Some voters still undecided on eve of Cherokee alcohol vote

Opinions among members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians remain mixed leading up to a vote that could lift a historic ban on alcohol sales on the reservation or continue the longtime moratorium.

In the days leading up to the monumental vote, those polled on the street in Cherokee offered up the full range of views — along with those for and against it, some have yet to form an opinion or just don’t care — making it difficult to predict which side will prevail in the alcohol referendum. There are currently 6,717 enrolled members registered to vote.

Some businesses and churches are open about their dislike for a beverage that has caused so much heartache for families affected by alcoholism. Opponents have posted yard signs throughout the reservation telling people to vote “no to greed,” accusing supporters of putting economic tourism interests ahead of what’s best for local people.  

“I kind of totally agree with the signs they have out,” said Regina Rosario, a former tribal council member and Painttown resident. Alcohol has never done anyone any good, Rosario added as she shopped in Food Lion in Cherokee last week.

However, Rosario wagers that she is probably in the minority.

“I think it’s going to pass because of the younger generation,” Rosario said.

Supporters of the referendum have said that alcohol will lead to an increases in tourism, which will lead to an increase in casino patrons, and in turn increase income for enrolled members.

“I think the main part of it is money,” said Megan Stanford, an 18-year-old enrolled member from Painttown.

Stanford, who is against selling alcohol on the reservation, said that people should listen to their elders who have more life experience.

However, for supporters, a ‘yes’ vote is a vote for the freedom to choose as well as additional prosperity for Cherokee.

“I think it’s people’s personal choices,” said Adrianne Petrilli, an enrolled member as she sat with her husband in Tribal Grounds Coffee. “I’d just like to have the option.”

Proponents have said that people need to look at the bigger picture, which is more revenue for the tribe.

Plus, if people want alcohol, all they need to do is drive to Bryson City or Sylva to find it, supporters of the referendum have said.

“They are going to get it anyway,” Petrilli said.

But opponents have said the easier access will only lead to higher rates of drinking problems among enrolled members.

“I am voting ‘no,’” said Owens Walkingstick, a member of the Yellowhill community. “If it’s harder to get it, it will be less people getting it.”

Even if the referendum is voted down, the reservation may still find gas stations selling beer cropping up at its doorstep.

Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary, and if approved, places selling alcohol could settle along the border of the reservation, which lies partly in Jackson County.

A few opponents have said that that fact will not influence their vote, however.

“I would rather just let Jackson County handle that,” Walkingstick said.

A couple of enrolled members indicated that they plan to stay out of the argument and will likely not vote Thursday.

Charles Tchakeirides, a 28-year-old resident of Birdtown, said he is undecided about whether alcohol should be sold on the reservation.

“People are going to get it regardless,” Tchakeirides said. “I think a lot of young people will vote for it.”

Nadine Tramper was blasé about the matter, though she could save gas money if alcohol was available in Cherokee, she said.   

“It doesn’t bother me. I really don’t care,” said Tramper, of Big Cove.

 

Day of reckoning

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will head to the polls Thursday, April 12, to vote on whether the reservation should remain dry. They can approve all, none, or some of the following:

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and mixed-drinks drinks to consume on-premise in restaurants.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores and convenience stores.

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

The vote will be decided on a community-by-community basis for each of Cherokee’s six townships. One community can open the door for alcohol sales while another can keep the ban.

However, the referendum must garner an overall majority of votes reservation-wide for any one community to enact alcohol sales.

Cherokee closing in on historic alcohol vote

In one week, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will choose to either lift a historic ban on alcohol or maintain its dry status in a vote that has traditionally sparked fervor on both sides.

On April 12, enrolled members will head to the polls for the first time in two decades to vote on legalizing alcohol sales. But in the run-up to the election, the debate has remained surprisingly non-contentious compared to previous years when the alcohol issue has arisen.

 

The proponents

While an anti-alcohol movement is still present on the reservation, compared to previous years, its omnipotent voice has been less prominent this time around — signaling a possible philosophical shift among enrolled members.

In the past, a large majority of enrolled members fell on the opposing side — overwhelmingly rejecting a similar measure by a 3-to-1 margin two decades ago and in other years stopping a vote before it could even take place.

Simply having the opportunity to say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ denotes “a remarkable change in culture,” said Don Rose, a retired business executive and former vice chair of the tribal ABC board.

“It will probably pass,” Rose said. “The people who I talk to are by and large for it.”

However, Rose admitted that those staunchly opposed to the referendum would be less inclined to talk to him since he has openly advocated for a ‘yes’ vote.

From his point-of-view, it won’t lead to an increase in drinking, Rose said. People who want alcohol now will find it no matter what — which usually means driving in to Bryson City — a fact that referendum supporters say leads to more drunken driving.

“I think people see the logic,” Rose said. “Prohibition does not work.”

If people are allowed to buy alcohol in Cherokee, many local residents will opt to drink in the safety of their home, supporters have said.

