A class action complaint aims to hold the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians responsible for money lost when the stock market crashed in 2008 and eroded the personal accounts of Cherokee youth held in trust by the tribe.

All 14,000 members of the tribe share in profits from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel. For those under the age of 18, the tribe holds the money in trust, not only adding the annual casino payments to it but also investing it to help it grow until they reach adulthood and can cash out.

The suit claims 138 youth each lost about $22,000 when their cut of casino earnings were invested in risky, unapproved ventures.

To safeguard against losses in the stock market, the funds of 17-year olds are supposed to be transferred to a safe and stable “pre-payout” account to protect it from market volatility. The holding account guards against erosion of the principle in the year just before payout.

The suit claims the investment committee for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Minors Trust Fund failed to transfer funds into the safe holding account in 2008, and the 17 year olds that year “suffered significant monetary losses as a direct and proximate result of the decision to not transfer funds to the pre-payout sub-account.”

In other words, the stock market tanked and money was lost because it wasn’t in safekeeping. The youth that year received approximately $65,186 instead of the $88,000 that they should have accrued by turning 18. Minors can cash out when they turn 18 if high school diploma or GED. Otherwise, they have to wait until they are 21.

The suit names each of the five members of the investment committee and Principal Chief Michell Hicks, both individually and in their official capacities.

“They played the stock market and they lost,” said Attorney Russell McLean of Waynesville, who represents the plaintiffs. “They gambled and invested it in funds that were not protected.”

The investment committee and Hicks had not as of last week filed a response to the civil suit.

The suit claims the tribe should reimburse the youth for their losses. The tribe, in fact, previously pledged to do just that in the face of angry backlash over losses in the Minors Trust Fund.

In an tribal-wide update on the Minors Fund status in April 2009, Chief Hicks. stated the tribe “stands good for the principal balance of our children’s investments by tribal law,” according to the suit. The proclamation said that the Eastern Band would make up the difference “if a minor leaves the fund and their balance is below the principal amount contributed.” Despite the promise, the tribe did not follow through on its commitment and did not reimburse the children involved, the suit alleges.

McLean said that he expects to file a second, larger class action suit on behalf of Eastern Band children ages birth through 17.

“We’ll see if an entire group of children on the reservation should be protected by the courts,” he said.

McLean said the next step in the current class action suit is to identify and notify each of the children involved. They’ll need to each decide whether they want to proceed as part of a class action suit or if they prefer to file their own individual lawsuits. He said the notification would take about two months to complete.

Maggie Valley has emerged victorious in an ongoing tug-of-war with Jackson County over who can rightfully lay claim to tourists en route to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The N.C. Department of Transportation rejected a request from Jackson County leaders that a new highway sign direct Cherokee-bound travelers past their own doorstep instead of through Maggie. Instead the current sign, which takes motorists through Maggie Valley via U.S. 19, will remain the lone highway marker pointing the way to Cherokee for tourists coming off Interstate 40.

Cherokee leaders had sided with Jackson County and joined the push for a second sign that would direct visitors to take the four-lane Smoky Mountain expressway instead of the curvy two-lane road over Soco Gap. More than 3.5 million visitors a year come to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, and hundreds of thousands of additional tourists come to Cherokee as a cultural destination or jumping off point for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Maggie Valley leaders were happy to hear that DOT decided to maintain the status quo.

“It was certainly good news,” said Maggie Mayor Ron DeSimone. “It didn’t seem there was any compelling reason to change it.”

The route through Maggie is shorter mileage-wise, but a study by the DOT showed that travel time was essentially the same — about 35 minutes — no matter which road was taken. The study also looked at safety and found that the risk of a motorist getting into an accident on U.S. 19 compared to U.S. 74 was negligible. The Maggie route follows a narrow, two-lane winding road over Soco Gap. The crash rate — which in simple terms is the ratio of wrecks to the total number of vehicles — is 10 percent higher for the Maggie route than for U.S. 74.

