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Expedition maps prehistoric Cherokee fishing weirs

Lamar Marshall had been canoeing the Little Tennessee for years before he knew what a fish weir was. In retrospect, the low rock walls spanning the river are too symmetrical and too uniform to be a naturally occurring rock vein. But for years, Marshall paid them no heed other than reveling in the small rapid they created.

That was before Marshall started spending time on the river with Brent Martin, an outdoor friend in Macon County who works for the Wilderness Society. Martin introduced Marshall to the hidden world of fish weirs, ancient stone walls placed in the river to corral fish into traps.

Marshall knew what fishing weirs were, of course, but like most, he didn’t realize the community fishing practice was once used in the mountains by Cherokee. To Marshall, the ancient weirs are a symbol of a time when man lived in harmony with nature.

“The lifestyle of the Native Americans was self-sufficient. Nature provided everything. It was an intense form of freedom,” said Marshall, who works for the environmental organization WildSouth.

A few weirs in the region are so pronounced they show up in aerial photographs and are even obvious when viewed from the shore. But the vast majority are only visible from the river itself, and thus have gone uncatalogued. It was astonishing to Marshall that there had been no systematic effort to map the weirs so far.

“These weirs are national treasures,” Marshall said. “Every stone you see in that weir was picked up and placed there by a Native American. They are historical landmarks. More than that, these are relics, traditional places where people can connect to their heritage.”

So when water levels in the Little Tennessee dropped to record lows during the height of severe drought last August, Marshall called Martin and pitched the idea of a scouting trip to plot all the weirs they could find. Low water would render any weirs that are typically obscured much easier to spot.

“We were seeing weirs everywhere,” Marshall said of their trip. “They are so defined, once you know what you are looking for there is no missing them.”

The team counted 13 weirs in a single seven-mile stretch of the Little Tennessee. Marshall’s GPS unit was broken at the time, so the best he could do was sketch their location in on a map as they paddled downstream. But Marshall knew he would one day have to repeat the exercise and capture their exact coordinates.

That chance came last week, thanks to a break in the rains that had dominated the summer so far. Marshall set out on a downriver expedition, this time with a GPS unit in hand.

Marshall’s expedition came at the perfect time for Dan Perlmutter, a professor at Southwestern Community College and a long-time fish weir enthusiast. This month, Perlmutter is leading a week-long field course on fish weirs for middle and high school students, many of them Cherokee.

His goal is to give students hands-on experience using surveying instruments to map the rocks of a single weir, hopefully inspiring the students to pursue math and science fields. The project is funded in part by Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

“When the students have a concrete product and one with community significance, it automatically interests them,” Perlmutter said. “In school, when someone talks in the abstract about research they will have a practical knowledge of it. They’ll say ‘I’ve done some of that.’ They aren’t just passive observers.”

Among those cashing in on the chance to spend a day on the river with Marshall was Mo Moody, who put aside reservations about never being in a kayak before and joined the expedition. Moody, a recent graduate of the surveying program at Southwestern Community College, will lead the technical aspects of surveying with the students in Perlmutter’s program.

Moody will show the students how to use surveying instruments to capture the shape, size and exact location of the rocks in a weir. If the weir was vandalized or disturbed by flooding, it could be reconstructed based on the survey work.

“It’s important to be able to put them back in the exact same spot,” Moody said. “Surveying is going to lock it down on the map.”

Moody, a recent convert to the circle of fish weir enthusiasts, finds it hard to believe this work hasn’t been done already.

“It’s like an ancient find right here for us to see,” Moody said.

The fish weirs are one piece of what Marshall and others have come to call the “cultural landscape” — essentially what the landscape would have looked like during the time of the Cherokee. The broad rivers served as highways for trade and communication, with a network of Cherokee towns along their shores. Large mounds marked the political and spiritual centers for the villages. Cleared fields radiated through the flat river bottoms, while forested mountainsides served as hunting grounds.

“This was the Garden of Eden for the Cherokee Nation, right here in the Cowee Valley,” Marshall said.

Saving the cultural landscape has become the rallying cry of preservation groups in recent years, including the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

Another unmapped piece of that landscape is the myriad Cherokee trails that moved trade and foot traffic. Marshall is currently engaged in a year-long project through WildSouth to map those Indian routes, thanks to funding by the Cherokee Preservation Foundation.

For a man who’s spent his entire life outdoors — alternately making a living as a fur trapper, outfitter and environmental advocate — Marshall calls his current job the best he’s ever had. He holds a deep respect for the Cherokee.

