Now the Cherokee Want to Build a Casino in Virginia

by James A. Bacon

Indian ancestral lands are sacred — sacred, I tell you!

Until they’re not. As is apparently the case in Washington County, where the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the vast majority of whom live in North Carolina, have proposed to build a casino.

The eastern Cherokee, who operate the Harrah’s Cherokee Resort Hotel and Casino on tribal land in western North Carolina, have called the proposed Washington County side part of its “beloved ancestral home,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Sure. Just the place for a casino, resort hotel, 15,000-seat outdoor concert venue, recreational facilities.

As RTD writer Michael Martz notes, the proposal complicates a policy challenge facing the General Assembly as it considers the legalization of casino gambling and other gaming ventures in the state. Last year, the state enacted a law allowing the Pamunkey Indian Tribe to build a casino in either Norfolk or Richmond, and permitted the construction of commercial casinos in Danville, Portsmouth, and Bristol on the grounds that they experienced declining population, high poverty and high unemployment rates. Needless to say, developers of a proposed casino in nearby Bristol are vehemently opposed to a Cherokee-related casino very nearby.

I haven’t delved into this deeply, but my gut reaction is that this Indian casino thing is a racket.

For the most part, the eastern Cherokee are located in North Carolina. They do not live on a reservation, but in the 1800s, tribal members purchased 57,000 acres of property in the western tip of North Carolina known as the Qualla Boundary, which now is held in trust by the federal government. Apparently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians enjoys the status as a sovereign nation located within the borders of the United States.

I can’t find any reference on the Internet (not that I searched exhaustively) to explain what grounds the Cherokee have for identifying part of Washington County as part of their “ancestral home.” I’m not even clear if the “ancestral home” has any legal significance.

What we do know is that the property in question is adjacent to The Pinnacle, a 240-acre shopping center and commercial development on the Tennessee of the state line (as seen above). We also know that the Pinnacle is owned by a certain Steve Johnson. Apparently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee have enlisted Johnson — or, perhaps, Johnson enlisted the Cherokee — to develop the Virginia property.

Media accounts leave a lot of questions hanging. Who would finance this project — the Cherokee tribe, Johnson, some combination of the two, or has some third party entered the picture? If the Eastern Band of Cherokee constitute a “sovereign nation” do their sovereign rights usurp the authority of the Commonwealth of Virginia to decide who gets to build a casino and where? Most importantly, will the Eastern Band of Cherokee have skin in the game, or is their contribution to the enterprise a protected federal status that allows them to circumvent the rules that apply to everyone else while someone else ponies up the money and takes the risk?

There are currently no comments highlighted.

6 responses to “Now the Cherokee Want to Build a Casino in Virginia

  1. I believe the original US Supreme Court case was a review of California vs Cabazon and, no – states were found not have jurisdiction over tribal land. The federal government and Congress do but not states. In 1988 The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was signed by Ronald Reagan. Under this bill states and native have to enter into a compact and the Federal government regulates the gaming operations. Originally, tribes which believed that states were not negotiating the compacts in good faith could sue the state in Federal court. That option was revoked in 1991’s Seminole Tribe vs Florida. Once again, the government screwed Native Americans. Recent (post Seminole) negotiations have centered on tribes giving up treaty rights in order to placate states. However, revenue sharing is strictly constrained and taxing INdian casinos is prohibited. There is substantial case law supporting these restrictions.

    The National Indian Gaming Commission is the federal agency that regulates high-stakes Native gaming.

    Gaming is divided into three classes – I, II and III. Classes I and II are things like bingo halls. Class III is what we are discussing here. High stakes gambling. The revenue from Class II native gambling operations is over $30B per year. A relatively small number of native Class III casinos generate a disproportionate amount of the revenue.

    This will prove a thorny issue for Gov Northam. Assuming the Cherokee (and their backers) will underwrite and accept financial risk for the venture – why wouldn’t Virginia’s state government agree. While no minority group has a monopoly on US government sanctioned abuse the Native Americans certainly can claim a place at or near the front of the line. Will Gov Coonman’s newfound love for African Americans spill over to Native Americans as well? If so, he should immediately commence good faith negotiations with the Cherokee Tribe regarding their desired casino.

    Note: As Bacon’s Rebellion’s self-appointed vice correspondent I have visited and gambled at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, FL. Purely for journalistic purposes. It was a great venue and Washington County would be lucky to have such a venue – assuming the Cherokee Tribe can pull off in Virginia what the Seminole Tribe did in Florida. But a note of caution for the Cherokee – Virginia isn’t Florida. Don’t forget to cram lots of money into the pockets of Virginia’s General Assembly members. It’s The Virginia Way.

  2. The Bristol casino backers were roving the Halls of Confusion on Monday, being led around by their retained lobbyist. Now I know why they looked so focused. And DJ, for your education on Florida politics, I commend as a start the works of Carl Hiaasen. The Florida Way seems little different.

    • If you see little different then you should look again.

      Individuals in Florida can donate a maximum of $1,000 to legislative candidates per election. Virginia: unlimited.

      State parties in Florida can donate up to $50,000 to legislative candidates per election.

      PACs are limited to $1,000.

      Corporations are limited to $1,000 (do I hear heads at Dominion starting to explode?)

      Unions are limited to $1,000.

      As for Hiaasen – great author. I’ve read much of his fiction. The second to last last non-fiction he wrote was published in 1998 (Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World). In 2018 he published Assume the worst: The Graduation Speech You Will Never Hear, a book of practical advice for college graduates.

      Here’s an article from 2019 about the Florida Elections Commission chasing down an illegal $4,000 pass through contribution. That’s less than the bar tab at a good Clown Show bender at Bookbinders.

      Outside of Richmond life marches on. Once corrupt states clean up their acts. There have been many, many tightenings of election finance laws across the country over the last 20 years. But in the amber encased womb of Virginia politics …. well pour me a bourbon and branch water and we’ll go discuss that on the veranda overlooking Monument Avenue.

  3. From what I can gather from the RTD story, this is not about tribal rights. There are two things going on. First, there is a traditional competition between two private developers. If there is going to be a casino in Southwest Va. (the desirability of that is another question), then the government should not be choosing winners and losers. The second issue is one of local government finances. The first proposed casino would have been in Bristol. The one proposed by the Eastern Cherokee would be in Washington County, thereby depriving Bristol of property tax revenue. Another instance of the effects of Virginia’s unique system of city/county separation. If it loses the casino, Bristol may revert to town status, just to spite the county.

    • “If there is going to be a casino in Southwest Va. (the desirability of that is another question), then the government should not be choosing winners and losers.”

      Hallelujah! Can I get an “amen” from the brothers and sisters of the BaconsRebellion chorus here at the Church of the Cosmic Muffin?

    • Not sure why reverting to town status would punish the guilty. Under federal law the compact between Native Americans and US government entities is controlled by the state, and to a lesser degree, the federal government. Not sure what Washington County could do to stop this other than try to use moral suasion with the state. Under Virginia’s strong implementation of Dillon’s Rule it would also be the state government that would control the matter.

      This is a matter of tribal rights whether or not a non-tribal private developer is involved. If the casino is built in Bristol the Cherokee get nothing. If it is built on tribal land in Washington County the tribe gets whatever it can negotiate.

Leave a Reply