For years, various leaders in Cherokee have championed the idea of making the reservation a year-round destination for vacationers. However, business owners have said that destination status is unattainable without alcohol, and they have lost customers because the reservation is dry.

“The realization (is) that if we are going to be able to compete … then we have to provide the amenities that they expect to see,” Rose said.

If visitors can order a beer or glass of wine with their dinners out, then they will be more likely to stay and spend their money in Cherokee — giving the reservation an economic boost.

Revenue from the alcohol sales could also help pay for substance abuse education and prevention as well as a rehabilitation center for addicts. Plans for a rehab center have long been discussed, but no blueprints have ever been drawn up.

Rose is a member of a “vote yes” campaign committee, mostly comprised of Cherokee business owners, who have organized to advocate for the referendum’s approval. The group has taken out ads in newspapers and traveled around the reservation talking to enrolled members.

A few days before the vote, the committee will hold a phone bank reminding people to vote and asking them to approve the referendum.

And, even if the referendum is struck down, alcohol could still find its way to the Cherokee’s doorstep. Jackson County is voting on a similar measure during the May primary. If approved, an ABC store or gas stations selling beer could open up along the border of the reservation anyway, which lies partly in Jackson County.

 

The opponents

Enrolled members have a long history of opposing the sale of alcohol on the reservation. Many cite religious convictions and a trend of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.

“I am definitely against it,” said Greg Morgan, pastor at Rock Springs Baptist Church in Cherokee. “It takes people’s lives downhill.”

Morgan said he has enough experience working with families affected by alcoholism to know that it does more harm than good. Money needed for food goes to booze instead. It leads to increased rates of domestic violence and causes people to act abnormally, from drunken driving to public intoxication.

Easier access to alcohol will only translate to more problems rather than greater control over the substance, Morgan said.

“I don’t think that anybody can control alcohol,” Morgan said.

And, any possible economic benefits of selling alcohol on the reservation would be negated by the harm it would cause enrolled members, Morgan said. An individual’s life is worth more than any money earned from the sales, and Cherokee can prosper without alcohol to boost its bottom line.

“The sellers are trying to make it like Cherokee is not going to survive without alcohol,” Morgan said.

Morgan accused supporters of using the allure of bigger casino disbursements to convince some enrolled members, particularly the youth, to vote “yes.”

Tribal members receive a cut of casino profits. If alcohol leads to an increase in tourism, that will in turn benefit the casino, and the twice-annual per cap checks will go up, so the argument goes. But, that doesn’t hold water, Morgan said.

A similar claim was made in 2009 when a majority of the tribe voted to allow alcohol sales only on the premise of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino. However, per cap checks have yet to show the increases that were promised, said members of the anti-alcohol movement.

Although he has not dedicated any more time to preaching about the dangers of alcohol since tribal council approved the referendum, Morgan said he will spend some time reviewing what the Bible states about the hard stuff with his parishioners this week leading up to the vote.

“In the Bible, it says we should not drink,” Morgan said.

Although one Bible story says Jesus turned water into wine, Morgan said that the fruit of the vine, as it is referred to in the story, was not fermented, meaning the drink was more like a grape juice rather than an intoxicating wine.

He and other opponents of the referendum, including other religious leaders, have already posted signs outside of their churches and businesses asking people to vote ‘no.’ Yard signs reading say “no to greed” are also placed around the reservation.

As for the vote in neighboring Jackson County in May, Morgan said that it is not his business.

“That’s their prerogative,” Morgan said.

 

The long history

Until the ballots are counted on April 12, it is difficult to predict how members of the Eastern Band will vote on the alcohol referendum — an issue with a long, controversial history.

Here’s a brief look back:

• In 1992, a ballot measure to allow reservation-wide alcohol sales was defeated 1,532 to 601.

• In 1996, gaming commission director Patrick Lambert, requested tribal council members to consider holding another vote. However, an overwhelming amount of opposition forced tribal leaders to renege, and the vote was never held.

• In 2006, a similar series of events occurred when the idea was floated to allow alcohol sales at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino but not anywhere else on the reservation. Tribal council shied away from the issue, and a vote was never held.

• In 2009, a petition drive landed the issue on the ballot. A surprising majority — 59 percent of those who voted — agreed to allow alcohol sales at the casino only. Opponents characterized it as the first step toward reservation-wide alcohol sales — a prediction that may or may not come to fruition next week.

• In late October last year, tribal council agreed to put reservation-wide alcohol sales to a vote of the people.

But, the Rev. Noah Crowe convinced tribal council members to modify the referendum’s wording to let each of the six communities in Cherokee vote on the issue for themselves, allowing one community to approve it but others not.

Alcohol vote may signal philosophical shift afoot

Historically, ballot measures on alcohol sales in Western North Carolina have been bitterly fought affairs, with pro and con forces battling it out publicly via billboards, church pulpits and through newspaper and radio advertising.