“I love everything to do with the Indians and their way of life. They lived independently of this corporate-dependent system that now seems to be failing us,” Marshall said.

Fish stew: better than it sounds

While today’s fishermen are partial to the big fillets like brook trout and small-mouth bass, Cherokee used even the tiniest fish, like silversides and shiners, drying them on long strings or making them into stews.

Myrtle Driver, a Cherokee elder, has a recipe for fish stew that has been passed down through her family. Gut the fish, but you can leave the head and skin on. Bake them slowly for a long time, although she isn’t sure how long.

“We don’t time it. We just look at it. We don’t measure either,” Driver said.

Once the bones have become soft during baking, put them, in a pot of boiling water and season with fatback grease and salt.

“The bones will become so soft you can eat them. They just fall apart,” Driver said.

PETA targets bear zoos in national campaign

Recently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found itself the whipping boy of an unlikely opponent.

Much to the tribe’s surprise, the national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month released a statement calling for an end to the practice of keeping caged bears in Cherokee. The statement named three small zoos as the culprits, the last holdouts of a practice that was once common in the area’s early days as a tourist destination.

“Tell Cherokee to end cruel bear pits,” the release said, citing the zoos — Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, the Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land — for keeping “neurotic” bears in “grossly inhumane conditions.” PETA had even gotten a celebrity to sign on to the cause — none other than Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right” and a Native American from the Sioux tribe. In a letter, Barker requested a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the practice.

PETA’s campaign took Cherokee officials off guard. Suddenly, Hicks’ personal email was flooded with 650 messages from angry PETA supporters — so many he had to block the address they were being sent from.

“I just think it was pretty disturbing how PETA approached this issue, when one didn’t even exist,” Hicks says.

That’s precisely where Hicks and the PETA organization disagree.

PETA has waged something of an undercover operation in Cherokee in recent months since it was alerted to the bears’ existence by Barker (see related article). The group has traveled to the region with experts to study and film the caged bears at the three zoos.

PETA says it found the bears housed in cramped, concrete pits with few toys for stimulation. They denounced the feeding of the bears by visitors who are given small snack trays containing lettuce, apples and bread at two of the zoos to toss down to the animals. The group is convinced that there is indeed a problem.

“Neurotic behavior is evident in these bears,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s captive animal division. “You see a lot of crying, whimpering, pacing, walking in circles, and fighting.”

Barker is fully on board with calling attention to the bear’s plight, he said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News.

“I do not purport to be an expert on bears, but I’m impressed with the experts who’ve seen the bears themselves and seen the films,” said Barker. “All of them agree that the bears are not being adequately cared for, and that they are showing signs of stress. They are not healthy.”

Barker wants to arrange a meeting with Hicks to discuss the bear exhibits. Hicks said he was amenable to discussing the situation with Barker, but as of press time no meeting had been arranged.


Out with the old

Though PETA only recently got wind of the practice, the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common. Sitting outside of the Tribal Grounds coffee shop, Eastern Band member Dennis Watty points across the street.

“I remember there was a cage right over there,” Watty says. “There were bears in cages all along the side of the road.”

Jeff Goss is the owner of the Goss Agency marketing firm, which works with the tribe. As he explains, the practice started to take off when more and more tourists flocked to the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The poverty-stricken Cherokee were desperate for income, and many capitalized on the stream of visitors passing through the area. The Wild West, cowboys and Indians themes dominated pop culture at the time, so the Cherokee adopted a fittingly rugged persona, building teepees (though that wasn’t a part of their culture) and displaying native black bears to gawking tourists.

“The teepees and bears were there simply to make a little bit of money to survive as tourists were coming through to the Park. They had no real source of income,” Goss says. “(Tourists) didn’t want to see the real Cherokee — they wanted to see what they saw in the movies.”

But the bears often suffered as a result of the practice. The animals were sometimes lured from the wild into the trunks of cars by the smell of bacon, remembers writer Gary Carden of Sylva. They were then taken to live in small cages where tourists were free to feed them.

“It was definitely inhumane,” Carden remembers. “The bears were frequently sick and malformed from living on a diet of candy and junk food.”

The popularity of the caged bears has dwindled in recent years, however, as Cherokee has worked to redefine itself and its image. The Goss Agency was put in charge of the tribe’s marketing plan five years ago.

“There’s been a move and concentrated effort to establish the rich, authentic Cherokee culture,” Goss says. “As a result, that’s shedding that image.”

