Lawsuit blames Cherokee for investment losses in children’s trust fund

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has denied any wrongdoing in a lawsuit related to investment losses in a trust fund that safeguards casino earnings on behalf of Cherokee youth.

The tribe has, among other things, asked a judge to deny a class-action status in the lawsuit, which would allow any youth affected by the losses to be compensated by the tribe.

Recession rebound: turnaround in progress at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino

After inching its way back from recession-driven declines during the past year, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel is back in the catbird seat.

You could even call it a Royal Flush. The advent of live dealers and table games coincides with a $633-million transformation of the casino into a rollicking resort.

Signs as art


art cherokeesignJeff Marley is creating signs for Cherokee and the surrounding area proclaiming in Cherokee and in English, “We are still here.”

Drum, song and dance highlight Powwow


art frWith strong personal, familial and spiritual traditions and a healthy dose of competition, the 37th annual Cherokee Powwow will ignite a three-day festival of drum, song and dance to kick off the summer season in Cherokee.

Hundreds of powwow dancers, including several world champions, will compete at the Acquoni Expo Center June 29-July 1.

Franklin and Eastern Band try to make peace

Franklin Mayor Joe Collins sent a letter to the chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee last week, personally apologizing for the use of pesticides on an ancient Indian mound.

“I personally apologize for the desecration caused to the mound,” Collins wrote. The Franklin town board declined to issue its own apology in mid-May.

Cherokee gathering casts light on generational trauma

When the microphone opened up to the crowd, Laura Stout felt compelled to say her piece. She raised her hand, got up from her front-row chair and walked to the podium where a dozen or more Cherokee people had spoken already.

They had talked about the tribulations they faced in their life, social ills that permeate the Cherokee reservation and stemming, in all likelihood, from the historical trauma of persecution and acts of genocide faced by their tribe two centuries ago.

Now, it was Stout’s turn, her turn to offload feelings that had weighed on her for most of her life. But for Stout, a white woman whose family has lived in North Carolina for 300 years, standing up before a mostly Cherokee crowd at this sacred Cherokee spot held a different significance. As Stout spoke about the burden of knowing what her ancestors did to the Cherokee and other peoples, it wasn’t long before she started to weep before the 100-person crowd gathered Saturday in a pavilion at Kituwah Mound, the birthplace of the Cherokee people not far from the present-day town of Cherokee.

But, now, she was finally able to stand before a gathering of Cherokee and ask for forgiveness on behalf of her family.

“It’s not enough to take it on. We have to do something about it,” Stout said.

Cherokee speakers talked about healing their own generational trauma that resulted partly from the Trail of Tears — healing that is possible only by forgiving people who brutally and forcibly drove the Cherokee from their land. Healing goes both ways, Stout said. When the Cherokee forgive white people for their wrongdoing, they are not the only ones who feel relief.

“When the Native Americans forgive us, we heal,” Stout said.

Stout was one of more than a handful of white people who attended a universal gathering Saturday called “The Journey of Healing and Forgiveness.” It was an emotional day for many as they described personal strife and their efforts to move beyond them. The day was also a time for people to socialize, laugh and enjoy meals together.

The event as part of an effort by the Cherokee Healing and Wellness Coalition to start a discussion about the need to stop the downward spiral caused by generational trauma, or rather suffering that has passed down from one generation to the next.

The ramifications of the forced removal, known as the Trail of Tears, still impacts the Cherokee people today, said Patty Grant, a leader with the Cherokee Healing and Wellness Coalition. For generations, the lingering psychological impacts of that horrific time have been buried and repressed. But now, it is time to start talking about its effects and begin forgiving, she said.

The two-day event not only addressed long-term trauma caused by the Trail of Tears but also problems that are rampant on the reservation, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, diabetes and violence. The gathering was opened to everyone, not just those of Cherokee descent.


The side effects of trauma

The sunny and increasingly warm Saturday was the final day of a more than weeklong “Journey to Forgiveness and Healing.”

