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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.

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“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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