“I am glad that they did come to the decision that they did,” said Maggie Alderman Phil Aldridge.

Leaders in Haywood County and in Maggie sent letters to the DOT asking them to deny Jackson County’s request, saying that the sign simply took from one and gave to another. The sign would take business and visitors away from an already struggling Maggie Valley, opponents of the new sign said.

“It definitely would have had an impact,” DeSimone said.

DOT, however, also denied Haywood County leaders’ apparent tongue-in-cheek request that it install a sign along U.S. 441 in Dillsboro that would inform travelers from the Atlanta area that they could reach Cherokee by going up and around through Waynesville and Maggie Valley. Dillsboro to Cherokee via U.S. 441 is 14 miles and takes some 20 minutes. Dillsboro to Cherokee via Waynesville and Maggie Valley is 45 miles and takes about an hour.

Jackson County leaders took the news about no-new-directional sign on U.S. 74 in diplomatic fashion.

“I’m not surprised with the final decision,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said. “It seems our request did not fit within their policies.”

Jackson County Commissioner Chairman Jack Debnam said the county would not argue with the DOT regarding its decision.

“We’re OK with it,” Debnam said. “I just don’t think we’re going to qualify for a sign, and that’s just one of the battles you don’t pick. You’ve just got to let it go sometimes.”

The cost of a new sign had been estimated at about $100,000 minimum — and perhaps double that depending on how much information it attempted to convey about the two dueling routes.

In a letter sent to everyone involved earlier this month, DOT Division Engineer Joel Setzer noted that the agency’s focus “was to look primarily at traffic safety, travel time and travel distance” along U.S. 74 and U.S. 19 when considering the request. Other factors considered were traffic crashes, routing by mapping services and average winter weather conditions along both routes.

DOT tried to craft a highway sign that would include both routes, listing things such as mileage, drive time and road conditions for each. But, that proved problematic.

“NCDOT recognized that the request (for a second sign) was reasonable and made sense but struggled with how a sign or series of signs could effectively communicate to high speed traffic that this choice was available,” the letter stated.

This difficulty, the DOT letter continued, “is the very reason that it is against policy.”

“To a motorist unfamiliar with the area, seeing two choices for one destination would cause confusion, which could create a dangerous situation in a high speed highway environment,” the letter stated.

The DOT also noted that the current sign meets state rules on sign placement because the U.S. 19 route is 11 miles shorter than traveling U.S. 74 to Cherokee.

The agency, in rejecting Haywood County leaders’ request for a sign in Dillsboro rerouting Cherokee traffic their way, said what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: the route proposed is longer and therefore violated state policies for road signs.

A mask is a mechanism employed to cover the face as a protective screen or disguise. For protection, they have been utilized for centuries by medieval horsemen, welders, fencers, hockey goalies, and so on. Their most intriguing uses, however, have been as a devices of disguise, as in a theatrical production or as part of the paraphernalia of religious and/or cultural ritual.

We don’t have to go to darkest Africa or the remote jungles of South America to find recent and extensive use of a variety of masks in this latter context. Until very recently they were an important element of Cherokee ritual.

A visit to the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual Inc. or other outlets in Cherokee will turn up a variety of the contemporary masks being produced by the reservation's carvers. They sometimes use skins or gourds, but for the most part masks are carved from buckeye or other suitable wood and then colored with natural dyes, paint, clay, charcoal, or shoe polish.

Often these modern masks simply depict a man with horns (the buffalo mask) or maybe a bear’s face. I am especially attracted to those haunting masks that are presented unadorned as a skull-like rendering. A favorite theme of some carvers is that of a man’s head topped by a coiled rattlesnake. And then there are those grotesque or sometimes even obscene productions known as “booger masks.”

If you take the time to look up and talk with a Cherokee mask-maker, you’ll get a friendly enough reception (especially if you’re actually shopping for a mask), but you’re not likely to get much insight into their themes. These people just don’t make their living talking. They’ll say something like, “Oh, that’s just a snake that happens to be on that man’s head”; or, “Funny thing, I started in to carving and it just turned out that way”; or, “You think it looks like a what?”