It began on May 18, when 26 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee traveled to Tahlequah, Okla., where their brethren from the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetowah Band welcomed them with a traditional stomp dance. The participants then traversed the northern route of the Trail of Tears through Illinois, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia, stopping at significant locations along the way. The travelers arrived back in Cherokee to conclude the event May 25 and 26.

The closing day Saturday started with a line of the attendees processing around Kituwah Mound behind a sacred hoop adorn eagle feathers that represents many things, including nature, the seasons and the circle of life.

The mound itself holds deep cultural and spiritual significance for the Cherokee because it is where the tribe began. The mound is tantamount to Jerusalem for Christians and Jews. People can actually visit locations talked about in Cherokee folklore.

“This is not where we come to. It’s where we come from,” Grant said.

Prior to the removal, “This was a peace place. There was no war. There was no conflict.”

In a speech later, Grant referred to removal as a prime example of generational trauma and said it is at least partially to blame for other ills in Cherokee society. Generational trauma is suffering that has passed down from one generation to the next. People are more likely to form an addiction if as a child their parents or caregivers suffered from such a problem, or become abusive if they themselves were abused.

The person becomes the thing they were harmed by, said Dr. Ann Bullock, the medical director of the health and medical division of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Bullock was one of several scheduled speakers at the gathering.

It is biologically difficult to forgive someone or a group who has caused you harm because trauma affects a person’s ability to deal with a situation, particularly if it occurred at a young age, Bullock said. If something triggers a bad memory, stress hormones kick into high gear, and the person will mentally revert back to the age they were when the trauma occurred.

“Trauma in a sense freezes us,” Bullock said. “Needless to say, this does not put us at our best.”

When people experience a life-changing event or multiple traumatic events, they spend their life stressed and wondering when the other shoe will drop.

“We are always looking for the next wreck,” Bullock said.


Letting go

A number of people talked about how each new generation of Cherokee people had been taught to hate whites ever since the Trail of Tears in 1838. An idea that is by no means foreign, considering the many forms of racism that continue to persist the world over.

The Trail of Tears created distrust toward white people, particularly Andrew Jackson who is considered the greatest proponent of removing the Cherokee from their lands. The removal started a cycle of hatred that has lasted more than 150 years.

“(My mother) taught me to hate Andrew Jackson,” said Amy Walker, a speaker at the gathering. President Jackson ordered the removal via the Trail of Tears and is universally loathed by Cherokee people. Walker carried that same hate until four years ago when she decided to let go.

“Just before I found out that I had cancer, I decided that I was no longer going to allow a dead man to have that much of my life,” she said.

Walker, like most of the other speakers, deviated from the Trail of Tears and talked about personal tribulations that affected her life, including the death of her father at an early age and how the birth of a daughter was the result of rape.

During her journey to forgive, a trip that she is still on, Walker said she realized that she was taking out her anger toward her rapist on the daughter that resulted from it. She was unjustly laying blame on someone for something she did not do — a problem that is not contained to one person or ethnicity, Walker said.

Hugh Lambert, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a speaker at the event, ran into many people who felt the same as Laura Stout when he participated in the Trail of Tears bicycle ride last year. Similar to the journey some of his fellow enrolled members took a week ago, the ride retraces the Trail of Tears and includes pit stops at culturally significant places. People would greet the riders and offer them food and drink.

“Everywhere we went it occurred to me that these people were saying, ‘We are sorry for what our ancestors did to your ancestors,’” Lambert said, calling the ride a powerful experience.

For Lambert, the ride was not only momentous because of the history of his people but also because of his personal history. Lambert was almost 300 pounds when he was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes in 2004. As an emotional eater with undiagnosed depression, he has always flirted with the border between pre-diabetic and diabetic. Until one day, he tumbled over that line.

But, for a year, he still did not change his eating habits or exercise. It wasn’t until he saw a documentary called “The Gift of Diabetes” about another native man struggling to control his diabetes and weight that Lambert realized he needed to shape up and stop making excuses.

The Cherokee need to forgive people for their wrongdoings and take responsibility for their problems as well, Lambert said in a speech to about 100 people this weekend.