The tribe’s marketing campaign, emphasizing its natural and cultural features, has been wildly successful. PETA advocates say the continued existence of caged bears is a huge step back.

“This is truly a relic,” says Leahy. “I don’t think there are too many other places in the country that still maintain any sort of wildlife in these archaic pits. They really seem to be locked in some 1950s time warp.”

Barker says the tribe has so much else to offer — the mountains, museums, cultural exhibits, friendly residents, and the casino — that the bear exhibits are obsolete.

“Bear pits may have been a big attraction at one time, but are now seen as an embarrassment,” Barker said.

Goss is skeptical. He said he’s never heard concerns about the caged bears come up in any of his research, part of which involves asking visitors about negative perceptions or barriers to the experience.

“There’s so little of it, and it’s so insignificant. What does exist, there’s little awareness of it,” Goss says. “For the few people that might stumble onto that while in Cherokee, that’s not the overall impression they take away.”


“They’re family”

The Cherokee Bear Zoo, a nondescript building which houses a fudge and ice cream shop along with a variety of exotic animals, is one of the only remaining places exhibiting bears. Caretaker Norbert Santiago is incensed at PETA’s accusations. He’s looked after the zoo’s 10 black and grizzly bears for a decade, and considers them to be family.

“We take good care of them,” he repeats several times. “They are happy here. This is home.”

The bears are housed in pairs in pens with four cinderblock walls and a concrete floor. The facilities are sparsely furnished, with a tree limb, a couple rocks, a small piece of cloth that provides a square of shade, and a pool with cold water piped in directly from the river. The bears don’t have much to play with, except one another, and are kept amused by visitors chucking down pieces of lettuce, apple and bread. Like dogs, the bears beg and even do tricks for their food.

It’s a far cry from the grassy, treed, expansive environment the animals would experience in the wild, but then again, these hardly seem like wild bears. In fact, none of them has ever lived anywhere else, Santiago says.

“They’re bred and raised in captivity from the time they’re babies. None of them have lived in the wild,” he says. “They wouldn’t survive.”

Santiago calls the bears “our pets,” and indeed, that’s how the bears seem. They even respond to their names — a large grizzly named Elvis lumbers over when Santiago calls for him.

Santiago maintains that the bears are content.

“I know they’re happy. If they weren’t happy, they would show it,” he says.

In fact, PETA alleges that the bears do show signs of unhappiness, including whining and crying out. But Santiago says the bears don’t do that, and accuses PETA of “making things up. I don’t see them crying,” he says.

Indeed, it’s difficult to picture Santiago willingly committing the abuse PETA alleges on animals he refers to as his family.


Room to roam

Still, PETA says that the bear’s surroundings at the three facilities aren’t adequate.

“Bears are extraordinarily difficult to keep in captivity,” says Leahy. “They’re so intelligent, so curious, such active animals that you need to provide with a lot of diversity and space. They need opportunities to forage, dig, and nest, and things to climb on.”

The WNC Nature Center in Asheville, one of the only other regional facilities that exhibit bears, takes a different approach to housing its animals, striving to provide them with an environment similar to their wild habitat.

“To be honest, bears are a challenge even for multi-million dollar zoos to keep in captivity,” says Henry Bulluck, animal curator for the Nature Center.

Bulluck says that bears can develop physical ticks when housed in small concrete cages with little stimulation. To prevent this, the Nature Center keeps its bears in a one-acre facility with natural ground, grass, trees, a large pool, and plenty of logs to crawl on. Throughout the day, the bears are given different enrichment devices.

But there’s a major difference between the bear zoos in Cherokee and the WNC Nature Center — namely, the guidelines each facility must follow.


Playing by ear

Every facility in the country that houses captive animals for exhibition must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the Animal Welfare Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act requires captive animals to have shelter, food, water, a sanitary environment, protection from extreme temperatures, and adequate veterinary care. Just what defines those things is largely up to the USDA inspector of a facility. Animal advocates have criticized the act for being too lax and vague.

“One of our frustrations is that the Federal Animal Welfare Act only establishes bare minimum guidelines,” says Leahy. “Unfortunately, we would consider the minimum requirements to be inhumane.”

One of the major downfalls of the Animal Welfare Act is that “there are no explicit regulations and standards that address the complex needs of bears,” Leahy says.

To encourage higher standards, the WNC Nature Center completed a strenuous accreditation process through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Participation in the association is voluntary, and demonstrates a more stringent level of commitment to animal welfare.

“It took a lot of work to become a part of it, but we want to show we’re following the best principle of animal care,” Bulluck says.