But, that’s not been the case in Jackson County, where voters go to the polls next month to decide on whether to allow countywide alcohol sales. If the referendum passes, Jackson would be one of only three counties in Western North Carolina with countywide alcohol sales, joining Buncombe and Clay. Henderson County is also holding a referendum on the issue in May.

In Jackson County both sides — if there are actually two sides — look set to head to the polls next month with nary a shot fired for or against the important vote.

“I think it’s a reflection of a different era and a different time,” said the Rev. Rich Peoples of Grace Community Church in Sylva.

Peoples said he believes that “churches frankly are fairly conflicted” on the issue. Most in this day and age, the preacher said, opt to leave the decisions about whether to drink alcoholic beverages — in moderation — to individual church members. And, the same is true concerning decisions about whether to vote for alcohol sales countywide, too, Peoples said.

 

Clear majority?

The majority of voters in Jackson County support countywide alcohol sales, according to a Western Carolina University Public Policy Institute/The Smoky Mountain News poll conducted to two years ago. It revealed that 56 percent of registered voters would support legalizing countywide alcohol in Jackson County compared to 39 percent who would be opposed. The poll surveyed nearly 600 registered Jackson County voters.

“My guess is that people want economic development and that people are concerned that it will help businesses thrive,” said Becky Kornegay, a Jackson County resident who works in Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library.

Like Peoples, Kornegay attributed the lack of obvious opposition to “it being just a different time — surely that battle already has been fought. You can buy beer now in Sylva.”

Gibbs Knotts, interim dean of Western Carolina University’s department of political science and public affairs, also pointed to the economy as one driving force for why there seems to be little to no public opposition.

“There may be concern about the positive economic impact” of a yes vote to the alcohol referendum, Knotts said, saying the lingering recession might have created more favor for the potential boost in tax revenues that widespread alcohol sales promise.

Knotts also pointed to Clay County as a possible bellwether of change to WNC’s traditionally fierce no-alcohol stance. Clay is one of the region’s smallest and most rural counties. Residents there in 2009 voted to allow alcohol sales countywide.

There is a possible wildcard in the May primary: Amendment One is also on the ballot. Knotts said that could skew the vote one way or another, depending on which camp — pro-same sex marriages or against-same sex marriages — succeeds in galvanizing voters. That’s presuming, of course, that those in favor of same sex marriages would be more liberal and therefore would vote in favor of countywide alcohol sales.

 

Some worry

Not everybody is pointblank in favor of countywide alcohol sales in Jackson County, however. Cullowhee business owner Robin Lang said she has heard opposition and added that she has mixed feelings about voting “yes” herself. That’s because, Lang said, she’s concerned there’s no overseeing body such as a planning board in Cullowhee to shepherd in the commercial growth that likely would follow such a vote.

While Cullowhee is not an official town, as home to WCU and the large student population, it is already Jackson County’s largest and fastest-growing community. Cullowhee grew 47 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the latest U.S. Census. Cullowhee alone accounted for almost 24 percent of Jackson County’s total population of 40,271 people, despite lacking official town status and having no tangible business district.

Former Chancellor John Bardo floated a novel idea in 2010 to try to bring alcohol to the community. Bardo approached the tiny town of Forest Hills next door to WCU and suggested it legalize alcohol sales and then annex the university and its surrounds into its town limits — possibly opening the door for bar-like establishments that seem part and parcel of a vibrant college atmosphere. That idea has dissipated with Bardo’s retirement last July and with the very real prospect of countywide sales by referendum vote.

“There are people a little afraid of the alcohol vote,” Lang said, however, counting herself among that number. “There is a bigger picture. I was originally for it, but I’m more confused now about which way to vote.”

Whittier and the Gateway area of Jackson, which serves as an entrance to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is the other community most likely to experience growth if alcohol sales are voted in countywide. Mark Rose, owner of GSM Thrift and Gift is all for the economic boost he believes alcohol sales would bring. His business is located between two service stations; Rose said customers looking for beer are turned away every day.

“People stop here for beer and we have to send them on back up the road to Sylva,” he said. “I tell them, go to Exit 81. That man at Exit 81 must be rich. All our tax dollars go there, and we need to try to keep them here. Everybody is struggling for money.”

 

Alcohol exceptions

While Jackson County is dry, alcohol sales have been permitted in Sylva in some form since 1967. Most recently, Sylva voters approved the sale of mixed drinks in restaurants in 2006, giving it the full compliment of beer, wine and liquor sales, whether in restaurants or to take home. Dillsboro has allowed the purchase beer and wine only in restaurants since 2005.

In Cashiers, numerous loopholes in the state ABC law allow several bars and clubs there to legally sell alcoholic beverages in ostensibly “dry” Jackson County, either by qualifying as a “members-only” club or a sports club if its has an on-site golf course or tennis courts.

Cherokee alcohol vote tailored to give communities more say so

Cherokee tribal council last week decided to change the format for an upcoming vote on alcohol sales, a move that will give individual communities more autonomy on the controversial issue.