Unless you happen upon an unusually talkative mask-maker in an unguarded moment, your best sources for detailed information on the Cherokee mask tradition are the book-length study Cherokee Dance and Drama (1951) by Frank G. Speck and Leonard Broom, and the article by Raymond D. Fogelson and Amelia B. Walker titled “Self and Other in Cherokee Booger Masks” that appeared in the fall 1980 issue of the Journal of Cherokee Studies.

Cherokee Dance and Drama was written in collaboration with Cherokee mask-maker and cultural authority Will West Long. Others who contributed to the book were Long’s elder sister, Roxy, his elder half-brother Lawyer Calhoun, Deliski Climbing Bear, and Mrs. Sampson Owl. This book is the real thing.

Will West Long — the son of Sally Terrapin and John Long, a Baptist minister — was born about 1870 in the traditional Big Cove section of the Qualla Boundary.  After attending a school near High Point, he returned to Cherokee at the time the famous ethnologist James Mooney was there collecting data for his book subsequently published in 1900 as Myths of the Cherokee. Mooney hired Long as a scribe and interpreter.

Long later attended Hampton Institute and lived in New England until he was in his mid-30s. He returned once more to Cherokee shortly before his mother died in 1904, married, and spent the remainder of his life on the reservation.

His mother's interest in such matters, along with Mooney’s influence, created in Long a passion for preserving the quickly fading history and social customs of the Cherokee. He acquired manuscripts and insights from the medicine men that would otherwise have been lost. Long is rightly considered by many to be the authoritative scholar of his people’s customs during his lifetime.

In addition to his other interests, Long helped preserve the traditional dances and became one of the community’s foremost mask-makers, a craft he learned from a cousin, Charley Lossiah. Allen Long succeeded his father as the tribe’s top mask-maker during the early 20th century.

As described in the sources cited above, the Booger Dance (also called the Mask Dance) was a ritual performed after the first frost that featured masks which exaggerated human features; that is, they represented racial types: Indian man (a dark red face); Indian woman (light red face with paint on cheeks) white man (woodchuck or opossum fur as a beard); black man (charcoal colored); and so on.

What made the booger masks exceptional were the sometimes grotesque, often humorous, and usually obscene elements incorporated into them that suggested European features like bushy eyebrows, mustaches, chin whiskers, big noses, ghastly white pallor, and bald heads.

The boogers — generally depicted as older men — represented “people far away or across the water” (Europeans, blacks, northerners, southerners, alien Indians) who intrude upon the peaceful social dances of the Cherokee. Upon entering the dance house, they break wind, chase women, and generally behave as barbarians.  Asked what they want, the boogers first reply “Girls!” then announce that they want “To fight!” Instead of reciprocating, the Cherokee allow them to dance out their hostilities.

This ritual has been interpreted in several ways. It was a way to deal with “the harmful powers of alien tribes and races, who, as living beings or ghosts, may be responsible for sickness or misfortune.” It also served as “condensation of the acculturation process as seen from the Cherokee perspective: first the white man tried to steal women; second he wanted to fight; and then, finally, he was satisfied to make a fool of himself.”

It’s also clear that many of the ingeniously crafted masks used in the ceremony simply poked fun at boorish masculine traits in general, including the “excessive preoccupation with sexuality” and the desire to be “in charge.”

And so, my friend, always remember that masks are mirrors ... the next time you spot a Cherokee booger mask in a shop, at one of the craft festivals, or in a museum, pause and take a closer look ... it just might be looking back at you.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The Cherokee Reservation will remain dry, keeping in place the historic ban on alcohol sales, following Thursday’s election on the issue.

Enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians sent a strong message with about 60 percent voting “no” to alcohol sales. There were three separate questions on the ballot related to different types of beer, wine and liquor sales.