The tribe’s Cherokee Code, which the Cherokee zoos must comply with in addition to USDA guidelines, puts forth specific regulations on the handling of bears in captivity. Still, the requirements are basic. Cages for bears must be 8 feet by 12 feet with a concrete floor and include a pool and a den. Cages must be kept clean and shaded during the hottest parts of summer days.

So as sparse as the bears’ accommodations may appear at the Cherokee zoos, they’re within the law — which means there’s little PETA or anyone else can do to keep the facilities from operating.

“Tribal law allows for them to have captive animals, as long as they’re in compliance with tribal law and USDA standards,” said Hicks. “As far as I’m concerned, our businesses are within compliance.”

The fact that the bear zoos comply with existing USDA and tribal regulations matters little to PETA, an organization recognized for its often-zealous campaigns. One of PETA’s best-known tactics involves throwing fake blood on people wearing animal fur.

Over the top? Maybe a little, says Barker, but PETA knows how to get things done.

“I understand they (PETA) have been criticized as being radical on occasion, but I also know them to be one of the most effective, productive organizations in the country,” Barker says. “In a case such as these bears, no organization could help more than PETA.”


Slap on the wrist

Yet even PETA is limited in what it can do for the bears — a real change in the practice may require broader, institutional change. Currently, even when the zoos don’t meet regulations, it appears little is done about it by the officials inspecting the facilities.

USDA inspectors check up on the Cherokee bear zoos once a year, as they do with all other captive animal facilities. Inspectors have cited both Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and Santa’s Land for numerous citations involving bears in recent years (the Cherokee Bear Zoo has received citations for its care of other animals, but none involving its bears).

For instance, in 2008, the inspector found that the Trading Post did not have adequate barriers to prevent public contact with the bears. The facility received several citations the previous year, in 2007, for what the inspector described as “the overwhelming nauseating foul odor of ammonia and feces,” dim lighting, failure to clean the cages, and an inadequate feeding tube that posed an injury risk to the bear cubs.

Santa’s Land also got written up in 2008 for unleashing bear cubs during public feedings and posing a threat to public safety, as well as for a jagged feeding tube. In 2006, the park was docked for failing to have a regular veterinarian, inadequate shelter, and improper handling of the bear cubs to prevent contact with public.

Despite numerous violations, the facilities continue to operate. Santa’s Land did not respond to numerous phone calls. The Smoky Mountain News visited Saunooke Trading Post and tried to contact managers in charge of the animals but was unsuccessful.

“Not only should USDA regulations be stronger, they should be stringently enforced,” says Barker.

Barker says the USDA lacks the staff to adequately follow through with the citations inspectors issued.

“There are so many animals being mistreated across the country, and they don’t have enough USDA inspectors to keep up with them,” Barker said. “Now that we’ve brought attention to this, hopefully the USDA will do something.”

Cherokee needs new superintendent after personnel upheaval

The Cherokee School Board is on the verge of appointing a new superintendent following the termination of Rosemary Townsend after three years on the job.

Board Chairman Anthony Sequoyah said Townsend was an at-will employee and that the board chose not to renew her contract “for several reasons,” which he declined to specify. The vote came three weeks ago.

Sequoyah named former Cherokee Chief Joyce Dugan as a leading contender for superintendent, but no action was taken at the board’s Monday (June 29) meeting to confirm a contract offer.

William Geddes, principal of Cherokee Elementary School, also retired last week for health reasons, according to Sequoyah. Geddes had chosen not to renew his Assistant Principal Keith Mallonee’s contract shortly before the time Townsend was terminated, Sequoyah said.

Sequoyah categorically denied that Townsend’s departure had anything to do with a large school budget shortfall, which she sought stopgap funds from the tribal council to cover — albeit unsuccessfully.

Sequoyah disputed a rumor that an exodus of teachers was imminent if Townsend was kept on. Sequoyah called that “ridiculous, especially with all the younger teachers coming up from other school systems. I have no knowledge of anything like that.”

How Bob Barker took on the Eastern Band

Bob Barker?!

The involvement of famed television host Bob Barker in the fight to end the Cherokee bear exhibits took many by surprise.

During a phone interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Barker explained that he first became aware of the bears through his long-time friend, Florida Congressman Bill Young. Young stopped through Cherokee with his family on a trip from Florida to Washington, D.C., and visited the bear exhibits. The Youngs weren’t impressed, to say the least — Young’s wife was practically in tears when the family left.