“It is time as Indian people to stop being victims,” said Lambert, who now weighs less than 200 pounds.


What is the Trail of Tears?

In 1838, President Andrew Jackson pushed through legislation to remove the Cherokee Indians from their lands in Western North Carolina and other parts of the Southeast to Oklahoma so that white settlers could have their land.

White soldiers rounded up Cherokee people by force and placed them in fenced concentration camps while they continued to capture more Cherokee. Then, the Cherokee people were marched along one of five routes to Oklahoma where they were being forced to resettle.

Along the way to Oklahoma, thousands of Cherokee died from various maladies —malnutrition, exhaustion, disease, some froze to death along the Mississippi River during a particularly cold winter in Illinois. Those who survived the journey and made their home in the Oklahoma Reservation became known as the Cherokee Nation.

A small group who stayed behind became known as the Eastern Band. They fled and hid in the mountains from the white soldiers to escape the march to Oklahoma and were eventually permitted to stay.

Cherokee’s top coffee spot taken over after loan, lease default

Regular coffee connoisseurs in Cherokee may have noticed a slight change in their popular downtown coffeehouse.

The Sequoyah Fund, an economic development nonprofit that makes small business loans, is now running what was formerly Tribal Grounds under the name Cherokee Coffee Shop.

Tribal Grounds was foreclosed on after former owner Natalie Smith neglected to pay the rent for the business. The Sequoyah Fund, which lent Smith money for the lease and start-up costs, took over the shop and decided to keep it open during the foreclosure process rather than leave a vacant building in the middle of the downtown district.

“It’s in the best interest to keep the business open,” said Ray Rose, a Sequoyah Fund board member who is running the coffee shop for now. “We were also requested by the tribal business community to keep it open.”

Part of the collateral for the loan from the Fund was Smith’s business. So when Smith did not pay the rent and foreclosure documents were filed, the business came under the auspices of The Sequoyah Fund. The nonprofit then hopes to sell the business, which is currently housed in a tribally owned building.

“There are people lined up. There is significant interest,” Rose said.

The coffeehouse was closed for one week while the Fund transferred the business to its name and underwent the required inspections.

“We were able to do that in a week, which is incredible,” Rose said.

Leaders with the Sequoyah Fund declined to provide details of the loans granted to Smith.

“I think you are pushing the limit there on things that are confidential,” said Rose. Rose did say that it had been a “significant amount of time” since Smith had last made a payment toward the lease.

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, also abstained from divulging any particulars about the loans or any other debts owed but indicated that the amount is considerable and more than any potential buyer might want to take on.

“I am not sure if they (Sequoyah Fund) will find anyone to take on the amount of debt,” Hicks said. “They may have to accept cents on the dollar.”

A lawsuit against the tribe may also result from the foreclosure. The tribe owned the building that Smith rented for her coffeehouse.

“There have been allegations (but) nothing’s been filed at this point,” Hicks said.

Hicks said he is glad that the coffee shop will remain open, at least for now, calling it “a business that Cherokee desperately needs.”

Attempts to contact Smith were unsuccessful. However, she released a statement to WLOS two weeks ago.

“I acknowledge there have been financial difficulties with my business and I have diligently pursed resolutions to those difficulties. Unfortunately, I have not been able to meet the demands of the Business Committee and the Sequoyah Fund,” said Smith in the statement. “The (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and the Tribe have changed the locks on my business over my express objections. This situation continues to develop, and I am seeking legal assistance.”

With the exception of the coffeehouse in Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, Tribal Grounds is the only coffee shop in the Cherokee area. The shop was recently honored with the distinction of having its coffee grounds served and sold at The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

The Sequoyah Fund is a nonprofit that loans money for business ventures and provides training and other resources to companies on the Qualla Boundary and in the seven western counties. The regional loan program has used casino dollars to help provide training and technical assistance to more than 1,000 individuals and extended more than 135 loans totaling almost $4.6 million since 2001.

Fate of live dealers hinges on state House

The quest to bring live table games to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino faces a final political hurdle.

