CATAWBA INDIAN NATION — As South Carolina struggles to find money to pay to for health care for the poor and fix crumbling roads and bridges, Catawba Indian Nation Chief Bill Harris wants to remind the state that he has a deal.
Allow the tribe to open a casino, and the Catawbas won’t mind sharing millions of dollars in proceeds with the state, Harris said.
Twenty years after signing a historic settlement agreement that made them South Carolina’s only federally recognized tribe and gave them a 700-acre reservation in York County, the Catawbas want the state and federal government to remember that they still need to talk about issues affecting the 2,833-member tribe.
The 1993 settlement allowed the Catawbas to have two bingo halls, which were profitable for a while but fell apart as the state started a lottery and gambling choices became more prevalent. Harris said the state and federal government need to remember that the settlement wasn’t the end of negotiations with his sovereign state, but only prevented a more costly court fight.
“It stopped a massive lawsuit, but it did not settle the problems that existed between the United States government, the state of South Carolina and the Catawba Nation,” Harris said.
The Catawbas say that if South Carolina stops fighting them, they are willing to negotiate exactly how to split up the hundreds of millions of dollars they think they can make with a massive casino just south of Charlotte, N.C., and hundreds of miles from the nearest gambling hall. A lawsuit filed by the tribe suggests the state could collect more than $100 million a year from the Catawbas.
The money would help the tribe, too. The Catawbas have their own pre-kindergarten program, environmental department, social services, and senior and housing programs. Twenty years after the settlement, members are considering their own police force and justice system and would like to open a school for tribe members.
But state leaders remain steadfastly against allowing the Catawbas to expand gambling options. There are no bills in the Legislature to allow the tribe to run casino games, and Gov. Nikki Haley opposes the idea, saying there are better ways to bring jobs and money to the state.
“She believes South Carolina does not have to settle and that there is a better way,” spokesman Rob Godfrey said.
Harris said he and other tribal leaders have attempted to meet with Haley during his first 18 months in office, but that the governor hasn’t been able to fit them in her schedule. The governor’s spokesman did not answer a question about the schedule.
The Catawbas were not included in the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that allows other tribes to run casinos. Instead, the 1993 settlement with the state and federal governments allowed the Catawbas to open two bingo halls with prizes capped at $100,000.
The Catawbas opened one bingo hall in Rock Hill, which took in millions of dollars for several years before being swamped by competition. The tribe’s current push in court to get a casino centers on a clause in the 1993 settlement that allows the Catawbas the same right to gambling as is allowed elsewhere in the state. Because South Carolina allows casino boats to sail from state docks to international waters to gamble, the tribe says it should be allowed casino games on sovereign land.
“We’re entitled to whatever the state authorizes,” Harris said.
A lower court judge threw out the Catawbas suit, but the tribe is appealing.
Harris said he thinks a lot of the opposition to allowing the Catawbas a casino comes from the state’s experience with video poker in the 1990s. Garish, cheap-looking parlors popped up along the state line with machines clicking and whirring in dimly lit rooms. Crime and other problems rose until the machines were banned in the 1990s.
The Catawba chief said the tribe’s casino wouldn’t be like that. But the video poker experience still jars lawmakers such as Sen. Wes Hayes, whose York Country district runs just west of the reservation.
“A lot of people who may not have had a problem on a moral basis saw the problems we had with it on a practical basis,” said Hayes, R-Rock Hill.
Harris said he has no plans to back down from the casino idea and won’t apologize for doing anything he thinks might help his people. The new chief took over after a close vote overturned all five positions on the Catawba’s Executive Committee. The new leaders are with a group of Catawbas who fought for more than a decade to have more accountability from the people who have led the tribe since the settlement. They are working on a new constitution they plan to present for a vote before their four-year terms expire in 2015.
One of the chief’s main goals is to give his people better economic opportunities. The figures for 2010 aren’t out yet, but 2000 Census data had the per capita income of the Catawbas at $11,096. The unemployment rate among the tribe is estimated to be double the current South Carolina rate of 8.4 percent.
The tribe has a job placement program and an employee who helps members put together resumes. But Harris said the tribe still doesn’t have enough money to bring in opportunities for its people.
Harris insists the Catawbas will keep fighting and won’t let anyone run them over. The tribe survived two small pox epidemics in the early 1700s and avoided being sent west under President Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policies by basically disbanding and giving up its 144,000 acres of land given to them by the king of England. But the treaty was never passed by the federal government, leading 150 years later to the lawsuit and 1993 settlement.
“We’ve been here for over 4,000 years,” Harris said. “These are our traditional lands. … We’re still here.”