When members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians go to the polls in April, each of the six communities that make up the reservation will decided independently  whether alcohol sales are legalized in their own particular community. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

The Rev. Noah Crowe, of Snowbird, brought the idea before tribal council last month, pushing for an amendment that would offer more flexibility than an across-the-board vote that would apply throughout the reservation.

“I would just encourage all the Cherokee voters to really consider it,” Crowe said. “We know what’s best for us.”

Tribal council approved the amendment last week.

Tribal Council Member Perry Shell said the people of Birdtown he represents are in favor of having their own voice.

“They wanted to have a say … so I voted to let them have that say,” Shell said.

Michell Hicks, the principal chief of the Eastern Band, has yet to sign off on the council-approved change. However, Hicks backed the resolution at a previous tribal council meeting, saying that alcohol should not be forced on a community. Hicks has also expressed concerns over the implication of a “yes” vote that could lead to package stores selling booze making their way into every corner of the reservation.

The reservation is comprised of six communities: Birdtown, Wolftown, Big Cove, Painttown, Snowbird/Cherokee County and Yellowhill.

Crowe hails from Snowbird, a remote and isolated satellite portion of the reservation in the Graham County, has an older population and is known for being more traditional. Snowbird is the only community that voted against allowing the casino to sell alcohol in another ballot measure two years ago.

The reservation is currently dry, with the sale of beer, wine and mixed drinks outlawed, except for at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort. The outcome of the referendum would not affect alcohol sales that are already allowed in the casino or any future gambling sites, however.

Cherokee’s business community is campaigning in support of the alcohol vote, saying it will boost tourism and economic development. Their primary focus now will likely be securing support among voters in the communities that encompass the primary commercial districts. While those communities have taken on heightened importance, they no longer have to worry about more conservative and traditional voters in outlying communities tipping the scales.

All or nothing? Cherokee ponders whether to tailor upcoming alcohol vote

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians might have the chance to decide whether they want alcohol in their individual communities this spring, but Tribal Council is still trying to decide if and how it would include the option on the alcohol referendum.

Tribal council approved a referendum in the fall that will give members of the Eastern Band the chance to vote on whether alcohol sales should be legalized on the reservation. Currently, the reservation is dry with the exception of the casino.

The Rev. Noah Crowe from Snowbird appealed to Tribal Council last week, asserting that individual communities should have the option of banning or permitting alcohol sales. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

“The issue of alcohol in our community as tribal members has been very powerful — and not in a positive way,” Crowe said. “I think a question like this gives power back to the community.”

Principal Chief Michell Hicks appeared at the tribal council meeting and backed the resolution brought forward by Crowe.

“I appreciate Mr. Crowe coming in. I know this has always been an emotional issue,” said Hicks. “I think that our communities are different in their makeup. An issue of this magnitude should not be forced on a community.”

Hicks has previously expressed concerns over alcohol sales being allowed in every corner of the reservation. Should the ballot measure be passed as currently written, convenience stores selling booze could potentially crop up anywhere.

The reservation is comprised of six communities: Birdtown, Wolftown, Big Cove, Painttown, Snowbird/Cherokee County and Yellowhill.

Snowbird, a remote and isolated portion of the reservation in the rugged mountains of Graham County, has an older population and is known for being more traditional. Snowbird is the only community that voted against allowing the casino to sell alcohol in another ballot measure two years ago.

No matter what, members of the Eastern Band will vote on some form of the referendum on April 15.

Massaging the verbiage

Although the council seemed amenable to the idea, legal conundrums continued to crop up.

“There are some significant issues,” said Tribal Attorney General Annette Tarnawsky. “Right now the way that this reads, you would have a problem in Painttown.”

The casino is located in Painttown, and the current wording of Crowe’s amendment would make alcohol sales in the casino illegal should the community vote down the alcohol referendum.

“I just want to make sure there is an informed decision,” Tarnawsky said. “There are a lot of things we need to look at.”

The reservation-wide ban has prevented businesses from coming to the reservation. Some restaurants have chosen to skip over Cherokee and open chains elsewhere.

“That has definitely been an issue in the past,” Hicks said.

Tribal Council chose to table Crowe’s proposal until its Feb. meeting in order to give the attorney general’s office more time to tweak its language and to avoid a rushed decision.

“I don’t want to see it fall through the cracks,” Crowe said.

A couple of council members indicated that they thought their constituents would approve of adding Crowe’s question to the referendum.

“My community strongly wants a say,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove.

Diamond Brown, a tribal council member from Snowbird, said that he believes residents of his community would like to have the option as well.

“If I were to get out and do a survey with the Snowbirders, the Snowbirders would be against it,” Brown said.

And, for his community, voting down alcohol would not affect businesses. Residents of Snowbird must already travel to Robbinsville or other nearby towns to shop.

