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Alcohol referendum scheduled

Cherokee’s Tribal Alcohol Beverage Control Commission was established in 2009. Holly Kays photo Cherokee’s Tribal Alcohol Beverage Control Commission was established in 2009. Holly Kays photo

A referendum vote asking enrolled members to approve a tribally owned package store and ABC store selling beer, wine and liquor will be held Thursday, May 31, following a recent announcement from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Board of Elections. 

Voter registration will close Tuesday, May 1, and absentee ballot requests will be accepted through Wednesday, May 16. Absentee ballots must be received no later than 4 p.m. Monday, May 21. 

The announcement follows months of debate, beginning with legislation Councilmember Lisa Taylor, of Painttown, introduced in October seeking to end the issuance of permits to a handful of off-casino restaurants. Her resolution asked Tribal Council to approve a referendum vote asking tribal members whether they approved of alcohol sales on tribal land other than the casino. A no vote, she said, would end issuance of the permits while a yes vote would allow for a broader array of permits to be granted. 

The controversial permits were given pursuant to a state law — known as the “Blue Ridge Law,” which pertains to tourism establishments within 1.5 miles of a Blue Ridge Parkway onramp — listing permit types not subject to a referendum. They have elicited sharp dissent from some members of the community. When Taylor introduced her legislation, she was told by attorneys for the tribe and for the Tribal ABC Commission that undoing these permits would require action on the state’s part, rather than just the tribe’s. That analysis angered some people who felt that tribal sovereignty should outweigh any agreement with the state and that the people had spoken on the issue of alcohol sales outside the casino. 

Over a series of months, the resolution shifted from its original intention to hold a referendum giving tribal members the chance to end Blue Ridge Law permits to a form that would give tribal members the chance to approve a tribally owned package and ABC store but not provide opportunity to reduce alcohol availability from the current level. 

The controversy over alcohol’s place on Cherokee land has been playing out for years, especially since the casino was built in 1997. Tribal members eventually voted to allow alcohol sales on casino property — in 2009, 12 years after the casino opened — but have staunchly rejected subsequent referendum questions seeking approval for off-casino sales. 

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“Every time the people have said no, but still we have this few, small group of people who somehow their opinion, their wants and their needs outweigh the voice of the whole people, and that’s just beyond me,” Birdtown community member Becky Walker told Tribal Council in February. 

Others, however, point to the fact that the tribe has its own ABC Commission — the only one in North Carolina outside the state commission — as evidence of increasing tribal sovereignty. Besides, they say, prohibiting alcohol sales on non-casino tribal land isn’t preventing anybody from drinking. All it’s doing is keeping profits from alcohol sales in the hands of surrounding counties rather than in tribal coffers. 

“Talk to anybody in commerce, and they will tell you that if we’re going to continue to diversify, we’re going to have to have alcohol sales in restaurants,” Principal Chief Richard Sneed told Tribal Council in February. “You may not like that. You don’t have to go there and spend your money.” 

Alcohol has long been a contentious topic on the Qualla Boundary — for the religiously centered reasons that have made it such a lightning rod in other mountain communities, but also for a brand of sentiment unique to Cherokee. 

Cherokee people knew how to make fermented drinks before European contact in the 1700s, but those drinks were substantially weaker than the hard liquor introduced by the settlers, and the soberness required to participate in traditional ceremonies meant that there were some real limitations on how often a person could imbibe while still taking part in those ceremonies.

“If you’re doing those and practicing those ways, you wouldn’t have time to drink. You wouldn’t have time to promote drinking,” said Jatanna Feather, a tribal member who says she practices the traditional ways and staunchly opposes alcohol. 

To people like Feather, the inundation of alcohol into tribal communities that came with European colonization is just another way in which Native American people were victimized by the white settlers. Alcohol was a way to subjugate and inhibit the native people, they say, a tool of colonization and oppression.

“They felt that we were stupid and they could just take advantage, and they did,” said tribal member Lea Wolfe, who has also been vocal in opposing alcohol. “They came in here, they saw what they wanted and they took it. That includes human lives.”

People like Wolfe see alcohol as a scourge ravaging Native American communities and say that allowing it to proliferate on tribal lands now, when the tribe has more sovereignty and political clout to call its own shots than ever before in modern history, is a slap in the face to Cherokee ancestors. Alcohol abuse and the negative stereotypes associated with it, they say, is something that must be combated rather than encouraged. 

“I feel that they (tribal leaders) are numb to how it affects native self-imagery in our children and how we play into the stereotypical roles of natives,” said Feather.

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