“He and his family were aghast at the condition of the bears. When he got home, he promptly called me,” Barker says.

Barker has long been an advocate of animal rights, ending each episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to “spay and neuter your pets.” Barker is well acquainted with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, and informed her of what Young had seen.

“She promptly sent a couple people down there and they reported that some of the conditions were worse than had been reported,” says Barker.

Barker agreed to put his name to the cause.

“Mr. Barker has been a longtime animal rights advocate and we’re glad he’s taken an interest in this. It’s something that has been the source of a high number of complaints to PETA,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s Captive Animals Division.

When PETA released a nationally circulated statement June 8 calling for an end to the bear exhibits, it was accompanied by a letter from Bob Barker requesting a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks. The statement made note of Barker’s letter.

What happened next is a bit hard to decipher. Hicks says that the supposed letter mentioned in PETA’s statement was never actually sent to him.

“That was a big lie on their part,” Hicks says of PETA.

Hicks says he had to call PETA to obtain the letter, at which point they sent him a faxed copy that wasn’t signed. He then requested a stamped, signed letter, which he finally received.

“That was a big farce, was all it was,” says Hicks.

Barker disagrees, maintaining that the press release with the letter followed an earlier press release PETA had put out on the issue.

By last week, on Wednesday, June 24, PETA had still not heard back from Hicks’ office about setting up the requested meeting, though they continued to hope a call would come.

“We think the solution is going to require an opportunity to sit down with the chief and other members of the tribal council and discuss improvements that can be made for these bears,” Leahy said.

When The Smoky Mountain News spoke with Hicks on June 25, he told the paper he had still not responded to Barker’s request. Asked if he would indeed agree to it, Hicks said, “I will absolutely honor a meeting. I have no reason not to do that.”

Later that day, Barker confirmed that he had not heard back from Hicks. The SMN informed Barker of Hicks’ willingness to meet.

“Maybe we can get together then,” said Barker. He added, “I’d come down and meet with them. I’ll call PETA and arrange a trip to Cherokee.”

Barker said he looks forward to meeting with the chief in an effort to find some common ground on the issue of bear exhibits.

“I want to smoke the peace pipe with him,” Barker said.

— Julia Merchant

Casino to buy liquor in bulk, but from whom?

Cherokee isn’t the only one that potentially stands to make money off the sale of alcohol to patrons at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

Swain or Jackson counties could see a mini-windfall of their own if Harrah’s purchases vast quantities of liquor from the ABC stores in either Bryson City or Sylva.

Restaurants and bars that serve liquor must buy their booze from the nearest or most convenient ABC store — part of the tightly regulated nature of liquor that ensures collection of a hefty excise tax tacked on to each bottle.

While the state lays claim to the excise tax revenue, any profit turned by an ABC store remains with local coffers, generally split between the county and town where the store is located. More booze being purchased, especially the bulk quantities that gamblers at Harrah’s are bound to consume, means more profit for whichever store lands their business.

Before Sylva or Bryson City get too excited about the prospect, however, typical state laws governing liquor purchases may not apply to establishments in Cherokee, which consider itself a sovereign nation.

“They’re different,” said Laurie Lee, the auditor for the N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “We don’t know at this point how it is going to work. It is a unique situation.”

Instead of buying liquor from the existing ABC stores in either Bryson or Sylva, Cherokee might look for a way to keep any profits of the bulk liquor purchases for themselves. That would essentially mean setting up its own ABC store.

State law requires voters in an area to approve the opening of an ABC store. Such a vote would be tough to pass in Cherokee where alcohol is a controversial issue, both for cultural, social and religious reasons.

While Cherokee voters approved a measure earlier this month to allow drink sales at the casino, the rest of the Cherokee reservation will remain dry. The pledge to limit drink sales to casino premises assuaged many who otherwise would have voted “no” — making it unlikely a vote on setting up an ABC store would curry favor from the majority.

But once again, it is possible an exception could be made for Cherokee. If Cherokee wanted to set up its own ABC store with the sole purpose of selling liquor to Harrah’s — rather than to the public — the state may allow such an arrangement without requiring the regular referendum.

Yet another option is for Cherokee to buy its liquor directly from the state warehouse, bypassing the Sylva and Bryson ABC stores. The state might like that idea, since it would stand to make the profits from the bulk orders.

“It is all a gray area right now,” Lee said. “Whether they will purchase directly through our warehouse or go through a local ABC board or whether they could set up their own store, we are researching all those issues. Those are all things that will have to be worked out.”

