By Ken Mink
CHEROKEE, N. C. – An amazing transformation has taken place in the Western North Carolina mountains in the last 20 years.
What was for many years a downtrodden society of Cherokee Indians, living largely off farming and peddling native crafts such as moccasins, beads, feathers and fur-trimmed clothing to tourists, has been given new life.
In the early 1990s the Cherokee Indians ran a profitable bingo operation and decided to expand their venture into a casino. North Carolina governor Jim Hunt originally opposed the idea but the tribe won a court decision allowing the casino.
After a modest start the Caesar’s casino firm entered into a deal with the tribe to build and operate a new casino as part of the Harrah’s chain.
With the promise of jobs and hundreds of thousands of dollars in 50-50 split revenues a deal was struck and the Cherokee tribe has been basking in relative riches ever since.
National casino experts have been amazed at how successful the Cherokee operation has been – a 97 per cent hotel occupancy rate year around, continued expansion (a large hotel tower was built two years ago and a sister casino was opened about 50 miles away in Murphy, N. C.
This casino/hotel operation is not that easy to get to. No interstate highways within 20 miles. no commercial airport and often tough winter driving conditions.
But the biggest plus for the location is that it has a huge population base within a few hours drive – Charlotte, Washington, Richmond, Atlanta. Knoxville, Nashville, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Louisville/Lexington, etc., are all less than half a day drive away.
And there is the added attraction of the Great Smoky Mountains (Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge are less than 50 miles away).
They built it and they came, to paraphrase a famous movie line. Now. About 3.4 million people make their way to the casino/hotel each year and the hotel has grown to more than 1,100 rooms. The casino has become the third most profitable casino in the Caesar’s chain.
Where to now? The industry and economic development officials are wondering if further expansion is imminent.
“Yep, we are going to continue to expand,” said Harrah’s regional vice president of marketing Leann Bridges. “We are adding a huge entertainment and bowling center, plus a new fourth hotel tower, giving us 600 to 800 more rooms. And we will soon have another 100,000 square feet of convention center space. We have been turning away a lot of convention business because of a lack of convention space (with the 100,000 square feet expansion the hotel will soon have 115,000 square feet of convention space).”
The $200 million expansions here will provide even more jobs and revenue for the Cherokee natives. The casino employs about 2,600 people in Cherokee, and another 1,000 in Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino and Hotel in Murphy.
The casino and hotel here were built to blend into the Smoky Mountain background, with the local SoCo Creek splitting the properties, providing guests a lovely paved walkway along the creek, bordered by boulders and flowers. The hotel added an Indian motif to its decor.
Some have called the casino palatial, with its two-story fountain cascading in the lobby and the suspended lights on cables that are supposed to resemble dew on a spider’s web. The casino now has 170 gambling tables with live dealers and 3,600 digital slot machines.
One might say the success of the casino/hotel and its financial bonanza for the Cherokee tribe is only sweet revenge for the way the U. S. government led by President Andrew Jackson unceremoniously uprooted about 17,500 native Indians from their lands in this region in 1938, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles to a new reservation in Oklahoma. The march was called “The Trail of Tears” and cost the lives of hundreds of Indian men, women and children. A handful of Cherokee Indians owned their own lands, and evaded the unfair eviction, while about 300 others hid in the mountains and escaped
Over a period of years, these Cherokee who managed to remain in the area were eventually recognized by the U.S. government as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Those who remained in Oklahoma became the Cherokee Nation. It was not until 1984 that the two branches of Cherokee met formally since the removal.
In response to the pressures of tourism, the Cherokee formed three organizations to help preserve their culture and present it authentically to others. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian began in 1948 in a log cabin and has since become a state-of the-art museum with high-tech, multi-media exhibits. Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a Cherokee crafts cooperative founded in 1946, set standards for quality and authenticity in craft traditions and provided a year-round market for members’ work. The Cherokee Historical Association built the Mountainside Theater and created the famous outdoor drama, Unto These Hills, which debuted in 1950. The Association also founded the Oconaluftee Indian Village which recreates an eighteenth century Cherokee community.
How much money are the local Indians earning from the casino/hotel operations?
Since the end of 1995, every enrolled tribal member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has enjoyed a cut of the earnings from the boundary’s biggest breadwinner — Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. Back then, that amounted to $595 a year. By 2010, it had jumped to $7,347 annually. It is now over $10,000. Furthermore, future exponential monetary increases for each Cherokee is expected. However, you must be “Cherokee” to receive the money. Are you Cherokee? See OFFICIAL Cherokee Membership and Cherokee Enrollment Requirements and Qualifications and Cherokee Indian Tribal Enrollment and Membership Requirements: The Qualifications for the Cherokee Tribe
Harrah’s provides employment for approximately 1,800 individuals with the average salary being $37,000. Each of 12,500 enrolled tribal members, children and adults alike, receives biannual checks averaging nearly $10,000 that are drawn from the 50 percent of casino revenue that is distributed to the Indians. Benefits for children are placed in a trust fund that they can access when they turn 18 if they have graduated from high school. If they do not graduate, they do not receive the money until they are 21. A Cherokee born today would stand to receive at least $200,000 when he or she turns 18. The tribe pays for financial training classes for both high school students and adults. It is not a requirement that tribal members drawing checks live on the reservation, though approximately 10,000 do.
Because of the influx of money into the economy, the tribal government is also able to pay better wages to its employees and has increased its staff from 300 to 900. The tribal budget has grown from about $10 million a year to over $120 million. The tribe is developing a home ownership program that will help people buy mid-range priced homes in an attempt to get rid of the trailers. Tribal leaders have agreed to pave every driveway on the reservation.
Changes can be seen throughout the reservation in the form of better housing, attractive landscaping, upgraded water and sewer systems, and improved schools. Gambling dollars have funded a diabetes clinic, an urgent care clinic, a wellness center, a youth center, a recreational park, a visitor center, a community center, a nursery, a fire substation, and land purchases. Portions of earnings are earmarked for a higher education fund providing college scholarships for tribal members. Charitable causes in Western North Carolina also benefit from the profits. The tribe uses funds for the local hospital and also operates a senior citizens’ home.
Historically the Cherokee Indian Reservation businesses closed their doors for the winter months. But in the years since the opening of the casino business has remained steady with tourists visiting every month of the year, providing year-round employment for many. The casino is open 24 hours a day seven days a week. Crime has decreased because the reservation can now afford advanced training for their officers and they have been able to expand their police force.
Because compulsive gambling can be a serious problem, a pro-active program is maintained by Harrah’s to promote responsible gambling. Also, a local chapter of Gamblers Anonymous holds weekly meetings to help those with a problem.
A minimum of $5 million a year goes to the Cherokee Preservation Foundation that helps keep the region from losing its culture. Formerly one of the poorest communities in the region, the reservation could soon become one of the wealthiest.