• 60 percent voted against an ABC store where the public could purchase liquor

• 61 percent voted against the sale of beer, wine or mixed drinks in restaurants.

• 66 percent voted against the sale of beer or wine in grocery stores and convenience stores.

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the only establishment in Cherokee where alcohol is sold. Cherokee residents have to drive 20 minutes or more into Sylva or Bryson City to get a six-pack of beer or bottle of wine.

That could change later this year, however, as voters in Jackson County are having an alcohol election of their own in the May primary. If Jackson County voters approved countywide alcohol sales, it would become available literally a stone’s throw from the reservation.

Each community had the option of voting alcohol sales up or down. The flexibility meant that if the majority of voters approved alcohol sales on the reservation, any of the six communities in Cherokee could decide separately whether to keep alcohol out.

This two-part litmus test of sorts means one community couldn’t push through selling alcohol in their own neck of the woods if the idea of alcohol sales in general failed to garner the support of the majority.

However, the option is moot at this point since the reservation will remain dry.

Birdtown was the only community where a majority of voters approved any form of alcohol. They narrowly voted in favor of opening an ABC store but like other communities voted against alcohol sales in restaurants, gas stations or convenience stores.

Opponents of the referendum said that alcohol would only lead to more instances of drunken driving, alcoholism, child neglect and domestic violence. Proponents had said that alcohol sales were necessary for the tourism industry. Business owners have lost customers because they can’t obtain a glass of wine or beer in Cherokee, supporters of the referendum said.

In the election, 2,517 people cast a ballot. Voter turnout among local members of the tribe is difficult to determine, however. All enrolled members no matter where they live are eligible to vote in tribal elections but have to travel to Cherokee to cast a ballot.  There are a total of 6,715 eligible voters in the tribe, making total voter turn-out around 30 percent — but the turnout was likely much higher than that among local enrolled members while enrolled members who live elsewhere in the state or country may have opted not to make the trip to Cherokee to vote, bringing down the total voter turn-out.  

See The Smoky Mountain News print edition Wednesday for a full analysis and break down of results.

Opinions among members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians remain mixed leading up to a vote that could lift a historic ban on alcohol sales on the reservation or continue the longtime moratorium.

In the days leading up to the monumental vote, those polled on the street in Cherokee offered up the full range of views — along with those for and against it, some have yet to form an opinion or just don’t care — making it difficult to predict which side will prevail in the alcohol referendum. There are currently 6,717 enrolled members registered to vote.

Some businesses and churches are open about their dislike for a beverage that has caused so much heartache for families affected by alcoholism. Opponents have posted yard signs throughout the reservation telling people to vote “no to greed,” accusing supporters of putting economic tourism interests ahead of what’s best for local people.  

“I kind of totally agree with the signs they have out,” said Regina Rosario, a former tribal council member and Painttown resident. Alcohol has never done anyone any good, Rosario added as she shopped in Food Lion in Cherokee last week.

However, Rosario wagers that she is probably in the minority.

“I think it’s going to pass because of the younger generation,” Rosario said.

Supporters of the referendum have said that alcohol will lead to an increases in tourism, which will lead to an increase in casino patrons, and in turn increase income for enrolled members.

“I think the main part of it is money,” said Megan Stanford, an 18-year-old enrolled member from Painttown.

Stanford, who is against selling alcohol on the reservation, said that people should listen to their elders who have more life experience.

However, for supporters, a ‘yes’ vote is a vote for the freedom to choose as well as additional prosperity for Cherokee.

“I think it’s people’s personal choices,” said Adrianne Petrilli, an enrolled member as she sat with her husband in Tribal Grounds Coffee. “I’d just like to have the option.”

Proponents have said that people need to look at the bigger picture, which is more revenue for the tribe.

Plus, if people want alcohol, all they need to do is drive to Bryson City or Sylva to find it, supporters of the referendum have said.

“They are going to get it anyway,” Petrilli said.