The first step is for Cherokee to decide on its preferred arrangement and then ask the state if it’s OK.

Norma Moss, the director of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise, said the tribe hasn’t worked through those details yet.

“The distribution process still needs to be decided,” Moss said.

Craft Revival Project receives funding from Cherokee foundation

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation recently awarded $87,700 to Western Carolina University’s Craft Revival Project to continue the university’s Cherokee crafts documentation project.

Following its initial year, which explored Cherokee baskets and basket makers, the second year of the project will focus on Cherokee potters and pottery during the first part of the 20th century. The project includes research on handcrafts made by tribal elders at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual.

The project’s primary goals are to provide documentation of early 20th-century Cherokee pottery, disseminate new educational information, build an online database of images and develop lesson plans to promote a better understanding of the role and impact of Cherokee crafts in Western North Carolina.

With the funding, the project staff will create a museum-level inventory system of the permanent collection at Qualla Arts and Crafts, photograph pottery in the collections, scan historic photographs of potters and pottery, and create individual records for each item photographed and scanned. In addition, the project staff will document the lives of the potter elders. The project plan also includes printing copies of a guidebook on Cherokee pottery. The guidebook follows one on Cherokee baskets and is second in the “From the Hands of Our Elders” series.

For more information about the project contact Anna Fariello at 828.227.2499 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Culture and history to take rightful place in new visitor center

A ceremonial groundbreaking was held this week for a new visitor center at the main North Carolina entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside Cherokee.

The new visitor center will showcase the cultural heritage of the region, from the Cherokee to early Appalachian settlers — or the “human side of the park,” as Steve Woody, a founding member of Friends of the Smokies, called it.

A proper visitor center for the North Carolina side of the park has been a long time coming — 75 years to be exact. Since the park’s creation, North Carolina has limped along with a cramped, make-shift visitor center fashioned out of an old ranger station built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The new visitor center could help mend North Carolina’s second-fiddle status to Tennessee by establishing a greater presence on this side of the park.

“You have a huge influx of tourists that need a reason to stop here,” said Tom Massie, Jackson County commissioner and former chairman of the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Since the Smokies’ creation, a master plan has called for a visitor center showcasing the cultural heritage of the region to be constructed at the N.C. entrance to the park. The $3 million project will finally come to fruition thanks to donations raised by the Friends of the Smokies and proceeds from bookstore and gift shop sales by the Great Smoky Mountains Association.

Bo Taylor, leader of a Cherokee traditional dance troupe, said it is fitting that the new visitor center museum will emphasize Cherokee history on the land. The Cherokee were the first people to call the Smokies home.

“Remember us as you go through this park,” Taylor said. “It is part of the DNA of our people.”


75 years and counting

The groundbreaking of the new visitor center on Monday (June 15) doubled as a 75th anniversary celebration. The Smokies was officially created by an act of Congress on June 15, 1934.

“Today we give special thanks to the families who sacrificed to give us one of the great treasures of the United States,” said Congressman Heath Shuler, D-Waynesville, who spoke during the program.

Shuler said the park provides a connection to the collective heritage of the region. It is also a conduit to teach children about nature. Shuler recalled the life lessons imparted to him on hiking and fishing trips with his father. Shuler encouraged the audience to take the young people in their lives on a hike and get them outdoors.

Shuler also lauded the new visitor center and its cultural focus.

“Visitors from across the county will be able to come here and see our heritage,” Shuler said.

Smokies Superintendent Dale Ditmanson thanked the community leaders and visionaries who helped create the park 75 years ago, as well as the families who sacrificed their land for the park’s creation.

The promise of tourism was a driver in the creation of the Smokies, and has indeed held true.

“Tourism really is the engine that fuels our county,” said Glenn Jones, the chairman of Swain County commissioners. The national park is the anchor of that tourism economy, Jones said.

But the preservation of the land has also been important to locals.

“I can take my grandkids into the park and they can take their grandkids,” Jones said. “It will be here forever.”

Cherokee casino to be dry no more

When Beverly Easton came to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino for the first time and realized there was no drinking, she wondered how an alcohol-free casino could even exist.

“I think it is a deterrent,” said Easton, who was visiting Harrah’s from Charlotte last Thursday. “You come here to have fun and relax, and having a cocktail is part of it.”

Such an integral part, in fact, that when Linda Moutray tried to orchestrate her five sisters to shift the venue of their annual rendezvous from Las Vegas to Cherokee, it was a deal killer.

