Call it another war between North and South. Only this time, North and South refer to the Carolinas.
The Catawba Indian Nation is based in South Carolina. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is in North Carolina, where it operates Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River.
The Catawba want to build their own $273 million casino at Kings Mountain outside Charlotte, North Carolina, but the Cherokee say they have no right to the land. The final arbiter, the U.S. Department of the Interior, has sided with the Catawba—for now.
Last year, EBCI filed a lawsuit against both the Catawba tribe and Interior, seeking to overturn approval of the project. The court expects to hear oral arguments by the end of February.
“It’s about the lawfulness of the Department of the Interior to approve the project,” said a lawyer familiar with the case. “As soon as the Catawba and the casino developers commence construction, the EBCI and its members will lose their ability to protect the Cherokee cultural resources and patrimony that likely exist at the site.”
The lawyer says the site in question was put into trust for the Catawba for gaming purposes only, though the tribe had no presence in North Carolina, now or in the past. In the language of the lawsuit, the Catawba “crossed state lines and acquired land in Cherokee treaty territory.”
The EBCI has called it “a modern-day land grab,” Cherokee Chief Richard Sneed said the proposed Kings Mountain casino “was born of an illegal act and has continued to swirl in controversy and unethical behavior.” Sneed said the project “threatens the integrity of tribal gaming everywhere.”
Naturally, the Catawba have a different take. Catawba Chief Bill Harris said in a news release, “Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort celebrates our rich history and hopeful future in our ancestral lands in North Carolina, where our people were established hundreds of years ago, as the names Catawba River, Catawba County and Catawba College suggest.
“The name pays tribute to the 18th Century Catawba Chief King Hagler and to the city of Kings Mountain, which will be home to the new casino resort.”
The lawsuit seeks to overturn the March 12, 2020 decision of Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tara Sweeney, who directed the acquisition of land within the Cherokees’ historical territory in North Carolina. According to the lawsuit, the driving force behind the acquisition was a well-connected casino developer, Wallace Cheves, who invited the Catawba to lend their name to the scheme after the tribe tried and failed to reverse South Carolina’s ban on gaming. It’s a practice called reservation shopping, and Interior has a long-held position that such trust acquisitions are unlawful.
According to the lawsuit, the Kings Mountain deal violated the Settlement Act of 1993, which allows the Catawba to acquire trust land only in South Carolina. It further contends that Cheves “leveraged his political connections to pressure the Department to proceed without the legislation it had previously recognized was necessary.”
Cooper has signed a revenue-sharing agreement with the Catawba that clears the way for the $273 million resort, according to the Associated Press. In addition to the casino, Cheves is planning to build nearly 600 homes and luxury apartments opposite the casino on the other side of Interstate 85.
It won’t happen if the Cherokees succeed in their challenge. They seek an order that would permanently enjoin Interior from holding the Kings Mountain site in trust for the Catawba, and permanently enjoin the Catawba from operating any gaming on that site.
Lawsuit aside, construction can’t begin until Interior approves the state-tribal agreement, said Dory MacMillan, press secretary for North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper.
“The land for the proposed Catawba casino was taken into trust by the federal government last year,” she said. “While this project is the subject of ongoing federal litigation, the Department of Interior must approve the compact.”
The Cherokee lawsuit acknowledges that “the Catawba have suffered hardships, and understands why Cheves’ proposal found a receptive audience. But the department’s disregard of Congress threatens imminent, irreparable harm” to the incumbent Cherokees, it says. The suit contends that EBCI—the only federally recognized Indian tribe in North Carolina—has done things by the book, working hard to rebuild its institutions of government, and relying heavily on revenues from on-reservation gaming.
Under the 2012 Cherokee compact with North Carolina, the state receives monthly payments based on percentages of gross gaming revenue from live table games. The percentage goes up every five years. The current assessment is 5 percent through August 2022. At that time, it will go up to 6 percent. The compact was amended in December to include sports betting. Federal law prohibits an arrangement based on percentages of sports betting under these conditions. EBCI agreed to pay an annual fee to offset costs to the state related to regulation, MacMillan said.
Meanwhile, the Catawba continue with their plan. Last July, they broke ground on the site. In August, they unveiled the name and logo for the planned 60,000-square-foot casino at a private event attended by citizens of the Catawba community, casino project partners and Kings Mountain officials. The Two Kings logo depicts a silhouette of King Hagler set against Kings Mountain. The logo was developed in consultation with Delaware North, the hospitality and entertainment company that is serving as advisor to the project.
Sneed, meanwhile, expressed confidence that it will all come to nothing. “We continue to believe the courts will affirm the illegality of this casino,” he said, “and when that happens, the Catawba agreement will be nothing more than a worthless piece of paper.”