What Richard Burr got wrong in his attack on Cherokee Indians

Rendering of new casino in Kings Mountain.

Cleveland County officials are promoting the Catawba Indian tribe’s plans for a “world-class” casino resort off I-85 in Kings Mountain.
Rendering of new casino in Kings Mountain. Cleveland County officials are promoting the Catawba Indian tribe’s plans for a “world-class” casino resort off I-85 in Kings Mountain.

Sen. Richard Burr published an op-ed in the Charlotte Observer last week that attacks the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee people for opposing his Catawba off-reservation casino bill and his Lumbee recognition bill. He also attacks a bipartisan group of North Carolina General Assembly members for daring to cross him and oppose his Catawba off-reservation casino bill.

On behalf of the Eastern Band, a Tribal Nation that has called North Carolina home since before the creation of the United States, I must respond to Senator Burr’s mean-spirited and outright false statements about our Nation and our people.

First, if Sen. Burr’s Catawba bill is enacted into law, the Catawba Nation will not need a Tribal-State compact to have a casino. This is Indian Law 101. The Catawba Nation would be able to quickly open a casino with electronic gaming machines without a compact. As one example, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama owns and operates uncompacted casinos in Alabama. With revenues from these non-compacted casinos, the Poarch Band purchased the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem in Pennsylvania.

Further, Sen. Burr’s legislation exempts the Catawba Nation from going through the federal consultation and approval process. Federal law requires the Department of the Interior to formally consult with state, county, and tribal governments about the gaming facility to decide whether the facility has any “detriment to the local community.” If the Department of the Interior approves the application, the Governor of the state in which the casino would be located has the right to veto the application. Senator Burr’s Catawba bill absolutely prevents the Governor, the North Carolina Senate, the North Carolina House, counties in North Carolina, and the Eastern Band from having a voice in the proposed project.

Second, Sen. Burr claims that the Eastern Band has “aggressively” opposed his Lumbee recognition legislation to protect our “gaming business.” Actually, the Eastern Band has opposed Lumbee recognition legislation for literally a century, long before tribal gaming. The Lumbees have claimed to be a Cherokee tribe and at least three other historic tribes over the years, and their identity as an historic tribe and as individual descendants of an historic tribe has been questioned for many, many years. The Lumbee and other groups have tried to appropriate our Cherokee culture and identity, and the Eastern Band and other established tribes have opposed this appropriation. As Senator Burr knows, the Eastern Band and other tribes support the Lumbees going through the federal acknowledgment process at the Department of the Interior to get a fair shot at federal recognition but oppose Sen. Burr’s bill that would circumvent the federal administrative process.

Third, the allegation that the Eastern Band seized property from an Eastern Band citizen to acquire land for a casino is simply not true. In that case, there was disagreement regarding the legitimacy of the enrolled member’s governing will. The disagreement went to Cherokee Court and the Court issued a judgment that the language of the governing will complied with Tribal law. Tribal Council passed a resolution consistent with the Court’s judgment, and the first-generation descendants (the non-Cherokee citizen children of the deceased) were given their rights in the Tribal trust lands as provided in Cherokee law.

This case demonstrates that Eastern Band Cherokee governmental systems work.

By the way, Sen. Burr never mentioned concerns about this case to us. We learned about his concerns through his angry piece.

These kinds of public attacks against the Eastern Band, or any constituent, should be beneath the dignity of any public official. Sen. Burr should apologize for his false and harsh comments and withdraw the flawed legislation that he’s championing.

Richard Sneed is Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.