Both the Governor and N.C. Senate have given live table games their blessing, with the N.C. House of Representatives now the lone hold-out.

Harrah’s Casino is limited to video-based gambling only. Adding live table games like roulette and poker would attract a new clientele of player, and in turn more money and jobs flowing through the entire region, according to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“We aren’t going to see a big influx of industry coming in to Western North Carolina, so we have to do what we can to ensure we have economic development,” said Rep. Roger West, R-Marble. West sees the casino, which could employ more than 2,000 if it gets live dealers, as a key economic pillar that spins off in the region.

Whether the Eastern Band has the requisite votes to get the measure passed is unclear at the moment, however. But West is hopeful.

“I think the votes are there. If they aren’t, it is just a matter of getting them,” said West, who represents Macon, Clay, Graham and Cherokee counties.

However, many of the House legislators who are opposing live dealers cite moral and religious grounds, and convincing them to relinquish their convictions in the name of economic development might not be easy.

“My opposition stems from my longstanding belief that state sanctioned gambling has a corrosive effect on our society,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill.

Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, said the good the casino has done in the region outweighs any negatives.

“I remember the days before they had Harrah’s — it has brought a whole lot of prosperity to the Eastern Band,” Haire said.

Haire said the jobs provided by Harrah’s are significant, not only the salaries but the health insurance. And Haire personally enjoys going to the concerts at Harrah’s major performance venue. He saw Diana Ross recently, and is headed to see Natalie Cole this weekend.

Haire hopes Cherokee’s casino operation won’t be held hostage to personal ideology.

“I think some people want to put a moral tag on it, but nobody makes you go to Cherokee to gamble. It is all voluntary,” Haire said.

Rapp was willing to go along with live table games for the existing casino campus, since gambling was already going on there. But Rapp is not comfortable with the prospect of Cherokee opening more casinos in the region on their land holdings.

The deal initially inked with the governor would have permitted Cherokee to open more casinos anywhere on land holdings it owned currently.

However, in an attempt to assuage legislators uncomfortable with expansion of gambling onto some of Cherokee’s more recently acquired holdings, new language was added. The new language limits the Eastern Band to a max of four more casinos, and they can only be built on land under the tribe’s domain as of 1988 — making newer land acquisitions off the table.

Live table games passed the senate last week by 33 to 14. All four state senators from the mountains voted for it: Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin; Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Spruce Pine; Sen. Tom Apadoca, R-Hendersonville; and Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe.

The tribe has hired lobbyist Steve Metcalf, a former legislator from Asheville, to shepherd live table games through the General Assembly. Metcalf declined to comment for this article.

A vote could come as early as next week. If it doesn’t come, it could be a bad sign.

“You never go to a vote unless you have the votes,” West said.

The General Assembly will only be in session for about six weeks.


Education fight resolved

It took years of lobbying and negotiations for the tribe to reach where it is now. In an historic agreement signed with Gov. Bev Perdue last November, the tribe agreed to give up a cut of its revenue from the new table games — on a sliding scale starting at 4 percent and maxing out at 8 percent over the next 30 years. In exchange, the state would grant live dealers and a guarantee that no other casinos would be allowed to encroach on its core territory, namely anywhere west of Interstate 26.

While Perdue and Republican leaders in the General Assembly had agreed in theory to live dealers last fall, they had locked horns on a seemingly obscure sticking point. Perdue wanted the state’s cut of casino revenue to go directly to schools, bypassing the General Assembly. That way, lawmakers couldn’t be tempted to tap the money for other uses.

The Republican leaders, however, said casino revenue couldn’t legally be put in a lockbox and earmarked for future years. One set of lawmakers today can’t impose mandates on how future lawmakers can spend money.

A compromise was reached that places the money in a special “Indian Gaming Education Revenue Fund.” The General Assembly can tap the fund at will — so it does put legislators hand in the till — but they have to hold a special vote to get money out. Otherwise, the money will be disbursed quarterly to school systems across the state based on their student body population, and can only be spent on “classroom teachers, teacher assistants, classroom materials or supplies, or textbooks.”