“I thought, ‘Let’s all come here instead,’ but they wouldn’t because there’s not alcohol,” said Moutray of Gainesville, Ga.

That’s all about to change, however. Spurred by the promise of bigger revenues, the Cherokee people voted “yes” in a ballot measure last Thursday (June 4) that will allow drink sales at the casino. The casino will become the only place on the Cherokee Reservation, known as the Qualla Boundary, where beer, wine or liquor can be sold or served.

Nearly 50 percent of registered voters turned out to cast ballots in the monumental election. It passed comfortably with a vote of 1,847 to 1,301. The vote was held in conjunction with a primary election for tribal council seats.

Not all casino patrons are chomping at the bit to drink, however. Wanda Thurman, a regular at Harrah’s from North Georgia, said she liked the fact it doesn’t have alcohol.

“I’ve been at ones that drink and ones that don’t, and I’d rather be at one that doesn’t,” Thurman said. It’s irritating to have a drunk player beside you, especially if they keep slumping into you, Thurman said.

Bruce Cramond makes the trip to Harrah’s from Waynesville almost every week to play at the blackjack table, but said he would never drink when gambling.

As for why, “Why do you think?” he said. “If I’m eating, I would like to have a drink with a meal, but not while I’m gambling.”

Cramond knows he’s not the norm, however. He’s taken women to Harrah’s on dates who won’t come back because there’s nothing to drink.

“I do know a lot of people who don’t come here because they can’t drink,” Cramond said. “A lot.”

The casino hopes to roll out alcohol as soon as it can.

“I am hoping within the next six months, but that is a wild guess,” said Norma Moss, director of the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise.

Many of the casino’s patrons are within a three-hour drive and venture to Cherokee for a daytrip. That could change if alcohol was an option.

“People would stay overnight more,” said Moutray, who often drives home after a day of playing but would stay over if she was drinking.

The casino hotel is frequently booked solid as it is, however. That means the addition of alcohol could be good news for nearby hotels that capture spillover from the casino.

The casino offers complimentary rooms to high rollers and frequent players, but often runs out of room even for them. So the casino books blocks of rooms at partnering hotels, shelling out the cost of rooms to put the players up, albeit off-site. Last year, the casino bought thousands of rooms directly from local hotels to house players, not to mention the business neighboring hotels garner from run-of-the-mill casino traffic.

The need for more hotel rooms has been a major driver of expansions at the casino in recent years. No sooner had the casino built a second hotel tower than it announced plans for a third, which is currently under construction and will double the number of rooms to more than 1,000 hotel rooms.

Money motives

Casino profits have been vulnerable during the recession. Projected casino revenue for the tribe this year is $223 million, down from $244 million last year. One regular player at Harrah’s, Sandra Tankersley from Chatsworth, Ga., said she used to make a daytrip here every week or two, but has cut back to every other month.

“We’ve slowed down,” Tankersley said.

The tribe splits its cut of casino profits into two equal pots. One goes toward tribal government to pay for everything from education to health care to cultural preservation programs. The other pot is paid out to tribal members twice a year in the form of “per capita” checks. Payments amounted to $8,800 each for the tribe’s 13,500 members last year.

The first “per capita” check for 2009 was issued last Monday. It was $500 less than the “per capita” check tribal members got in December. The alcohol vote came just three days later, and the thought of dwindling “per capita” checks was fresh on everyone’s mind. It proved opportune timing for supporters of the measure.

“If people see money, it will pass,” said Chip Climbingbear when asked for his opinion on the vote before ballots came in Thursday.

But clearly not all tribal members were motivated by the prospect of bigger “per capita” checks or more government programs. Elvia Walkingstick, who works as a waitress at a casino restaurant, voted “no” — even though she stands to get bigger tips if alcohol is on the menu.

“It would be nice, but not at that cost,” Walkingstick said. She cited the historical issues with Native Americans and alcohol.

“It’s already a problem to begin with,” Walkingstick said. “It doesn’t make sense to add fuel to the fire.”

The biggest driver among those opposing the measure was religion more so than cultural issues over alcohol.

“My Baptist faith comes before my culture,” said Donna Morgan, a tribal member who voted “no” for the measure at the Yellow Hill precinct.

Alcohol is often a factor in domestic violence, child abuse and child neglect. It causes car accidents, creates performance issues in the workplace and sets the stage for drug addictions.

