By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Catawba Indian Nation is seeking a casino near Kings Mountain, and Senate Bill S. 790 would help pave the way for them to open up for business. Leaders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) have already expressed their opposition to the bill, and now close to three-quarters of the North Carolina Senate has joined that opposition.
In a letter sent to Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who serves as the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the vice chairperson for the Committee, the North Carolina senators wrote, “Senate Bill 790 would – for the first time in U.S. history – allow land to be designated for a tribe to build a casino outside of the Bureau of Indian Affairs process.”
The letter continues, “If passed, the legislation would deal an economic blow to a region of the state that depends on this industry and the thousands of jobs it provides annually. The bill would skirt the formal input process that has worked for decades and doesn’t allow impact from the state or the people who live near the proposed site.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced S. 790 in March with the hopes it would “clarify” language included in the 1993 Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act and authorize the Department of the Interior to act upon their land-into-trust application from several years ago.
N.C. Sen. Jim Davis (R-50th District), one of the 38 signees of the letter, said in a statement, “The legislation skirts the formal input process that gives state and local governments in North Carolina, and their constituents who live near the proposed casino site, a voice in the process. I encourage the U.S. Senate to reject this unprecedented overreach.”
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the matter early in May, but no official decision was delivered. Catawba Indian Nation Chief William Harris offered written testimony stating the bill “will bring justice to the Catawba and assure that Catawba gaming operations are subject to the same strict regulation as other tribal gaming operations.”
He added, “S. 790 does not create any concerning precedent. Rather, it restores the original intent of the Catawba Federal Settlement Act, while limiting the Tribe’s land acquisition to its congressionally established service area, which was deemed in the Act to be the equivalent of ‘on or near reservation’ for certain purposes, reflecting its historic significance to the Tribe.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed, who has been vocal in his opposition to the bill, said in a statement, “We appreciate the support from the surrounding counties and a super-majority of the North Carolina Senate who are concerned with this federal attempt to silence the voices of North Carolina stakeholders, including the Eastern Band. We have been a proud partner with North Carolina for decades. As it stands, this will would create a harmful precedent – the first time Congress has expressly authorized an Indian tribe to acquire land into trust simply for owning and operating an off-reservation casino. We encourage the Catawba Indian Nation to go through the same proper process in their home state of South Carolina that we have worked through for decades as partners with out state of North Carolina.”
During the May 1 Senate Committee of Indian Affairs hearing on the bill, John Tahsuda, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, said in written testimony, “The bill is intended to make the IGRA (Indian Gaming Regulatory Act) applicable to the Tribe, including the important protections and authorities that it provides for tribes generally, such as the option of entering into a tribal-state Class III gaming compact with a state, enactment of tribal gaming ordinances, and the use and net gaming revenue.”
The two U.S. Senators from North Carolina, Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) are co-sponsors on this bill. A spokesperson for Sen. Burr’s office noted that the senator signed onto the bill because it provides much needed clarification around language in the 1993 Catawba Indian Land Claims Settlement Act that has since remained unclear.
There has been no activity on the bill since the May 1 hearing.