By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Arecent Department of the Interior (DOI) decision to take land into trust effectively gives the Catawba Indian Nation the green light to open a gaming operation in North Carolina. The official decision, granted on Thursday, March 12, puts 16.57 acres into trust for the Catawba in an area known as the Kings Mountain site in Cleveland County. The seat of government for the Catawba Indian Nation is Rock Hill, S.C.
The DOI decision came down at the same time as another land into trust claim for the Cahto Tribe of the Laytonville Rancheria. Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, said of both decisions in a statement on Friday, March 13, “These decisions empower the Cahto Tribe and the Catawba Nation to pursue economic development opportunities for the benefit of their tribal members and communities. I am proud to support their efforts.”
According to the DOI decision, “The (Catawba) Nation proposes to construct a casino and mixed-use entertainment complex totaling approximately 195,000 square feet. The gaming area will consist of 75,128 square feet with approximately 1,796 electronic gaming machines and 54 table games. The facility will also include a 940-seat restaurant, a small retail space for the sale of Native artwork and crafts, and 2,130 parking spaces to accommodate both patrons and employees.”
The leadership of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians promised to file a lawsuit against the federal government in a press release on March 13 stating, “The decision threatens Cherokee cultural lands, the environment, and the rule of the law.”
Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed stated, “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. 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.”
In a press release on March 12, the Catawba Indian Nation projected their casino project will “bring as many as 5,000 badly-needed construction jobs and 4,000 valuable permanent jobs to the area”.
“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 through economic development,” Catawba Nation Chief William Harris said in a statement on March 12. “The Department has a very rigorous process for reviewing proposed trust land acquisitions. We are very thankful for the hard work of the Department’s solicitors and staff on our application, who carefully reviewed our history, including our historic land settlement, ensuring that it is consistent with the Supreme Court’s Carcieri decision. 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.”
Chief Harris further noted in his statement, “We want to thank Senators Graham, Tillis, and Burr for their continual support to correct this injustice to the Catawba Indian Nation. We look forward to sharing details on the project as we move forward.”
According to information from the DOI ruling, “The site is located approximately 33 miles west of Charlotte, North Carolina, and 34 miles northwest of Rock Hill, South Carolina, the location of the Nation’s headquarters. The site is also located approximately 33 miles from he Nation’s existing reservation and 19 miles from its historic reservation. The site is within the Nation’s congressionally-established service area. The Nation entered into a Purchase Agreement for the site on Sept. 14, 2018.”
It went on to state, “An economic impact study prepared by London & Associates concluded that the proposed facility would represent a $273 million investment in Cleveland County, and once operational, the facility would generate $208 million of direct economic activity.”
Information in a DOI press release on March 13 states, “These historic decisions, and the records supporting them, benefited from recently released guidance supporting a clear four-step process for analyzing trust acquisitions under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in Carcieri v. United States.”
Deputy Solicitor for Indian Affairs Kyle Scherer said in a statement on March 13, “The Solicitor’s Guidance reflects the Department’s experience and expertise gained through processing fee-to-trust applications. In addition to making the process more transparent, we anticipate the Solicitor’s Guidance will decrease costs and review times for each application.”
EBCI leaders outlined more of their objections in the March 13 press release stating, “The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has acknowledged that there is a possibility that archaeological artifacts and resources could be discovered during construction on the site, which is located squarely within Cherokee historical territory. Still, to date, the BIA has not consulted with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on cultural protection measures. Development of a casino on historic Cherokee land without consulting with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians on the proposal violates federal law, specifically, the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act.”
The EBCI release continued, “Furthermore, the Department ignores federal laws related to the Catawba that prohibit the ‘Catawba Indian Tribe of South Carolina’ from tribal government gaming under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, and that requires application of South Carolina laws to Catawba on and off reservation lands.”
Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) introduced a bill last March attempting to clarify “the authority of the Department of the Interior to act on the Catawba Indian Nation’s land in trust application…” The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the bill, but no further action occurred.
At the time of introduction, Sen. Graham said in a statement, “The Catawba Nation has been treated unfairly by the federal government, and our legislation rights that wrong.”
John L. Rustin, president of the North Carolina Family Policy Council, a group who has openly opposed all gaming in the state, said in a statement on March 13, “We are absolutely astounded by this announcement. First of all, we know the devastating impact a gambling casino of this sort would have on the families and communities of central North Carolina and the surrounding area. Secondly, our research clearly indicates that the Catawba Indian Nation lacks the grounds to even ask the Department of Interior to take land outside of the State of South Carolina int o trust on the tribe’s behalf for gambling purposes. We will continue to fight this casino scheme with everything we have.”