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Casino alcohol proposal galvanizes conservative Cherokees

A debate over whether to sell alcohol at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has pitted conservative tribal members against the economic interests of the casino, which generates revenue for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise board appeared before the Cherokee tribal council last Thursday (Jan. 5) with a proposal to sell alcohol at the casino. The gaming board wanted a referendum that would put the issue to a vote of all enrolled members.

About 50 people packed the council house, many planning to speak out against the move. But a potentially volatile discussion was nipped in the bud when the gaming board withdrew its request.

“We felt there is quite a lot of controversy around this issue,” Norma Moss, a representative on the gaming board, told tribal council. “With the withdrawal of this motion, it would give us an opportunity to look deeper into this.”

The withdrawal saved tribal council from voting on whether to authorize a referendum. Some council members were likely relieved the controversial issue was taken off their plate, at least for now. Others who are against the idea were disappointed. They hoped to vote to kill the gaming board request and prevent it from coming back up. By withdrawing the request, however, the gaming board can bring it back up at any time.

Audience members who hoped to speak against the move also were disappointed.

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“If you are going to bring it back up in the next few months, let’s just handle it today,” said Denny Crowe, an audience member and pastor at Old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

Moss said the gaming board likely would bring its request back to tribal council in the future, but didn’t know when. She said it was not the board’s strategy to repeatedly withdraw and resubmit their request in order to confuse opponents.


Put to the test

Previous attempts to allow alcohol sales in Cherokee have failed. This time, however, the proposal is to sell alcohol at the casino only, not the entire the reservation.

Selling alcohol at the casino would boost its revenue. In addition to the money made on the alcohol itself, the ability to serve alcohol to gamers could attract more guests, get them to stay longer and gamble more. In turn, that would increase the tribe’s budget and the annual cut the tribe’s 12,500 members get from the casino, currently around $8,000 each.

If the issue was ever put out to a vote, tribal members would have to weigh moral values with the prospect of bigger checks from casino profits.

Alcohol opponents say their ranks are comprised of the more traditional Cherokee. A 1992 referendum on alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.

Also on the ballot that year was a referendum on whether to lower the blood degree to qualify as Cherokee. A person must be 1/16 Cherokee to be an enrolled member of the tribe. The referendum would have lowered the required blood degree to 1/32. The referendum was defeated by a vote of 1,444 to 681 — numbers that mirror the alcohol vote.

The same enrolled members that voted against alcohol voted against lowering the blood degree, according to Solomon Saunooke of Birdtown. As more Cherokee marry white people, however, he worries traditional values — including opposition to alcohol — could be lost.

“As the blood degree goes down, it will eventually go the other way,” said Saunooke.

For right now, though, opponents think such a referendum would fail.

“I hope and pray the tide don’t turn, but I do think they will keep bringing it up,” Crowe said of the gaming board.

The gaming board last sought a referendum on alcohol in 1999. That referendum sought to legalize the sale of alcohol reservation-wide. Tribal council initially agreed to hold the referendum, but following public backlash withdrew the plan and it was never put to a vote.


Just say no

Following the meeting, the audience gathered outside the tribal council house and shared views they did not have a chance to air during the meeting.

“Rather than look to the casino for everything, there’s other means of economic development,” said Tammy Jackson of Wolfetown.

Many opposed to alcohol cited religious beliefs as the root of their convictions.

“I’m a Christian, and I’m strongly against that alcohol,” said Lance Smoker of Snowbird. “I know what problems alcohol caused in my family.”

Alcoholism among family members was a common reason cited by those adamantly against the idea. Edith Stamper said her father was an alcoholic and abused her mother. Stamper said she never drank a drop as a result. The higher rate of diabetes among Native Americans is another argument used against alcohol, which has a high sugar content.

Even though the referendum would allow alcohol to be sold on the casino premises only, opponents said locals — not just tourists — would go into the casino to drink.

“It’s easily acquired nine miles down the road in Bryson City, but people don’t want it here,” said Jim Bradley of Yellowhill.

Stamper said allowing alcohol at the casino would pave the way for alcohol reservation-wide.

“You let them inch in a little bit and they’ll be saying ‘we can’t discriminate against the other businesses, we have to let them sell it, too,’” Stamper said.

Some were concerned about tourists drinking and driving after leaving the casino.

“There is no amount of revenue they can get that is worth a life,” said Denny Crowe, pastor at Old Antioch Missionary Baptist Church.

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