In one week, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will choose to either lift a historic ban on alcohol or maintain its dry status in a vote that has traditionally sparked fervor on both sides.
On April 12, enrolled members will head to the polls for the first time in two decades to vote on legalizing alcohol sales. But in the run-up to the election, the debate has remained surprisingly non-contentious compared to previous years when the alcohol issue has arisen.
While an anti-alcohol movement is still present on the reservation, compared to previous years, its omnipotent voice has been less prominent this time around — signaling a possible philosophical shift among enrolled members.
In the past, a large majority of enrolled members fell on the opposing side — overwhelmingly rejecting a similar measure by a 3-to-1 margin two decades ago and in other years stopping a vote before it could even take place.
Simply having the opportunity to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ denotes “a remarkable change in culture,” said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board.
“It will probably pass,” Rose said. “The people who I talk to are by and large for it.”
However, Rose admitted that those staunchly opposed to the referendum would be less inclined to talk to him since he has openly advocated for a ‘yes’ vote.
From his point-of-view, it won’t lead to an increase in drinking, Rose said. People who want alcohol now will find it no matter what — which usually means driving in to Bryson City — a fact that referendum supporters say leads to more drunken driving.
“I think people see the logic,” Rose said. “Prohibition does not work.”
If people are allowed to buy alcohol in Cherokee, many local residents will opt to drink in the safety of their home, supporters have said.
For years, various leaders in Cherokee have championed the idea of making the reservation a year-round destination for vacationers. However, business owners have said that destination status is unattainable without alcohol, and they have lost customers because the reservation is dry.
“The realization (is) that if we are going to be able to compete … then we have to provide the amenities that they expect to see,” Rose said.
If visitors can order a beer or glass of wine with their dinners out, then they will be more likely to stay and spend their money in Cherokee — giving the reservation an economic boost.
Revenue from the alcohol sales could also help pay for substance abuse education and prevention as well as a rehabilitation center for addicts. Plans for a rehab center have long been discussed, but no blueprints have ever been drawn up.
Rose is a member of a “vote yes” campaign committee, mostly comprised of Cherokee business owners, who have organized to advocate for the referendum’s approval. The group has taken out ads in newspapers and traveled around the reservation talking to enrolled members.
A few days before the vote, the committee will hold a phone bank reminding people to vote and asking them to approve the referendum.
And, even if the referendum is struck down, alcohol could still find its way to the Cherokee’s doorstep. Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary. If approved, an ABC store or gas stations selling beer could open up along the border of the reservation anyway, which lies partly in Jackson County.
Enrolled members have a long history of opposing the sale of alcohol on the reservation. Many cite religious convictions and a trend of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.
“I am definitely against it,” said Greg Morgan, pastor at Rock Springs Baptist Church in Cherokee. “It takes people’s lives downhill.”
Morgan said he has enough experience working with families affected by alcoholism to know that it does more harm than good. Money needed for food goes to booze instead. It leads to increased rates of domestic violence and causes people to act abnormally, from drunken driving to public intoxication.
Easier access to alcohol will only translate to more problems rather than greater control over the substance, Morgan said.
“I don’t think that anybody can control alcohol,” Morgan said.
And, any possible economic benefits of selling alcohol on the reservation would be negated by the harm it would cause enrolled members, Morgan said. An individual’s life is worth more than any money earned from the sales, and Cherokee can prosper without alcohol to boost its bottom line.
“The sellers are trying to make it like Cherokee is not going to survive without alcohol,” Morgan said.
Morgan accused supporters of using the allure of bigger casino disbursements to convince some enrolled members, particularly the youth, to vote “yes.”
Tribal members receive a cut of casino profits. If alcohol leads to an increase in tourism, that will in turn benefit the casino, and the twice-annual per cap checks will go up, so the argument goes. But, that doesn’t hold water, Morgan said.
A similar claim was made in 2009 when a majority of the tribe voted to allow alcohol sales only on the premise of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. However, per cap checks have yet to show the increases that were promised, said members of the anti-alcohol movement.
Although he has not dedicated any more time to preaching about the dangers of alcohol since tribal council approved the referendum, Morgan said he will spend some time reviewing what the Bible states about the hard stuff with his parishioners this week leading up to the vote.
“In the Bible, it says we should not drink,” Morgan said.
Although one Bible story says Jesus turned water into wine, Morgan said that the fruit of the vine, as it is referred to in the story, was not fermented, meaning the drink was more like a grape juice rather than an intoxicating wine.
He and other opponents of the referendum, including other religious leaders, have already posted signs outside of their churches and businesses asking people to vote ‘no.’ Yard signs reading say “no to greed” are also placed around the reservation.
As for the vote in neighboring Jackson County in May, Morgan said that it is not his business.
“That’s their prerogative,” Morgan said.
The long history
Until the ballots are counted on April 12, it is difficult to predict how members of the Eastern Band will vote on the alcohol referendum — an issue with a long, controversial history.
Here’s a brief look back:
• In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated 1,532 to 601.
• In 1996, gaming commission director Patrick Lambert, requested tribal council members to consider holding another vote. However, an overwhelming amount of opposition forced tribal leaders to renege, and the vote was never held.
• In 2006, a similar series of events occurred when the idea was floated to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino but not anywhere else on the reservation. Tribal council shied away from the issue, and a vote was never held.
• In 2009, a petition drive landed the issue on the ballot. A surprising majority — 59 percent of those who voted — agreed to allow alcohol sales at the casino only. Opponents characterized it as the first step toward reservation-wide alcohol sales — a prediction that may or may not come to fruition next week.
• In late October last year, tribal council agreed to put reservation-wide alcohol sales to a vote of the people.
But, the Rev. Noah Crowe convinced tribal council members to modify the referendum’s wording to let each of the six communities in Cherokee vote on the issue for themselves, allowing one community to approve it but others not.