But opponents have said the easier access will only lead to higher rates of drinking problems among enrolled members.

“I am voting ‘no,’” said Owens Walkingstick, a member of the Yellowhill community. “If it’s harder to get it, it will be less people getting it.”

Even if the referendum is voted down, the reservation may still find gas stations selling beer cropping up at its doorstep.

Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary, and if approved, places selling alcohol could settle along the border of the reservation, which lies partly in Jackson County.

A few opponents have said that that fact will not influence their vote, however.

“I would rather just let Jackson County handle that,” Walkingstick said.

A couple of enrolled members indicated that they plan to stay out of the argument and will likely not vote Thursday.

Charles Tchakeirides, a 28-year-old resident of Birdtown, said he is undecided about whether alcohol should be sold on the reservation.

“People are going to get it regardless,” Tchakeirides said. “I think a lot of young people will vote for it.”

Nadine Tramper was blasé about the matter, though she could save gas money if alcohol was available in Cherokee, she said.   

“It doesn’t bother me. I really don’t care,” said Tramper, of Big Cove.


Day of reckoning

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will head to the polls Thursday, April 12, to vote on whether the reservation should remain dry. They can approve all, none, or some of the following:

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and mixed-drinks drinks to consume on-premise in restaurants.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores and convenience stores.

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

The vote will be decided on a community-by-community basis for each of Cherokee’s six townships. One community can open the door for alcohol sales while another can keep the ban.

However, the referendum must garner an overall majority of votes reservation-wide for any one community to enact alcohol sales.

Several raceways were completely submerged in water, hundreds of thousands of trout laid dead on the ground, and the national trout hatchery in Cherokee lost nearly two-thirds of its stock. That was the picture of the hatchery in Cherokee not even one year ago when heavy rains sent a 10-foot wall of water washed over it.

“It was bad. It was real bad,” said Robert Blankenship, manager of the Cherokee fish hatchery and stocking program. “It was devastating to the staff.”

Now, after less than a year, the hatchery is well on its way to recovery. Blankenship estimates that the hatchery will once again be self-sustaining, hatching and raising all its own trout, by late May.

The hatchery plays a critical role in Cherokee’s reputation as prized fishing grounds. The sheer number and size of the trout stocked in Cherokee’s streams and rivers have led to a successful and viable fishing tourism industry — one the tribe was determined to uphold even in the wake of the natural disaster.

During the flood, the hatchery lost more than $160,000 worth of trout and 16 to 18 inches of silt sat at the bottom of each raceway — the long, narrow pools where the trout live. Employees spent the first couple of months collecting the dead trout, scrapping mud, rocks and logs from the raceways and sorting the surviving fish by type and size. Then, it was time to start rebuilding its trout supply. Since it takes a year to raise a mid-sized trout, or two years to raise a trophy trout, the natural disaster could have had long-term repercussions, affecting the number of trout being stocked in Cherokee waters for some time.

Luckily, however, a cooperative arrangement with other nationally certified hatcheries entitled the Cherokee hatchery to any surplus fish or fish eggs that the others might have. Hatchery workers traveled across the U.S. gathering them.

Had it not received aid from other national hatcheries, the hatchery in Cherokee would have spent at least two years trying to regain its composure rather than 10 months.

“We’ve had a lot of support and assistance,” Blankenship said.

Eleven national hatcheries in Georgia, Tennessee, Montana, Wisconsin, Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia have been crucial to the recovery.

He estimated that the hatchery has received more than 1.5 million trout and fish eggs from the other hatcheries.

“That is a major part of us trying to rebuild,” Blankenship said. “The more we can get, the more we can put in the river, the more it’s going to help out our program.”

The hatchery must constantly be birthing baby trout to replace the larger fish that it tosses into the river every day to maintain Cherokee’s status in the fishing world.

The tribe’s stocks 30 miles of river and stream on the reservation with 400,000 fish per year.

