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Cherokee voters say ‘no’ to alcohol sales

About two dozen people gathered outside the tribal council house broke into song with the words “Praise God, Praise God, Praise God,” after the final results of Cherokee alcohol vote were tabulated last week.

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

“It sent a clear message that we are not going to be affected by those few who would benefit” from the sale of alcohol, said Amy Walker, an enrolled member from Birdtown.

Opponents of the referendum said that easier access to alcohol would lead to increased rates of alcoholism, drunken driving and domestic violence.

“If we made $100 in revenue from alcohol, it would cost us $10,000 to treat the problem,” said Peggy Hill of the Yellow Hill community.

A few of those gathered wore T-shirts that read, “We have come too far to die by our own hand.”

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Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort is the only establishment in Cherokee where alcohol is sold. Cherokee residents instead 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 approve countywide alcohol sales, it would become available literally a stone’s throw from the reservation.

Jeff Arneach, who was leaving the polls last Thursday, voted to allow alcohol sales on the reservation partially because he had read that drunken driving is more common in areas that are dry. If alcohol can be purchased in Cherokee, the incidents of drinking and driving might decline, Arneach theorized.

Proponents had also said that alcohol sales were necessary for the tourism industry. Businesses have lost customers because visitors can’t get wine or beer in Cherokee, even on the menu in restaurants, supporters of the referendum said.

For some enrolled members who live in other states, the vote was important enough to them to travel back to the reservation to vote in the election.

Larry Maney, a 70-year-old enrolled member who lives in Tennessee, drove more than two hours to have his say.

“I’ve seen a lot of harm — broken homes, marriages, a lot of abuse in families,” Maney said. “It just doesn’t make sense” to approve the referendum, he said.

Earlier Thursday, before the vote results rolled in, students from Cherokee High School presented the results of their own vote to Cherokee leaders. During that vote, an even larger percentage of students — 66 percent — voted down the measure, said Missy Crowe, an enrolled member whose son attends the high school.

Crowe was one of at least 40 Cherokee who filed an injunction three days before the election trying to derail the vote. The injunction said tribal council, the election board, the ABC Commission and Chief Michell Hicks violated tribal law by holding the vote. The Eastern Band held a referendum vote in 2009 to allow the sale of alcohol in its casino. The law states that the tribe could not hold another alcohol vote until 2014, according to the injunction request.

A judge later denied the request, saying that an injunction is an extraordinary remedy. The enrolled members had not sought out other avenue in which to air their grievances, such as filing a formal protest with the election board, the judge’s decision reads.


Sovereign say

As part of the referendum, each community had the option of voting alcohol sales up or down. The flexibility meant any of the six communities in Cherokee could separately opt out even if the majority elsewhere on the reservation had approved alcohol sales.

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 — the final total was 308 for and 306 against. But, like other communities, they voted against alcohol sales in restaurants, groceries or convenience stores.

The vote was close in Yellowhill and Birdtown, communities closer to the center of town, with the anti-alcohol sentiments winning by only a narrow margin.

Meanwhile, one of the reservation’s more traditional communities of Big Cove answered an emphatic ‘no,’ with more than 75 percent of voters striking down the referendum.

“I think there was a lot of emotion involved” in people’s decision, said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board. Rose spearheaded a committee who promoted the referendum.

Rose said alcohol sales could have garnered millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe and the economy on the reservation.

“I am not terribly surprised” that people voted against the sale of alcohol in restaurants, grocery stores and convenience stores, however, Rose said.

Of those who voted, 1,640 enrolled members voted down the sale of beer or wine in grocery and convenience stores — compared to the almost 1,500 who voted down the other two questions. Critics of the referendum disparaged the words grocery and convenience stores, asking if someone could put a can of beans on a shelf and call it a grocery store. People did not want beer joints cropping up all over the reservation.

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 turnout around 30 percent — but the turnout was likely much higher than that among local enrolled members as 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 turnout.

Now that the vote has taken place, the tribe cannot hold another referendum vote on alcohol for at least five years.


Vote results

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 and convenience stores.

Although the anti-alcohol movement handily won this time around, supporters of alcohol sales have gained a little ground during the past two decades. In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated by a wider margin of 72 percent in a vote of 1,532 to 601.

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