Local News

Cherokee Indians Want To Bring More Forms Of Gambling To N.C.

Posted February 4, 2005 4:20 a.m. EST

— Video gambling is legal on the Cherokee reservation because of federal gaming laws on sovereign land and a compact with the state. If they can convince regulators and lawmakers, the Cherokee tribe is now interested in introducing real cards, dice, and dealers, essentially bringing a mini Vegas to the mountains.

Behind the lights and sounds of video gambling, Harrah's Cherokee casino is a money-making machine. The games ring up $150 million in annual profits for the tribe. With more than 1,800 workers, the casino is also western North Carolina's largest employer.

Now, under the leadership of 40-year-old Principal Chief Michell Hicks, the Cherokee want to build on that financial success.

From television to local bars, poker is a national craze. At Tailgaters in Raleigh, dozens show up on typically slow weeknights to try their hand at Texas Hold'em. Under North Carolina law, players are not allowed to bet cash. The Cherokee bet they can in the casino.

"We have to stay competitive, so we have to look at these other opportunities," Hicks said.

Currently restricted to only video games, the tribe is exploring complicated state and federal laws in hopes of bringing in live poker and possibly other Vegas-style games.

Digital blackjack tables with live dealers are already popular. Along with extra cash and customers, the casino estimates live poker would produce about 75 new jobs with the potential for hundreds more if other games win legal approval.

"They would basically be taking money out of the surrounding economy, creating more compulsive and problem gamblers, and it will be good for the Cherokee and pretty much bad for everybody else," said Bill Brooks, of the North Carolina Family Police Council.

Brooks warns the Cherokee plan to expand invites trouble elsewhere.

"Could somebody sue saying that we have the right to conduct that style of gambling in North Carolina already?" he said.

Gamblers like Teresa Jernigan do not see the harm.

"I know we live in the Bible Belt, but I don't think, I mean, it's up to the individual if they want to gamble or not," she said.

Hicks appears ready to play the game. In recent years, the Cherokees hired a high-powered lobbyist and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to both Democratic and Republican causes.

"As a tribe, we've given a tremendous amount back to the state in taxes and employment and I don't think the state could find a better partner," Hicks said.

So far, tribal leaders are quiet about their specific legal strategy to bring in live gambling. The governor's office declined to comment.

Even as the Cherokees look to expand gaming opportunities, one thing they are not looking to add is alcohol. Despite the absence of booze, the Cherokee casino is one of most successful Harrah's sites in the country.