“For years, people have loved to come to Cherokee for vacation and enjoying the streams and rivers is a major part of their fun,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “The fishing here in Cherokee is some of the best east of the Mississippi and as more people come here to fish the better our hotels, restaurants and other retail shops will do.”

The hatchery currently has about 2 million eggs and baby trout incubating in its smaller indoor raceways and about 800,000 in its larger outdoor raceway. However, six of the usually full raceways sit empty, and the hatchery will not be self-sustaining until next month.

The hatchery is receiving about $100,000 from a federal government relief program and Bureau of Indian Affairs to help with its recovery. A portion of the money will help the hatchery help prevent such a disaster from occurring again by reinforcing already existing water barriers and adding more or larger piping to allow more water to drain away from hatchery lands.

The changes will help “but you will never be able to control Mother Nature,” Blankenship said.

Before Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, one of the tribe’s main attractions was trout fishing. The Oconaluftee River has 2.2 miles of water specifically devoted to catch-and-release, fly fishing and hosts numerous tournaments throughout the year.

And now that it has nearly recovered, the hatchery hopes to bring fishing to the forefront once again by keeping the river open year-round and using an electronic system to keep track of and issue fishing permits. Previously, anglers had to receive a handwritten permit each visit — a time-consuming task.

“We are trying to rebuild fishing here in Cherokee,” Blankenship said. “That’s our goal — to make it one of the best family trout fishing destinations.”

This year, the Oconaluftee River will be open year-round for the first time. While it only closed for three weeks each year, the hope is that the prospect of quality, year-round fishing will attract visitors who will then spend money at Cherokee’s various businesses.

“People’s got to buy gas. They got to buy snacks. They’ve got to have a place to stay,” Blankenship said.



• Cherokee's Summer Kickoff Trout Fishing Tournament: April 27, 28, & 29

• Meet Me in the Smokies Fly Fishing Tournament: May 18, 19 & 20

• US Junior National Fly Fishing Championships: June 22, 23 & 24

• Cherokee's Mid Summer Trout Fishing Tournament: July 13, 14 & 15

• Cherokee's End of Summer Trout Fishing Tournament: September 7, 8 & 9

• Rumble in the Rhododendron Fly Fishing Tournament: November 2, 3 & 4

• How long is your trout?

ongoing - Bring your trout to the Cherokee Welcome Center and have it measured for the weekly contest which will run from Saturday to Sunday. You must present a hotel or camping receipt to qualify for this contest.

The Catch & Release water is excluded.

For more information on these events, visit www.fishcherokee.com

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.


The proponents

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.


The opponents

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.

Gov. Bev Perdue and leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have headed back to their respective sides of the negotiating tables to tweak the landmark agreement that would permit table games, real cards and live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The agreement would give the state a cut of gaming revenue in exchange for a promise of exclusivity, namely a pledge that the state wouldn’t allow any other casinos in the immediate region. The agreement is now being tweaked in hopes of satisfying legislators in the General Assembly who have yet to sign off on the deal since it was inked by the tribe and Perdue last November.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been working diligently with the governor and the General Assembly on a new compact that will allow for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino,” said Chief Michell Hicks in a statement. “We hope to have the new compact approved soon and be ready to take this important issue in front of the North Carolina General Assembly in the upcoming short session.”

It is still unclear exactly what portions of the compact the tribe and Perdue are hoping to renegotiate. Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Perdue had previously disagreed on whether the revenue the state collects from the tribe should go into a dedicated fund for education, as Perdue wanted, or into the general budget, which Republican legislators wanted.

The deal struck between the tribe and Perdue was the product of years of lobbying and negotiating. The clock is now ticking to get it finalized given Perdue’s announcement that she will not be seeking another term.

The tribe and governor’s office seem confident an agreement will be reached soon and the deal will get the necessarly rubber stamp from the General Assembly.

“We’ve got 10 months and an entire legislative session yet to go,” said Mark Johnson, a press officer for Perdue, in an email.