“We don’t have a town; we don’t even have our own post office,” Brown said. “We don’t even have convenience stores.”

 

The count down

On April 15, members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will go to the polls to decide whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation. The three-part ballot will allow voters to approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

If Rev. Noah Crowe’s proposal is approved, tribal members would also be able to chose whether or not they want alcohol sold in their community. This means that parts of the reservation could remain dry even if other communities vote to lift the alcohol ban.

The option may give the referendum a better chance of actually passing. The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past and even stopped before a vote could take place. Many Cherokee are strong Christians and the tribe has a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making some inclined to oppose alcohol.

Alcohol referendum in Cherokee raises questions about who could sell

Joe Bock, an Indiana resident passing through this area on his way to Florida, was on a bit of a mission one recent day in Cherokee. Bock wanted to enjoy a beer with his lunch.

That desire remained unfulfilled, however — the restaurants on the Qualla Boundary, other than at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort, are dry. Bock wasn’t particularly upset, and said the absence of a beer with his lunch wouldn’t deter a repeat visit to the region.

“But sometimes you’d just like a beer,” he said in something of a wistful tone.

Voters might change all that in April. Cherokee tribal members will vote on referendum questions that could bring alcoholic beverages to stores and restaurants reservation-wide.

One sticking point? News that Principal Chief Michell Hicks wants the tribe to control sales of beer, wine and liquor through a tribally run alcohol store rather than allowing it on the shelves of gas stations and grocery stores.

That concerns Pete Patel, who with his wife owns Jenkins Grocery, the last stopping point on old U.S. 19 headed west to Bryson City just before motorists leave the reservation’s boundaries.

“We’re struggling even to survive,” Patel said. “If we could sell (alcoholic beverages) legally, we’d like to sell them. We could use a little extra help.”

Hicks would support alcohol in restaurants, however, and that pleases Emily Geisler, the manager of Tribal Grounds, a popular coffee shop on the reservation.

“I think it’s really important, especially for restaurants, to be able to offer beer or wine,” Geisler said. “If somebody wants the full dining experience, now they have to go out of town.”

Cherokee vote on alcohol sales a go next April

Businesses in Cherokee are gearing up for a campaign aimed at convincing members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to vote ‘yes’ on a measure that could end the nearly reservation-wide moratorium on the sale of alcohol.

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band, decided last Wednesday to allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.

“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people’s decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”

With the exception of Harrah’s Casino, Cherokee is dry. Restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations are not permitted to sell beer, wine or liquor.

Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.

The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.

In April, members of the Eastern Band will vote to approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

No matter which of the three items is approved, Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.

Hicks is OK with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine on the shelves of gas stations, and package stores cropping up across the reservation.

Instead, Hicks would prefer for the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.

Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribally operated ABC stores.

Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”

Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from rural areas of the reservation as well, such as the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.

The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.

The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.

 

Boon to business

Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might otherwise leave the reservation in search of alcohol.

Business owners met earlier this month to talk about ways to advocate for the passage of the referendum. They have formed a committee and several subcommittees to raise funds for their campaign, organize public forums and decide where to run promotional advertising.

Ninety days prior to the vote, which is expected to take place in mid-April, the committee will run advertising in newspapers and on billboards, encouraging tribe members to vote ‘yes’ and allow alcohol to be sold on the reservation. During the meeting, several people told stories of customers leaving and never returning because businesses cannot sell alcohol.

Telling people that they cannot buy alcohol on the reservation is a “very aggravating thing,” said Don Rose, a member of the Eastern Band, in a recent interview. Businesses in Cherokee could compete with those in surrounding towns if they are allowed to sell alcohol. Currently, visitors must travel to Bryson City or Sylva to purchase alcohol — or even to have a glass of wine with their meal.

“We are just trying to catch up with the rest of the world,” Rose said.

The Cherokee Chamber of Commerce and Rose agree with Hicks that businesses should purchase their alcohol from a tribally owned ABC store.

“That would be a definite benefit to have the money stay here,” said Matt Pegg, head of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce. “There are a lot of things we could do with that.”

Pegg emphasized that businesses would be under strict regulations regarding the sale of alcohol. The tribal ABC Commission would license individual businesses and teach owners and employees about their legal responsibilities as an alcohol reseller. A business could lose its license for violating regulations once.

“It wouldn’t just be a free for all,” Pegg said.

The tribe would reap the benefits of alcohol sales by funneling sales through its own ABC store.

Although both tribal council and Hicks approved the referendum, the battle to allow alcohol on the reservation is far from over. Many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.

The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.

The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.

Chief Hicks won’t veto alcohol vote

Michell Hicks, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, will allow a controversial vote to go forward next April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the reservation.

“At this point, I just feel strongly that it’s the people decision,” Hicks said. “It’s an issue for the people to vote on.”

Cherokee is currently dry, with no beer, wine or liquor sold in restaurants or convenience stores — with the exception of Harrah’s Casino. Tribal council last month voted to hold a referendum that would give all tribal members a chance to vote on legalizing alcohol sales.

