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Hicks testifies before U.S. Senate committee on positive impact of tribal gaming

Michell Hicks, Principal Chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, told a U.S. Senate committee in testimony on July 23 that gaming on the Cherokee reservation in North Carolina has had a “dramatic impact” on the lives of Cherokee families and especially children in ways “we never dreamed possible.”

“Before tribal government gaming came to Cherokee, our people struggled to get by in challenging economic conditions,” Hicks said, noting that the tribe was forced to depend heavily on seasonal tourism that produced mainly low-paying jobs. Families were split, Hicks added, “because people would have to travel off the reservation for work, sometimes for extended periods of time, to support their families in construction or other jobs. This situation tore at the fabric of the foundation of our society, our families.”

With the opening of the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in November 1997 came a large, complex, multi-product enterprise and tourist destination that now attracts more than 3.1 million visitors each year. Hicks reported that “the reservation economy of the Eastern Band is in a period of strong growth.”  

The casino’s economic impact extends throughout the Western North Carolina region Hicks said, “boosting per capita income from 70 percent of the state average in the mid-1990’s to more than 80 percent today….”  

The chief reported that the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, funded by gaming revenues to create new businesses and initiatives, “has contributed a leveraged impact of about $99 million for additional social improvements, environmental enhancements, workforce development, and cultural preservation in the region.”

In his Senate report, Hicks also noted that the greatest and most gratifying impact of gaming resources has been on tribal children, as reflected in schools and youth programs. He talked about how the students have “sunlight in every classroom, gymnasium, library and student spaces” and about how the athletic programs were “designed to address the diabetes epidemic in our community,” 

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Hicks pointed to research by Duke University Medical School showing the significant impact that resources from gaming can have on the well being of Cherokee children. 

“The poorest children tended to have the greatest risk of psychiatric disorders, including emotional and behavioral problems.  But just four years after the payments to Cherokee families from gaming revenues began, [there were] substantial improvements among those who moved out of poverty,” Hicks reported. “The frequency of behavioral problems in Cherokee children declined by 40 percent, nearly reaching the risk level of children who had never suffered from poverty.” 

Minor crimes committed by Cherokee youth also declined and on-time high school graduation rates improved.

“These Cherokee youth were roughly one-third less likely to develop substance abuse and psychiatric problems in adulthood, compared with the oldest group of Cherokee children and with neighboring rural whites of the same age. 

The Duke study also found that improvements to family income improved parenting quality. 

“The assistance from gaming eased the strain of the feast-or-famine existence too many of our families were surviving in.”

Hicks told the Senators that direct investments made to tribal members saves both the Eastern Band and the federal government money in the long run. 

“[T]he Eastern Band Cherokee Tribal Government and the federal government benefit from savings in reduced criminality, a reduced need for psychiatric care, and savings gained from not repeating grades.”

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