a resolution confirming the petition and scheduled the referendum for June 4, 2009.

Just prior to the vote, Chief Hicks stated, “I would like to reiterate my promise to the Cherokee people that I will support whatever decision our Cherokee voters make at the polls.”

And, he did.

The next week, the voting populace of the Tribe hit the polls and approved the referendum by a vote of 1,847 to 1,301.  Snowbird was the only community that didn’t vote to approve the measure (109 for, 115 against).

Following that vote, Norma Moss, then-Chairperson of the TCGE Board, commented, “By allowing the sale of alcohol in the casino’s restaurants and on the gaming floor, members of the Tribe voted to allow Harrah’s Cherokee to operate on a level playing field with other casinos across the nation.”

Several months after the referendum vote, the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission (TABCC) was created with the passage of Ord. No. 903 on Aug. 19, 2009 with the authority to administer Tribal ABC laws, issue ABC permits, and act as the distributor of all alcohol on tribal trust lands.

Alcohol sales began at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino later that fall.

Several years later, the State of North Carolina added 18B-112 (Tribal alcoholic beverage control) to the state’s general statutes which states, “…the tribal alcoholic beverage control commission shall possess the same powers and authority conveyed upon the North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission…”  The Tribe adopted the same rules into Cherokee Code in Ord. No. 768 (2011) which was passed on July 14, 2011.

The alcohol issue arose again in 2012.  Four questions were put to EBCI tribal voters in a referendum held April 12, 2012.  Only one of the four measures was approved.  The four questions put forth that day included:

Question 1: “To permit a Tribal ABC Store to sell NC authorized alcohol products to the public” (For: 1,005; Against: 1,499)

Question 2: “To permit the on-premises sale of malt beverages, unfortified wine, and mixed beverages only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians” (For: 995; Against: 1,498)

Question 3: “To permit the off-premises sale of malt beverages and unfortified wine only in grocery stores licensed by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians” (For: 851; Against: 1,640)

Question 4: “Should each township on the Qualla Boundary have the local option to call for a specially-held referendum in that township to vote out alcohol sales and distribution for their township?” (For: 1,259; Against: 1,220)

A week prior to the referendum being held, a group of over 40 EBCI tribal members entered the Tribal Council Chambers to hand deliver a letter to Chief Hicks asking for a special session of Tribal Council to discuss several legal issues they saw with the scheduled referendum.

Amy Walker, an EBCI tribal elder, told the One Feather that day, “We want to be heard on the laws that we feel that they are breaking.”

She and others referenced Cherokee Code Sec. 161-9 which states, “An issue that has been brought up before the eligible voters and voted upon by referendum/initiative may not be voted upon again until a period of five years have passed.”

Bob Blankenship, former TABCC chairperson, stated at the time, “I disagree with the protester’s point of view.  We have never voted for a Tribal ABC Store.  We have never voted for on-premises sales in restaurants outside the casino, and we have never voted for off-premise sales in grocery stores.  The issue is not just the subject of alcohol sales, but what type of sales and where.”

Peggy Hill, an EBCI tribal elder from the Yellowhill Community, filed a Complaint and Request for Injunctive Relief in Cherokee Tribal Court alleging a violation of Sec. 161-9.  The injunction was denied, the request for a Special Council Session was denied, and the referendum vote went forward.

Following the vote, in which only one of the four measures passed, Chief Hicks noted, “Obviously, we’re all glad it’s over with.  There was a lot of anticipation and a lot of opinions on the issue.  But, what I am most thankful for is that we have a formal process now.”

Debbie Sexton, a member of the Cherokee Church of Christ, told the One Feather, “There are good arguments for both sides of the issue of how alcohol could help boost the economy, but what I do feel good about is that the people have stood up to voice their stand that they need to stay true to their elder’s beliefs that alcohol will ultimately only cause unahappiness.”

Five years after that historic vote, Painttown Rep. Lisa Taylor introduced legislation, in Annual Council on Oct. 26, 2017, calling for a referendum vote on sales outside the property of the casino.  “I think that our people here are intelligent enough to make decisions on this issue, and we’ve not been able to vote and our voice has been cut off.  So, I think give our people an opportunity to say whether we want alcohol or not in other areas other than the casino like it was voted on.”

Much of the discussion on this legislation has centered on the Blue Ridge law which allows alcohol sales in restaurants located within 1.5 miles of an entrance or exit ramp of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Several businesses in Cherokee, located within that distance, were issued permits in the spring of 2017 based on that provision.

A special night work session was held at the Cherokee Indian Fairgrounds on Nov. 6, 2017 to discuss Rep. Taylor’s legislation.

Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed told the crowd, “It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people.  There’s been a lot of damage that people have sustained in their lives.  At the end of the day, the referendum gives the vote to the people.  I’m in full support of a referendum vote.”

Peggy Hill, a constant voice on this issue, spoke that evening and said the Tribe should follow the example of Yonaguska (Drowning Bear).  “One hundred and eighty-eight (188) years later, alcohol among the Eastern Band is still, for the most part, still unacceptable.”