The chief had until Wednesday to decide whether to veto tribal council’s decision. He spent the full 30-day time limit praying about it, he said.

Hicks said he wants the tribe to control how and where alcohol is distributed on the reservation, as well as benefit revenue-wise from its sales.

Hicks is okay with restaurants selling alcohol but doesn’t want to see beer and wine turning up on the shelves of gas stations and package stores cropping up across the reservation.

Instead, Hicks wants the tribe to be the sole proprietor of alcohol sales to the public. Liquor sales both to the public and restaurants would be handled through a tribally owned and operated ABC store, as is the norm for anywhere in North Carolina.

Hicks would like beer and wine to be handled the same way. He does not want beer and wine to be sold in gas stations and grocery stores, saying that is “something I won’t support.” Instead, he wants the sale of beer, wine and liquor limited to tribal ABC stores.

Hicks is not advocating for the alcohol vote to pass, but if it does, he wants the tribe to control the sale of alcohol for two reasons. One is to keep gas stations peddling booze off every corner of the reservation, citing that he doesn’t “think it’s healthy.”

Confining sales to a tribally run store would keep alcohol from cropping up on rural areas of the reservation as well, like the Snowbird community in the remote mountainous reaches of Graham County.

The other reason is financial. Cherokee would reap the profits from selling the alcohol.

The revenue from alcohol sales “could be substantial,” Hicks said.

Many local businesses support the referendum, saying alcohol will boost their bottom line and keep tourists who might other leave the reservation in search of alcohol in Cherokee.

However, many in Cherokee are strong Christians and have a long history of alcoholism and diabetes, making many inclined to oppose such a referendum.

The Eastern Band has shot down similar measures in the past — and even halted some cries for alcohol on the reservation before a vote could take place.

The referendum passed tribal council in late October, with nine of 12 representatives voting for it. Two council members wanted to table the resolution, and the remaining member was not present.

Members of the Eastern Band are expected to vote on the referendum in April and can approve all, none, or one or two of the following:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

 

Business owners craft campaign to promote alcohol sales

A group of Cherokee business leaders will be a driving force in the campaign to permit alcohol sales on the reservation.

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will vote in April on whether to legalize alcohol sales on the currently dry reservation.

“Most business owners are saying the same thing — it would be a nice option,” said Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber and the Cherokee ABC Board hosted a public meeting last Wednesday (Nov. 2) to gauge businesses’ opinions about the possibility of alcohol sales. About 20 people attended.

Several business owners said they had lost business because they are not permitted to sell adult beverages.

“It is imperative that our restaurants have alcohol,” said Morgan Owle-Crisp, a business owner and member of the tribe. Owle-Crisp added that potential customers travel to Asheville and other surrounding cities to eat and drink.

Beth Wolpert, manager of Yogi in the Smokies, a campground in Cherokee, said that she has had campers leave after finding out that they would have to drive 20 minutes to Bryson City to buy alcohol.

While tourism in Cherokee has improved over the past decade thanks both to the casino and cultural emphasis by the tribe, tourism overall on the reservation has been on the decline since its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, business owners said.

Alcohol could bring back some of that lost revenue, agreed business owners in attendance.

“We don’t have John Wayne out there promoting the Indians,” said Collette Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo.

Even if the referendum passes, the tribal ABC board will have the final say regarding who receives an alcohol permit.

To qualify to sell alcohol, a restaurant or grocery store would have to get 30 to 40 percent of its revenue from food sales, said Bob Blakenship, chair of the Cherokee ABC Board. Blakenship projected that a tribal ABC store would sell $500,000 in alcohol each year.

One reason for the major push to approve the referendum is a similar vote slated in Jackson County in May. If the measure passes, gas stations a stone’s throw from the reservation in Jackson County could sell beer and wine from their shelves. Jackson County could also place an ABC store selling bottles of liquor as close to Cherokee as possible, said Don Rose, vice chair of the tribal ABC board.

“It is going to be at our doorstep anyway,” he said. “All we’re doing is making it more convenient (to purchase alcohol).”

The three-part ballot will allow voters to separately weigh in on where alcohol sales should be permitted.

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

Tribe members can approve all, none, or one or two of these.

Attendees at the meeting talked about the wording of the ballot.

“You want simplicity in these question,” Rose said. “Otherwise, people won’t know what they are voting for.”

The Chamber of Commerce will hold its regular monthly meeting Nov. 15 and discuss funding for the campaign.

On Nov. 17, a campaign committee will meet at 9:30 a.m. at the Chestnut Tree Inn to begin formulating a plan, aimed at raising awareness and promoting the benefits of allowing alcohol on the reservation. The committee will discuss advertising in newspapers and on billboards as well as arranging an informational meeting for tribal members.

“People need to know it’s not going to be widespread,” said Steve Arch, owner of Big Bear Exxon Mart.