It is unclear whether the tribe would have to start back over at Square One if a new governor came into office before the agreement is finalized by the General Assembly.

Techincally, the compact already signed between the governor and the tribe is good for 30 years. Even if the General Assembly doesn’t approve it this year, it could still do so next year, or the next year, without the agreement going back to the new governor’s desk for approval.

But, a new governor could gum up the works if he wanted to, by vetoing it after the General Assmebly passes — making getting it passed before Perdue leaves office the safest bet for the tribe.

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal, which would mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“If approved, this will bring more than 400 jobs to the boundary and help to create additional revenue for the casino, which will result in a positive impact not only for the Eastern Band but also for the state of North Carolina,” Hicks said.

Meanwhile, casino management is getting its ducks in a row so it will be ready to roll out live dealers if and when the General Assembly gives its blessing.

“We are looking at the many, many things that would have to happen if that is passed,” said Brooks Robinson, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “We aren’t pulling too many triggers on it but we are monitoring the situation.”

The Eastern Band and Perdue initially signed a compact in late November. They had hoped the General Assembly would vote on the issue before it took its winter recess. But, Republican leaders rebuked the idea, saying they did not have adequate time to review the agreement before the break.

According to the November version of the compact, Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

In return, the tribe would be allowed add live gaming and receive exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville. The tribe wanted a larger swath of exclusive territory, but the state would not yield.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

— Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story

For musicians, it's the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For football players, it's the Super Bowl championship rings. For Natalie Smith, having her signature coffee blends featured at The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., is the greatest accolade.

"I was extremely flattered, and I was elated — all of the good things. Grateful that I can represent my tribe," said Smith, owner of Tribal Grounds in Cherokee and a member of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

In December last year, the museum approached Smith out of the blue about their idea to transform a high-end gift shop in the lobby into an espresso and coffee bar. Smith sent samples of her coffee to the museum and soon learned that Tribal Grounds had been chosen to be the sole provider for the new Mitsitam Espresso Coffee Bar in the Museum of the American Indian.

Mitsitam means, "Let's eat" in the native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples and is also the name of the museum's restaurant.

Like so many titleholders, Smith's road to glory started years earlier.

When Smith returned to Cherokee from Arizona in the early 2000s, she noticed something missing — a casual meeting place, not just for visitors but for locals as well. There was already an in-and-out coffee joint but nowhere for people to sit and stay for a while.

"I saw a need for a community space," Smith said.

In 2004, she opened Tribal Grounds. During the first couple of years, Smith purchased pre-roasted coffee beans that could simply be ground and brewed. An artist by trade, Smith took a bean roasting class and began roasting and concocting her own blends in 2006.

Fast forward about a year later, and the coffee shop had the first of its new specialty javas.

"You have to try different blends. It's like a cookie recipe or any baking recipe," Smith said.

Currently, Tribal Grounds has six or seven signature blends, each created by merging different varieties of coffee beans at different degrees and for different lengths of time. And, the available mixtures are always changing as Smith crafts new recipes.

Each specialized mix has a name of cultural significance. For example, the espresso blend is named Rattlesnake Mountain after the mountain that overlooks all of Cherokee.

Rattlesnake Mountain is said to be a special place where the medicine man Ogv Unitsi killed the poisonous serpent Uktena and received a magical crystal that had been set in the snake's forehead. The gem, which blazed like a star, made Ogv the most powerful medicine man of his time.

The most important part of the coffee-making process for Smith, however, is not how long she roasts the beans or how much of each variety she adds to the mix, but where she gets her coffee beans from. Smith purchases the beans used in her cups of joe from fair-trade companies in South American or Africa that employ mostly indigenous people rather than large-scale, commercial plantations.

"I think it's the best quality, that it has integrity," Smith said.

Plus, it gives greater meaning to her business.

"I am an indigenous person buying coffee from indigenous people selling coffee to indigenous people," Smith said.

