A bill signed into law on Monday by President Joe Biden ends the legal challenge the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) filed against the federal government. The action was filed after the Catawba Indian Nation was given the go-ahead to build a casino in North Carolina.
That case is currently in the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. However, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed by Biden included the Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act. That bill passed the House in November. The Senate then added it to the appropriations bill. The act recognizes 17 acres of North Carolina land the Department of the Interior took into trust for the South Carolina-based Catawba Nation.
According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis from May, the Catawba act imposes “an intergovernmental mandate as defined by the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA) on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Cherokee Nation, by restricting their existing right of action to pursue a case against DOI under the Administrative Procedures Act.”
EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed confirmed that to Casino.org.
The action taken by the Congress kills our ‘day in court,’” Sneed said in an email. “It is very disappointing that the right to a redress of grievances can be taken away by an Act of Congress.”
EBCI challenged the Interior’s decision to take the land in Kings Mountain, NC – located about 30 miles west of Charlotte – into trust, claiming that land had a historical connection to the Cherokees. Sneed, in a 2019 letter to US Senators, called the Catawba action “reservation shopping” after the South Carolina-based tribe could not get officials in that state to enter into a Class III gaming compact.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians reside in the Qualla Boundary. That’s roughly 80 square miles of land in western North Carolina near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. EBCI owns two Harrah’s casinos located on its land.
New Law Addresses “Historical Inequities”
Not surprisingly, Catawba leaders and their supporters celebrated the NDAA’s enactment.
“This is the first step towards rectifying the wrongs perpetrated against the Catawba Indian Nation and addressing the historical inequities they face,” tweeted US Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-South Carolina, after the White House announced Biden’s signing. Clyburn was the sponsor of the Catawba Lands Act bill in the House.
Catawba leaders plan to build the Two Kings Casino Resort, a $273 million development, on the land taken into trust. Interior officials approved the Class III gaming compact between Catawba and North Carolina in March.
Catawba Chief Bill Harris said in a statement after the Senate passed the NDAA bill on Dec. 16 that the casino will help the nation provide a better life for its members.
“These are the lands of not just our ancestors, but also the hundreds of Catawba citizens residing there today,” Harris said. “Make no mistake, this legislation means more people will have good-paying jobs, more kids will have a better education and more people will have better housing and health care. That’s what this bill really means.”
In July, the nation opened a temporary casino with 500 slot machines on the property. It is working with gaming operator Delaware North, SOSHNY Architects, and Skyboat Gaming on the permanent venue.
In the meantime, the temporary venue is growing. In October, officials announced an expansion of the temporary venue would double its size. The 500 new games include electronic table games and a high-limit area.
It officially opened on Dec. 16.
While EBCI has been challenging the Catawba decision in court, its leaders have also been taking other measures. The goal is to offset the likely impact Two Kings will have on its casinos, which provide a significant source of revenue for tribal education, health, housing, and other initiatives.
Last year, tribal leaders created EBCI Holdings, a commercial gaming company. It purchased Caesars Southern Indiana from Caesars Entertainment a year ago, and took possession of the casino in September. The company has plans to add other casinos to its portfolio.
But EBCI is also looking at other ways to expand in commercial gaming. Earlier this month, the EBCI Tribal Council signed off on a plan allowing EBCI Holdings to invest around $10 million in an incubator fund that will invest in emerging gaming technology companies.
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