“I know the people established that alcohol could be sold at the casino because they voted for it in a referendum, but what we know as the Blue Ridge Law, the people didn’t establish that,” said tribal member Becky Walker, one of more than 20 tribal members to give public comment that night. “I hear the attorney give this legal summation of how that happened, but my question is who gave them the authority to do that? Why wasn’t there input from the community?”
In 2009, tribal members approved the sale of alcohol at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino through a referendum vote but have soundly defeated any attempts to make alcohol available anywhere off casino property. However, when the tribe decided to set up its own ABC Commission to handle business with the casino, the tribe found itself required to come into compliance with state ABC laws, and in 2011 Tribal Council adopted an ordinance with language mirroring those laws. The state took action on its end in 2015 to bring those laws into effect.
One of those laws allows for certain kinds of alcohol permits to be issued without a referendum. These include special occasion permits, brown-bagging permits and permits for hotels and restaurants located within one-and-a-half miles of a Blue Ridge Parkway on-ramp — a provision that is known as the Blue Ridge Law.
While the legal framework to grant these permits has been in place since 2015, the first such permits were not granted until May of this year. Former Principal Chief Patrick Lambert had refused to allow them on the grounds that the 2009 referendum would not permit alcohol sales off of casino property. Current Principal Chief Richard Sneed feels that state law requires that those permits be issued and allowed them to be granted when he took office following Lambert’s impeachment. So far, permits have been issued to three restaurants — Wize Guyz Grille, Sassy Sunflowers Bakery & Café and Little Princess Restaurant.
“There’s a specific exclusion in state law that allows for geographically constrained areas to have permits issued that are not subject to election,” said Michael Gross, attorney for the Cherokee ABC Commission.
However, many tribal members didn’t take kindly to seeing off-casino alcohol sales pop up without a new referendum. Alcohol has long been a contentious issue in Cherokee, and even allowing it in the casino wasn’t a given — for the first 12 years of its existence, the casino was dry.
“At the time I was growing up there was a federal law that prohibited alcohol on (tribal) trust lands,” said tribal member Peggy Hill. “Drinking was unacceptable when I was growing up. There are very few I remember who indulged in alcohol, and if they did, they hid.”
Impact of state regulations
The meeting was called as the result of a resolution that Councilmember Lisa Taylor, of Painttown, submitted asking for a referendum on off-casino alcohol sales with an eye to get rid of the permits issued under the Blue Ridge Law. None of the tribal members or government leaders who spoke Nov. 6 said they would do anything but support a referendum, but there are different views as to what a no vote on that referendum would actually accomplish.
“If it’s voted yes or no, it’s tribal-wide,” Sneed said. “You can’t nullify the Blue Ridge provision with the question that’s being presented in this resolution.”
If Tribal Council were to attempt that, Sneed said, then the state could put a halt to all permits issued on the Qualla Boundary — including the casino, which last year brought in $20 million from alcohol sales.
However, Lisa Taylor, the resolution’s author, maintained that the intent is for a no vote to get rid of all off-casino sales, including those covered under the Blue Ridge Law.
“When we had a referendum that said only on casino properties, moving forward in issuing the permits for sale of alcohol off the casino property in my opinion was the wrong move to make,” she said. “These types of discussions and decisions should come from all of us.”
Tribal member Ashley Sessions, who has announced a 2019 run for Birdtown Tribal Council, pointed out that the tribe had been refusing to grant Blue Ridge Law permits for two years after the state law went into effect, with no repercussions.
“I think it’s really important to stick to the resolution the way Representative Taylor submitted it, and I think we should pull those permits back until the referendum is complete,” she said. “If this law passed in 2015, why are we just now issuing the permits in 2017? The answer to that is because Chief Lambert, he told the alcohol commission that they could not because of the alcohol referendum.”
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is a sovereign nation, multiple speakers pointed out. So why should a state law have the power to tie the tribe’s hands on this issue?
“We are a sovereign nation, and I would like to see us as a community be given that vote,” said tribal member Lisa Montelongo. “I don’t care what these guys say, that this law passed, but it didn’t pass within our own community. We are a sovereign nation. We stand on our sovereignty.”
Opposition to alcohol
Not all the comments dealt with the nitty-gritty of legalese and tribal sovereignty. Many of the speakers instead focused on the effects alcohol had had on their own lives, asking Tribal Council to reconsider before allowing expanded sales on the Qualla Boundary.
“I don’t agree with alcohol being here because I don’t think that it was made for native people. I don’t think we can handle it,” said tribal member Jatanna Feather, noting that people on both sides of her family had struggled with alcoholism. “I also think a lot of our people have adopted into it. But I don’t think it’s safe for the ones who don’t have control.”
“How much are your kidneys worth? How much is your liver worth?” asked Lea Wolfe, of Painttown. “Because that’s what alcohol does to you. It’s a slow death.”
Before the tribe thinks about expanding alcohol availability, some speakers said, it needs to get a better handle on the drug epidemic sweeping the boundary. And if any regulated substance should see its laws loosened, others said, it should be medical marijuana, not alcohol.
“I would really love it to change the referendum to be alcohol versus medical marijuana,” said Sheila Standingdeer, of Big Cove. “I don’t know why we haven’t jumped on that. I say we plant every field full of it.”
Some speakers took issue with the fact that Gross, a non-enrolled attorney from Raleigh, had been chosen to introduce the issue at the start of the meeting, while the tribal members composing the Cherokee ABC Commission remained seated.
“I struggled when we opened up this meeting and the first thing among all us Cherokee people is we have to have a non-Indian lawyer get up and address us and tell us what’s what,” said Mary Wachacha, of Yellowhill. “I would have had more respect for the alcohol commissioners if they had stood up in solidarity and introduced themselves and gave a brief explanation about why they’re supporting this issue. I think we would have listened to them a lot better than we’re listening to this lawyer.”
There was one pro-alcohol voice among the non-elected and non-appointed people at the meeting, that of Birdtown resident James Bradley, who spoke to the economic benefits that could come from alcohol expansion.
“We’ve got this casino over here, and that’s pretty much all we got. We don’t diversify other than that,” he said. “We need to diversify in some way. I don’t hear any other ideas coming in here except alcohol to diversify our economy.”
Joey Owle, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, also spoke in favor of alcohol expansion, delivering his comments in his capacity as a private citizen.
“I do find this resolution to be regressive in nature, in that we’re getting our butts kicked by the towns around us, and one of the factors is that they serve alcohol,” he said.
Councilmembers each gave brief statements at the meeting’s conclusion, to a one stating that they would support a referendum. However, the exact wording of the referendum question and consensus on whether a no vote would get rid of Blue Ridge Law permits will be key to the vote’s impact.
Tribal Council will likely discuss this issue, as well as a separate resolution to allow Sunday morning alcohol sales, during its next meeting Thursday, Dec. 7.