Smith does her own research of coffee bean growers but also relies on various organizations to certify the product she purchases as fair trade.

"I am not continuing the cycle of exploitation," Smith said. "It is very important to me."

Smith traveled to the Museum of the American Indian in February to train the staff there on how to brew her coffee and assemble her other specialty beverages.

"I am very impressed by their approach and their enthusiasm," she said.

And once there, the indigenous connection for Smith grew stronger.

Smith said she was elated to meet some of the Ethiopian members of the museum's café staff and tell them that some of her beans are grown in their native land.

The Swain County Board of Elections has decided to continue running a satelite early voting site in Cherokee, but to the chagrin of some nixed for now the idea of an additional site in the rural Alarka community.

The Swain County commissioners this week approved the election board’s request for $2,600 to run an early voting site in Cherokee for two weeks prior to the May primary election.

However, the election board decided not to pursue an early voting site catering to residents in the remote communities of Alarka and Nantahala.

Swain first ran an early voting location in Cherokee during 2010 but has debated for the past month whether it was worth the cost to do so again this year. Without the extra site, Cherokee residents must drive anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to reach the main early voting site in Bryson City. Jackson County has historically provided an early voting site in Cherokee for residents on the Jackson side of the reservation.

The Cherokee site will also make early voting more convenient for voters in Whittier, which is closer to Cherokee than Bryson City.

“That portion of the county was underserved,” said Mark Tyson, a member of the Board of Elections. “There had been a lot of community response made to the board.”

Residents of Alarka and Nantahala have similarly long treks, but the Board of Elections determined that it did not have enough time to adequately set up a brand new early voting site.

“It would be tougher to do a site in the western part of the county,” Tyson said, “given the short of amount of time that we had and the limited resources.” The election board decided to revisit the idea of a West Swain site next year.

Commissioner David Monteith suggested the election board go ahead and ask for money for both sites, but they felt it was too late to prepare both in time for early voting.

“I challenged them on it and told them they should do so, but they didn’t want to do it,” Monteith said.

Monteith said county residents would have liked to see the additional site in West Swain and that the election board should have dealt with the issue earlier.

“They could have come to us a month ago,” he said. “They just weren’t thinking ahead.”


Early voting request, take two

The Board of Elections members had to appear before the commissioners twice in the past week over the issue. The first time, the election board did not come with a clear request but instead presented an open-ended question to commissioners on which sites they wanted to fund.

“So you all have not decided exactly what you want to get? You are speculating?” said Commissioner David Monteith.

Board of Elections Chair James Fisher explained that the election board had avoided making a hard and fast request because they did not want to put the final decision on the backs of the commissioners.

“I felt like it was unfair to y’all,” Fisher said.

Monteith replied that the commissioners would be answerable to the final decision anyway.

“Would it not be better for you guys to make a decision on what you want?” Monteith said. “I would rather know exactly what you want.”

Commissioners told the election board to return once they had nailed down what specifically it wanted the county to fund. The election board came back five days later with its specific request — namely to fund the site in Cherokee but not Alarka.

When the Swain County Board of Elections first offered an early voting site in Cherokee in 2010, the turnout was poor, with only 226 people taking advantage of the new location. “That’s not to say that it won’t be successful this go around,” Fisher said.

Board of election members said the site may just need more time to gain a following but also questioned whether the county can afford to spend thousands of dollars on a previously underused early voting site. The board spent about $3,500 to run the site in 2010.

“We are letting these people down by not getting them where they need to vote,” said resident Barbara Robinson.

The Swain County Board of Elections first approached the Board of Commissioners after realizing that it didn’t have enough money in its budget this year to run more than the single early voting site in Cherokee.

Counties once got a small contribution from the federal government to help fund early votings, but the state legislature for now is refusing to pony up the required state match, which means counties would not get the assistance this year.

“It is thrown on the backs of the counties,” said Phil Carson, chairman of the board of commissioners. “The taxpayers are footing the bill.”

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