The committee will work under a tentative deadline of April 15 since it is currently unknown when or if the vote will occur.

A plan and funding for a campaign should be in place 90 days before the vote, Rose said.

Tribal Council approved the referendum regarding reservation-wide alcohol sales last month, giving tribal members a say in the historically controversial issue.

Nine out of 12 council members voted for the referendum. The other three didn’t exactly vote “no.” Two voted to table the measure, the third was out of town for the vote.

Chief Michell Hicks has until Nov. 23 — 30 days following the tribal council vote — to veto the referendum. As of Monday afternoon, Hicks had yet to make a decision.

Even if the chief shoots down the measure, tribal council can override his veto with a two-thirds majority, which they appear to have.

Tribal members have voted against allowing reservation-wide alcohol sales twice before. In 2009, however, voters approved a referendum to permit the sale of alcohol in the casino.

While proponents say alcohol will help Cherokee’s economy and attract tourists to local businesses, opponents of the referendum cite religious convictions and a long history of alcoholism among the Cherokee as reasons to continue its dry spell.

Let the battles begin in Cherokee

Cherokee tribal members could vote this April on whether to allow alcoholic beverage sales on the reservation, one month before a similar referendum will be held on legalizing sales countywide in neighboring Jackson County.

Cherokee’s referendum is contingent on Principal Chief Michell Hicks signing off on a resolution passed last week by nine of the 12 Tribal Council members.

Hicks has 30 days from Oct. 24, the day council voted, to make up his mind.

Asked Monday if he would allow the vote to go forward, Hicks said in response: “I don’t know, I’m not sure. I’m still praying on it.”

Hicks might not be able to stop a referendum even if he tries, however. Tribal Council can override the chief if the council has two-thirds majority — which, unless some members reverse their votes, it would. One complicating factor is that tribal council members’ votes are weighted to account for the number of people living in the townships they represent. One vote does not mean one vote, in other words.

Hicks described the decision about whether to try and stop the vote as difficult, one that involves weighing both the “good and the bad” aspects of allowing the sale of alcoholic beverages to be legalized on tribal lands.

“It has to be a determination for all of our people and not just a few of our people,” he said, adding that it’s also important to him that tribal members get some kind of voice in the decision to come. Which is the rub, of course — how best to give them that voice?

If Hicks allows the vote to take place, tribal members will decide these three questions. They could approve all, none, or one or two independently from the others:

• To permit a tribal ABC store to sell liquor to the public.

• To permit the sale of beer, wine and liquor drinks only in restaurants licensed by the Eastern Band.

• To permit the sale of beer and wine only in grocery stores and convenience stores licensed by the Eastern Band.

 

How it happened

A resolution calling for an alcohol vote was originally going to be brought before tribal council by the ABC commission of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. There’s an amendment, however, on the official resolution document. It notifies tribal clerks to strike the ABC commission as the origin and simply say state the resolution was Tribal Council-submitted. There is no additional explanation attached.

Chairman of the Cherokee ABC Board Bob Blankenship on Monday said that with neighboring Jackson County looking to vote on the same issue in May, he believed this is an opportune time for people in Cherokee to decide whether to legalize the sale of alcohol there, too.

“Jackson County needs it, we need it, everyone needs it who is involved in the tourism business,” Blankenship said bluntly.

Matthew Pegg, executive director of the Cherokee Chamber of Commerce, declined to comment about the possible vote. The Cherokee chamber is hosting an “open forum” for members to discuss the issue Nov. 2 in Cherokee.

The resolution was approved by nine out of the 12 members of Tribal Council, with no one technically voting against it — member Terri Henry was given an official absence to travel; Mike Parker and David Wolfe voted to table the resolution.

Here’s who voted yes: Bo Taylor, Perry Shell, Gene Crowe, Bill Taylor, Jim Owle, Diamond Brown, Adam Wachacha, Alan Ensley and Tommye Saunooke.

 

In the community

It’s not easy to find someone in Cherokee willing to endorse the sale of alcoholic beverages, not with their name attached to the supporting quote in black and white print, right here and forever in the newspaper.

It’s a cakewalk to interview those in the opposition camp, however. That’s because there’s a sudden swell of anti-alcohol indignation in Cherokee, one tapping into decades and decades of fervently held sentiment. The iron fist in this velvet glove is the 20 or so Baptist churches that call the Qualla Boundary home, united in staunch and fierce opposition to the consumption of alcohol — period, the end, in every case and without exception.

There’s also the touchy subject of alcoholism and diabetes to pair with these fundamental Christian beliefs that predominate among the Cherokee. And about seeing the tribe’s young people thrive and prosper. And, of course, there’s the deep and real respect here for Cherokee’s elders, who traditionally have spoken in one voice — a united “no” — when it comes to legalized sales.

Charla Crowe, 49, agrees with that position.

“I do not want to see alcohol in Cherokee,” Crowe said, sounding the words distinctly and in a fashion that brooked no misunderstandings.

