Speak Your Piece: Rescued by the Cherokee?

In 1837 the federal government began the forced expulsion of the Cherokee people from North Carolina. Now the counties in the western end of the state are hoping the tribe can save some counties that have faltering economies.

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Farmers are decidedly independent-minded and frugal, as you can observe in a Grant Wood oil painting of note.

The very opposite of those character traits would be for farmers meekly to accept economic rescue – and from attractions luring tourists to their area so the visitors can go for broke and maybe lose everything in gambling casinos.

Yet that’s what happening in five rural counties here at the far western tip of North Carolina that are going through lingering hard times. The hope here is that the Indians will ride to the rescue in these counties — that a people who were once deported from the region by the U.S. Army will now provide for its economic recovery.

It’s rare in our community for any action to go unopposed, but plans to expand casino gambling (operated by the Cherokee) have proceeded without a whisper of dissent. Local officials and citizens alike hope the casinos will juice up the region’s economy.

Now we are just waiting for the paperwork. The U.S. Department of the Interior has for its review a tribal-state compact signed May 22 by Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and Bev Perdue, North Carolina’s Democratic governor.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has the responsibility for “secretarial review” of all such compacts between tribes and states, as provided in the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act signed by President Reagan.

North Carolina’s only Indian gaming facility to date is the Eastern Band’s Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in the Qualla Boundary reservation. This big gaming and hotel facility is at the southern entry point to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The May 22 pact provides for replacing some computerized equipment at the casino with new employees: live dealers. Live dealers make going to a casino a more exciting experience than buying lottery tickets at convenience stores or sitting on stools in sweepstakes parlors in strip centers, gazing trance-like into screens.

The state would receive monthly payments starting at 4 percent of revenue; later in the life of the 30-year agreement, these payments would rise to 8 percent.  

The revenue is to be used “for educating children… but the parties recognize the General Assembly is not bound by the parties’ intended disposition of the funds.” (How I would have liked to have heard the negotiations between the two attorneys general – tribal and state of North Carolina – making that concession to the power of the legislature.)

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Michell Hicks.

In addition (and here is the possible economic rescue), the agreement provides that the Eastern Band could operate two more gaming facilities. These would be in five counties with tribal trust lands. 

The five counties are struggling. In the latest census data for 2006-10, the median household income in Cherokee, Graham, Haywood, Jackson and Swain counties ranges from $28,447 to $41,377 — all well below the state average of $45,570.  The percentage of residents living below the poverty level in these counties ranges from 12.3 to 22.4. The state average is 15.5 percent

That’s data for those living off the reservation.  

The tribe’s June 7 Cherokee One Feather newspaper posted a table showing the per capita amounts that are paid to Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. These payments, from Harrah’s Cherokee casino revenues, go out to tribal members every six months. The most recent payment was $3,785 on June 1. If the year-ending per capita payment matches that, the final amount for 2012 will be $7,570. The tribe told PR Newswire last month it has 15,000 members.

You can see how there are big incentives for grander casinos — and more of them. “I don’t think any of us realize what the impact of this is going to be for North Carolina,” Michell Hicks, principal chief, told Gary D. Robertson of N.C. Associated Press in Raleigh.

The promise is that Indians will ride to their own rescue, and at the same time help their white neighbors in five counties.

The Benefits

Casinos attract out-of-state tourism dollars, create jobs on and off reservations, and increase personal and household earnings, according to Steven Andrew Light and Kathryn R.L. Rand of the University of North Dakota in their book Indian Gaming and Tribal Sovereignty: The Casino Compromise (2005, University of Kansas Press).

The sign in front of the existing casino in Cherokee.

Among casinos’ costs, write the co-authors, are construction and maintenance of roadways and other infrastructure; costs of increased crime; costs of problem and pathological gambling; no direct state taxation of tribal gaming facilities; and no state income tax paid by tribal employees.

There were 448 Indian gaming facilities operating in the U.S. as of 2010, according to the marketing web site for the Indian Gaming Industry Report. Here are several other facts from the current edition of the costly Indian Gaming Industry Report:

• “Gaming revenue at Indian gaming facilities nationwide was approximately $26.7 billion in 2010.”

• “The performance of Indian gaming varies widely across states, tribes and gaming facilities.”

• “Indian gaming continues to make significant contributions to the U.S. economy in terms of output, jobs, wages, tax revenue, and payments to federal, state and local governments.”

(I only quote the marketing web site because this publication by Dr. Alan Meister for Nathan Associates, Inc. of Washington, D.C. costs $399 and I can’t afford it.) 

The Tables are Turned

In the shameful era of the forced removal, the Snowbird Cherokee living on Lake Santeetlah in what is now Graham County, N.C., were gathered by U.S. troops. In what is now Cherokee County, thousands of Cherokee people were held from July to October 1837 at a log palisade fort, named Fort Butler after the U.S. Secretary of War.   

This location on a riverbank in the present-day county seat of Murphy was, as late as 1991, in private ownership and being used as a used-car junkyard. The car salesman told an archivist that the log palisade reached to “where that pine tree is over there.” Today the location has a rude marker placed by a civic club and stating, “This is where the Cherokee were rounded up.” A nearby and more humane N.C. Dept. of History & Archives marker changes the verb clause to “were gathered.”

The newer sign in Murphy notes that the Cherokee “were gathered,” a gentler way of describing what happened.

In my half-century of journalism at workplaces in Florida, Georgia, California and North Carolina, many an editor restrained me from using of the word “irony.” 

But it’s not possible fully to express the irony here: how whites arrived from Europe to take the land from Native Americans yet now quietly hope the latter can use attractions on bits of land they’ve regained control over to revive struggling local economies across the U.S.

Tom Bennett of the Martins Creek community near Murphy, N.C., is a retired newsman.

 

 

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