Cherokee crafts plans for tree-top canopy walk and family adventure park

The next five years could include the construction of an adventure park, a canopy walk and another casino for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, according to a preliminary outline of its 2012 economic development plan.

Every five years, the Eastern Band creates an updated economic development plan that outlines what the tribe accomplished during the previous five years and its plans for the future.

Several items in the 2012 strategic plan are simply continuations of work started in 2007, such as diversifying its attractions.

With the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel being its main draw, a number of Cherokee’s visitors are 21 years or older. To create greater family appeal, the tribe is looking into the possibility of adding a canopy walk  — a high-elevation nature stroll through the tree tops. The attraction would feature suspended bridges stretching from tree to tree and give visitors a bird’s eye view of the area.

“The environment, the mountains, the streams and everything are so important to Cherokee,” said Doug Cole, a strategic planner with the Eastern Band. “(The canopy walk) takes advantage of that; it doesn’t try to degrade it.”

A likely locale for the canopy walk would be near Mt. Noble in Birdtown, Cole said.

In addition to the walk, the tribe is also making plans to construct a family friendly adventure park, an idea that it has tossed around for a while. The park could include various activities, such as a zipline and climbing wall, as well as a water park. The facility would be open year-round, with some elements inside and some outside.

“There is an opportunity there for the kids and family market,” Cole said. “It could be something that all Western North Carolina could be proud of.”

After finding that project is indeed feasible and that there is enough demand, the Eastern Band then began looking into how it could finance its construction — something it is still figuring out. The park could cost between $90 million and $100 million, Cole estimated, calling the numbers a “pure guess.”

“It really depends upon … how much we want to build,” Cole said.

An adventure park would also help with another goal of the tribe — to diversify its job opportunities and revenue streams.

“I think diversifying the income from the tribe is very important. Right now, we depend on the casino quite a bit,” Cole said. “You don’t want to have all of your eggs in one basket.”

That is not to say that enrolled members are not grateful for the support the casino provides. In fact, the tribe has discussed expanding its gambling operations, not just within its current casino but also to another part of the reservations.

For a while, the tribe has discussed the possibility of building new casinos on other tribally owned lands. And now that the living gaming compact is looking more likely to pass, building a small-scale casino in Cherokee County is the gaming commission’s No. 1 priority, said Don Rose, a member of the commission. It would not be a full-fledged casino but would be more than a bingo hall, and Harrah’s would not necessarily be affiliated with the new casino.

“This would be a totally separate casino,” Rose said.

Although a large portion of the economic plan involves tourism, it also addresses quality of life for enrolled members.

The reservation only has one large commercial grocery, Food Lion, and no national retail stores. Many enrolled members must drive to the Walmart in Sylva for the simplest things.

“If you wanted to buy a tie or shirt, you would have to drive to Sylva and back,” Cole said. “We need to have that available.”

There is also no drug store, like a Walgreens or CVS, where enrolled members or even visitors can easily pick up a prescription when necessary, he said.

The tribe will also look into investing more into tribally owned businesses through operations such as the Sequoyah Fund.

The blueprint, formally called the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, helps the tribe when applying for federal monies.

Since 2007, when the last plan was drafted, the Eastern Band has received $3.37 million for economic development projects, states the report.

Mostly, however, the economic strategy plan is a map detailing what the Eastern Band hopes to achieve during the next half decade.

“The real reason we do this is to keep us on strategy on what we want to do during the next five years,” said Cole. “Hopefully by 2017, we can make a lot of that happen, too.”

It’s track record on seeing project through has been surprisingly good. Past CEDS projects include the construction of the Sequoyah National Golf Club, a movie theater, a skate park and smattering the reservation with painted bear statues, among others.

The tribe will spend this month prioritizing projects and developing action plans. A final draft of the economic development strategy will be submitted to the U.S. Economic Development Administration by the end of September.


Speak out

To voice your opinion, review the plan or find out information about public meetings regarding the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, visit

Franklin balks at apology for killing mound grass

Franklin leaders declined last week to offer a formal apology to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians for using weed killer on an ancient Indian mound.

