By: Don Worthington
ROCK HILL, South Carolina — When the Catawba Indians wanted to turn a former grocery store into a bingo hall, they did what any other business would do: They hired a contractor.
The Catawbas, however, could have possibly signed a treaty. The work at a former Bi-Lo on Cherry Road is as much a nation-to-nation exchange — the Catawba Indian Nation and the Lumbee Indian Nation.
The Catawbas were first federally recognized in 1943, terminated their federal status in 1961 and reestablished it in 1993. The Catawba Nation has about 2,000 members.
The Lumbee, 55,000 strong, have been federally recognized as Native Americans since 1956, but they do not have access to services other tribes receive. The Lumbees have been petitioning the U.S. government since 1888 for full federal recognition.
The Catawbas’ renovation contract is with Metcon of Pembroke, North Carolina. The firm has twice been recognized as the National Minority Contractor of the Year by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Center.
Metcon’s chief executive officer and president is Aaron Thomas, a Lumbee. Half of his workforce is Lumbee. Thomas is also co-chairman of the committee seeking federal recognition for the nation.
While Metcon has constructed numerous buildings for the Lumbee, including the tribal headquarters called the Turtle, this is the first time Metcon has contracted with another tribe.
“It is an honor to work with another tribe on a project that contributes to economic growth,” Thomas said.
The relationship is more than renovating a grocery store. The two nations share the experience of negotiating with federal and state officials over their sovereignty, what they can and can’t do on their land.
The relationship is about shared experiences, shared resources and shared contacts, said Thomas and Catawba Indian Chief Bill Harris.
The Catawbas have had a long-standing fight with the state of South Carolina over whether they can have casino gambling. The state Supreme Court recently ruled for the second time that the state’s ban on gambling applies to the Catawba’s reservation near Rock Hill. The court based its ruling on the tribe’s 1993 land settlement.
The settlement said the Catawbas could offer gambling “to the same extent” that gambling is offered elsewhere in South Carolina. The Catawbas argued the Gambling Cruise Act, which authorized gambling on cruise ships off the coast of South Carolina, meant they could offer the same gambling on their reservation.
But the state Supreme Court ruled the Gambling Cruise Act does not authorize the use of video poker anywhere within South Carolina, “be it on land or within the state’s territorial waters.” State law bans video poker.
Gambling has also been a consideration in the Lumbees’ quest for recognition. Some in eastern North Carolina fear federal recognition is just a way for the Lumbees to open a casino. In 2010 the tribe hired a Nevada-based gambling consultant to help lobby Congress for federal recognition. That relationship didn’t help the tribe’s efforts.
Thomas said the recognition issue isn’t about gambling, it’s about fairness and history — and history is on side of the Lumbee, he said. The tribe traces its lineage to the Cheraw Indians, who have lived near the Pee Dee River, the border between the Carolinas, since the early 1700s.
Catawba Chief Harris said his nation will assist the Lumbees in their federal recognition efforts
Thomas said the Lumbees will support the Catawbas in their efforts to build a multi-million-dollar casino near Kings Mountain, North Carolina The proposed site is land where the Catawbas once lived, Harris said.
Thomas said the Lumbees have been talking with their contacts in the North Carolina Legislature on behalf of the Catawbas.
The fate of a Catawba casino in North Carolina is currently in the hands of the U.S. Department of Interior, as the tribe wants to place 44 acres into a trust. That decision is the first hurdle the tribe has to clear for a Kings Mountain casino.
While the Catawbas await that decision, they — with the help of Metcon — are moving forward with the bingo hall. The tribe closed its previous Cherry Road bingo hall in 2006. That hall was one of the larger bingo halls in the county, with more than 3,000 seats.
The new hall will have about 1,300 seats and will employ between 35 and 45 people. Half of the hires so far are Catawbas, Harris said.
Much work remains, but the opportunity the bingo hall brings – as well as possible future opportunities with the Lumbee — brings hope to the Catawbas.