Congress has confirmed, through the passage of a bill, that the US Department of Interior (DOI) can legally take 17 acres of Cleveland County, NC, land into trust for the Catawba tribe. With that, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) can no longer try to prevent the South Carolina-based tribe from expanding into North Carolina.
The End to a Long-Running Dispute
The Catawba have been trying for ten years to put the Kings Mountain property into a trust to allow the tribe to build a casino. In August 2013, they first requested trust status. However, a March 2018 decision denied that request. The Catawba submitted another application immediately, and the DOI approved it in September 2018.
The EBCI attempted to overturn that decision in federal court. It argued that allowing a tribe to take land into trust for gaming across state lines was a new precedent. According to the tribe, the land is Cherokee and the DOI violated several federal laws in approving the application.
However, the Cherokee could not convince US District Judge James A. Boasberg to see it that way.
Boasberg wrote in an April 16 opinion that that EBCI raised many complex questions of statutory construction. He added, “[The] Court certainly cannot fault them for rolling the dice here. In the end, though, they come up with snake eyes, as on each claim they either lack standing or lose on the merits.”
Richard Sneed, principal chief of EBCI, said that passage of the bill marks the first time Congress has directly approved an off-reservation casino. He explained that this act would have profound implications for communities and tribes throughout the country. “The courts have been reviewing the legality of the Catawba casino, but this legislation will end that process. We are disappointed to not be granted the ability to defend our position in the courtroom,” he added.
EBCI Continues Fight
The EBCI appealed the decision. A case in appellate proceedings is ongoing at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But, the legislation passed recently will stop the process if President Joe Biden signs the bill, which he is expected do once Congress resolves differences between the Senate version and the House version.
Catawba Chief Bill Harris stated, “The Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act reaffirms the US Department of Interior’s action recognizing our historical and ancestral ties to North Carolina. Congress, Interior, the State of North Carolina, and a federal court have now all confirmed what the Catawba people have said from the beginning — these lands are the ancestral homelands of the Catawba people, and we intend to use them to improve the life of all the people in the community.”
Catawba Push Forward with Casino Plans
The Catawba tribe has essentially been greenlighted by the December 7 vote to explore the construction of a permanent casino on the NC land. Although the Catawba Two-Kings Casino Resort was begun in July of last year, the tribe halted its construction as the legal battle continued.
The Catawba opened a temporary facility that contained 500 gaming machines on July 1. In September, the tribe began expanding the property to hold another 500 machines. Now, it has 954 slots and four automated electronic table game pods for up to 46 gamblers. The property also includes a high-limit room and the tribe is planning on including limited alcohol service in the near future. With the intervention of Congress, the permanent facility could come next year or in 2023.