Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Files Federal Lawsuit to Stop Catawba Casino in North Carolina

Posted on: May 21, 2020, 05:28h. 

Last updated on: May 21, 2020, 06:13h.

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) has filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to reverse a US Department of the Interior decision. In that prior ruling, a request by the Catawba Indian Nation to place land in North Carolina in trust for the purposes of building a casino was put in place.

Catawba Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians casino
A sign welcomes visitors to the Catawba Indian Nation’s reservation in South Carolina. (Image: Jeffery Collins/AP)

The lawsuit continues a long battle between the two tribes over whether the Catawba – based in South Carolina – should be allowed to build a casino in North Carolina.

Catawba Have Pursued Casino For Years

The EBCI is the only federally recognized tribe in North Carolina, and already operates two casinos in the state in partnership with Caesars Entertainment. According to a report by the Smoky Mountain News, the EBCI filed its lawsuit on March 17, just days after the Department of the Interior approved the Catawba application.

“Instead of abiding their trust duties and obligations under federal law to consult with the EBCI concerning the issues and concerns the EBCI raised with regards to Defendants’ proposed final agency action, Defendants ran roughshod over the Administrative Procedures Act, National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act…without issuing a Final Environmental Assessment or Finding of No Significant Impact, in direct violation of the APA and NEPA,” the lawsuit says.

The Catawba have been attempting to gain approval for a casino in Kings Mountain, North Carolina for years. Under the Settlement Act of 1993, the tribe must abide by South Carolina gaming laws. State law allows only for a lottery, meaning the tribe cannot build a casino on its reservation in Rock Hill.

That led the Catawba to apply to take the land in North Carolina – just 34 miles away from the tribe’s current reservation – in 2013. That first application was denied in 2018. However, the tribe applied against under a different process in 2018, gaining approval this March.

The EBCI responded with its lawsuit, calling the decision to approve the application “rushed” and “flawed.”

ECBI Sees Infringement on Historic Cherokee Land

Much of the dispute comes down to where both tribes believe they have historical ties. The EBCI cited the Cherokee Treaty of 1777 and the 1884 Royce Map of Cherokee Land Sessions in its complaint. They claimed it as showing that the Cherokee’s historical territory included what is now Cleveland County in North Carolina. However, the Catawba have claimed that members of its tribe have historically lived in both South and North Carolina as well.

The EBCI also argues that the discovery of historic human-made tools on the Kings Mountain site in 2005 should have triggered a broader archeological survey to find religious or cultural items.

“If the Kings Mountain site is taken into trust for the Catawba Nation, the land will fall under the sovereign governance of the Catawba Nation, and the EBCI THPO [Tribal Historic Preservation Officers] will lose the right to consultation on and protection of Cherokee religious and cultural sites,” EBCI Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Russell Townsend wrote in a declaration attached to the lawsuit.

In a statement, Catawba Nation Chief Bill Harris said the issue shouldn’t be one that pits tribe vs. tribe.

“The Catawba Nation has reached out many times to the leadership of EBCI to try to work together,” Harris said in a statement on March 13, after the EBCI had signaled an intent to take legal action. “Eastern Band has the right to react however they want to the decision from DOI. But we have done and will continue to do all we can for the betterment of our nation, as well as extend the hand of friendship and cooperation to other native nations.”

New Casino Would Create Competition

Regardless of intent, the EBCI sees a Catawba casino as an economic threat. Cherokee Principal Chief Richard Sneed told the Smoky Mountain News that a new casino in Kings Mountain could siphon off the one-third of customers at their casinos that come from the Charlotte area, creating an impact on both the EBCI and the region as a whole.

“This will definitely have a negative economic impact, but it’s not just the Eastern Band it’s going to impact,” Sneed told the Smoky Mountain News in April. “We employ 4,000 North Carolinians; $179 million goes into the surrounding counties.”