Crowe is a Wolftown resident and owner of the store, Cherokee By Design, which is located across the road from the Tribal Council house.

Asked why, exactly, she’s against alcohol being sold here in Cherokee, Crowe responded: “We were raised here in Cherokee, and it was dry. And I want it to stay that way. We just don’t need alcohol so readily available. I’m a Christian, and that plays a huge part in my decision. We’ve got enough problems for the kids without bringing this right to our door.”

Crowe voted “no” two years ago to allow the sale of alcohol at Harrah’s casino. Walt French, of the Yellowhill community, voted “yes.” Today, he regrets that vote.

“The only way it passed at the casino was because the per capita was supposed to go up, but it sure didn’t happen that way,” French said.

From the revenues the tribe receives from the casino, 50 percent fund tribal government and services. The other 50 percent is split among the tribe’s 14,000 members in the form of two “per capita” checks each year.

Estimates in the days leading up to the 2009 casino-alcohol vote by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise put the per capita return to tribal members at about $9,000 per person by 2015. In other words, a “yes” vote allowing Harrah’s to sell alcohol meant more business for the casino, and in turn individual riches in an economically strapped region where extra dollars are tough to find.

His flat wallet, however, tells a different tale than what was promised, French said.

“Though I figured a vote would happen after they voted it in at the casino,” he said. Indeed, opponents at the time said allowing alcohol at the casino was a slippery slope that would sooner or later to lead alcohol reservation-wide.

“But I don’t think it’ll pass — I won’t vote for it again,” French said. “(Tribal leaders) made a lot of promises that didn’t happen. You tell a person he’s got $5, but you do this right here and you’ll get $20. Well, people do that; because they need that money in such a bad economy to buy food, pay for electricity.”

And, at 18, Victoria Wolfe, too, opposes the sale of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands.

Soft spoken and shy, Wolfe said simply, “I’m concerned about our kids. Drugs are already bad enough here.”

 

A timeline

A vote by the Cherokee people on whether to allow alcohol sales reservation-wide has been a long time coming. The last one was held in 1992, but the idea has been toyed with several times since then.

• 1980: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 2 to 1.

• 1992: A vote on whether to allow alcohol sales on the reservation was defeated 1,532 to 601.

• 1999: Patrick Lambert, head of the gaming commission, convinced tribal council to hold a referendum on alcohol sales. A groundswell of opposition spurred council members to cancel the referendum before it could be held.

• 2006: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a referendum on alcohol sales at the casino. Opposition swiftly mounted a campaign. TCGE withdrew their request before tribal council had a chance to vote on it.

• 2008: The Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise appeared before tribal council and asked them to hold a tribal referendum on allowing alcohol sales at the casino only. It narrowly passed tribal council but was vetoed by Chief Michell Hicks.

• 2009: Supporters of a referendum submited a petition with 1,562 signatures. The petition met the threshold for putting the measure on the ballot for a vote. It passed by a surprisingly large majority of 59 to 41 percent.

• 2011: Tribal Council approved a referendum for an April vote on allowing the legal sale of alcoholic beverages on all tribal lands. Hicks has 30 days to decide whether to allow the vote to be held, though Tribal Council can overturn a veto if there are enough votes.

 

Regional implications of Cherokee alcohol vote huge

A “yes” vote to allow the sale of alcoholic beverages on Cherokee tribal lands will touch many more people than just enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians voting in the special election next April.

That’s because the tribe has lands in four Western North Carolina counties: Jackson, Swain, Cherokee and Graham. Of those, Graham County currently stands solitarily as the one county out of North Carolina’s 100 counties that is totally dry. The others have alcohol sales inside town limits, even if the rest of the county does not. But in conservative Graham County, a six-pack of beer or bottle-of-wine are not to be had, even in the county seat of Robbinsville.

Here’s the sorest potential spot in what’s promising to erupt into a hotly argued issue, particularly in Cherokee’s most traditional communities — Big Cove, probably, but almost certainly in the Snowbird community in dry Graham County. Even if a majority of residents in a particular Cherokee community vote against alcohol sales, the door would still open if Cherokee voters overall — reservation-wide, that is — approve the resolution.

“Those are tribal lands,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in explanation. “This would be a tribal-wide vote.”

Jackson is dry, but alcohol sales are allowed in Sylva and Dillsboro. Swain is dry, but alcohol is sold in Bryson City. Cherokee County is dry, but alcohol is sold in Murphy and Andrews.

Also in play for tribal alcohol supporters is this fact: The Eastern Band is considering building a satellite mini casino on 200 acres in Cherokee County on tribal lands outside of Andrews. This vote might well open the door to alcohol sales at this hybrid, not-quite-a-casino, but more-than-bingo facility. Cherokee voters in June 2009 approved the sale of alcoholic beverages at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort in downtown Cherokee but not for the rest of the reservation.

— By Quintin Ellison

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