While alcohol plays an undeniable role in social ills, supporters claim drink sales at the casino won’t have an impact on the local population, however. Locals choosing to imbibe, whether it’s one drink or a dozen, will continue frequenting the liquor store and gas stations in Bryson City or elsewhere to pick up their goods.

Several voters interviewed after exiting the polls Thursday said the only reason they voted for the measure was because it was restricted to the casino. If the vote was over alcohol reservation-wide, they said they would have voted no. The casino will sell drinks to be consumed on casino property only.

Reservation-wide sales?

It could be just a matter of time now until restaurants and stores elsewhere on the reservation begin selling alcohol, however. Being able to serve alcohol gives the casino an advantage over other restaurants and stores, say some. A petition citing the “unfair business competition” is already circulating as potential fodder for a legal challenge calling for alcohol sales to be extended to other businesses.

It would certainly make life easier for Shelly McMillan, a clerk at River Valley Store in Big Cove, if she could sell six packs. Tourists staying at one of several nearby campgrounds often come in to buy beer, only to learn the closest place to do so is a 40-minute round trip into Bryson City.

Last week’s vote landed on the ballot thanks to a petition drive by Cherokee voters. Tribal council was narrowly split on whether to hold a referendum on alcohol and was unable to override a veto of the issue by Chief Michell Hicks. So supporters took matters into their own hands with a petition drive that garnered more than 1,500 signatures, enough to bring the issue to a vote.

Perry Schell, a tribal council member from Big Cove, had supported the vote.

“I think people should have the right to vote,” Shell said. “I’ve lost some support over that but I feel like the tribe will make a decision about what’s best for them.”


How much more?

It has been widely reported that drink sales at the casino, along with a major expansions underway, could lead to an increase of $9,000 a year in per capita payments to tribal members by 2015, according to estimates put out by the Tribal Casino Gaming Enterprise. With current per capita payments hovering around $8,000, tribal members widely thought that their payments would more than double.

But that is not the case. The TCGE estimates instead show tribal members would get an additional $9,000 cumulatively over the next six years. The annual increases in per capita payments would average between $1,000 and $1,500 a year, adding up to net gain of $9,000 per tribal member by 2015.

Tribe votes in favor of lease agreement with Wal-Mart

At long last, Wal-Mart will be coming to Cherokee.

A move to bring a 120,000-square-foot superstore to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Reservation has been in the works for nearly four years. On May 20, the tribal council voted in favor of approving a ground lease with the company. The vote was split, with three council members opposing and nine in favor of the measure.

“When completed, the Cherokee Wal-Mart Supercenter will be part of a much larger mega-retail development offering products and services currently not available to Tribal members and visitors to the Qualla Boundary,” said Mickey Duvall, planning and development director for the tribe, in an email statement.

The tribe would be in charge of constructing the $25 million building for Wal-Mart on a 22-acre parcel of land on the reservation, according to Duvall. The tribe would then lease the building to Wal-Mart at a cost of between $564,000 and $720,000 per year, Duvall said. The lease agreement is for a mandatory 20 years plus six optional five-year renewals, for a total of 50 years.

If Wal-Mart made an average yearly lease payment of $642,000 over a 20-year period, the tribe would only receive $12.8 million — just over half the cost of constructing the building.

The idea that the tribe may not recoup the full amount it pays to construct the Wal-Mart was the primary reason tribal council Chairman Mike Parker voted against the lease agreement.

“There’s no guarantee that they’re going to stick around long enough to pay that money back,” Parker said. “I wasn’t opposed to Wal-Mart, just the idea of giving them $25 million and then with no language in the lease holding them to that amount, I just couldn’t rationalize that in my mind. It doesn’t make business sense to give them $25 million with no guarantee.”

But according to Duvall, the tribe had little choice but to construct the building if it wanted to land Wal-Mart on the reservation.

“Since the Wal-Mart cannot purchase or own trust property on the Qualla Boundary, the tribe elected to build and own the building and lease it back to Wal-Mart,” Duvall said.

Additionally, tribal officials are anticipating that the superstore will bring in nearly $214 million in tribal levy over a 25-year period, with the amount of levy gradually increasing with each five-year period. The tribe’s levy rate is 7 percent.

“This project alone will almost double the current Tribal Levy collections,” Duvall said. However, some of the levy raised by sales at Wal-Mart will be in lieu of sales already occuring at other stores on the reservation, so not all the levy would be considered a net gain.

Duvall said there are two scenarios for the Super Wal-Mart’s opening date. The “fast track” scenario has the store opening by December 2011. The “regular track” scenario has the store opening by December 2013.

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