“I don’t think we did anything destructive,” said Franklin Alderman Sissy Pattillo. “And I have a problem with the chief or whoever saying we did something disrespectful. That just bothers me.”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks earlier this month said he was “appalled” by Franklin’s use of a weed killer to denude the mound. Hicks called on the town to formally apologize for what he termed a culturally insensitive action and one that demonstrated a marked lack of respect for the Cherokee people.

Alderman Bob Scott was the lone town leader who wanted to issue an apology. He had drafted a letter to the chief expressing regret for what had taken place, and said that perhaps the dustup could serve as a means of opening new dialog between Franklin and the tribe. His call to send the letter received a lukewarm response from fellow town board members, however. The other aldermen pointed out that they had never been formally asked by the tribe to apologize, but instead the demand for an apology had come only through the media.

“I’ve got a question,” Alderman Farrell Jamison said to Scott at a Franklin town meeting last week. “Was there actually a letter or are we just listening to media stuff? Do you have a copy of a letter?”

“I do not,” Scott responded.

Pattillo made the point that the town didn’t just dump weed killer on the mound out of malicious intent. Franklin leaders have said they were merely trying to cut back on weekly mowing maintenance of the 6,000-square-foot mound, which is located on town property. After the grass was killed off, the town intended to replant it with a low-growing native grass variety that wouldn’t need mowing.

Nikwasi Indian Mound is one of the largest intact mounds remaining in Western North Carolina. Large earthen mounds were built to mark the spiritual and civic center of American Indian towns that once dotted the Little Tennessee River Valley through Macon County and the region. Scholars note that while its precise age is uncertain, Nikwasi Mound pre-dates even the Cherokee.

Pattillo defended the town’s stewardship of the mound. She said that the town’s ownership dates to 1946 when then-owner Roy Carpenter was offered $3,000 to sell the mound for commercial interests. Someone wanted to doze the mound down and develop the property.

“School children, people in town, people out of town and people out of the county sent in their pennies and money and it was bought for $1,500 dollars and given to the town of Franklin,” Pattillo said.

Mayor Joe Collins had earlier told The Smoky Mountain News that Town Manager Sam Greenwood had exceeded his authority in ordering the weed killer to be applied.

“But decisions were made and that’s where we are at right now,” Collins said. “It didn’t jump out at me as being an affront or an indignity to the mound and certainly not to the Eastern Band. I hope it’s not an issue of strong sentiment to the tribe in particular — I’m over there on a regular basis and I’ve not picked up on it.”

Collins noted that the mound does belong to Franklin and that he was satisfied that the town has been a good steward of it.

“It really is our decision to make because it is under our ownership,” said Collins, whose mother was an enrolled member of the Eastern Band.

The mayor said that he for one would welcome working with the tribe on issues concerning Nikwasi Mound, perhaps in connection with a town hope to one day acquire some of the land around the mound. There has been some discussion about creating a park there. The town also has plans to install an informational kiosk at the mound to inform visitors about the historical significance of the ancient site.

Scott said one good thing about the weed-killer incident is that “it has brought the issue of the mound into the public eye.”

Scott’s motion to send the letter expressing regret failed for lack of a second. Alderman Billy Mashburn then made his own motion — that no apology be considered by the board, and that the town attorney be instructed to look into an ordinance that would ban all foot traffic from the mound unless there was prior town board approval.

“And I think at this point we need to dissolve the mound committee,” Mashburn added, explaining that he believes decisions about the mound need to be made by the town board.

The mound committee was made up of town leaders and residents who discussed issues about Nikwasi Mound. Scott and Collins both served on the committee.

Scott, a bit testily, asked “Would you be more comfortable with the mound committee if I weren’t on it? I’ll just step down.”

No one replied to Scott.

Collins noted that there was no reason to vote on a motion noting that no apology would be considered since there wouldn’t be an apology issued anyway.

The board then dissolved the mound committee, voted to have the attorney research the needed legalese for banning foot traffic and to plant eco-grass on the denuded mound.

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