Andrew Dys

Time to quit gambling with future of Catawbas

The Catawba Indian Nation elections are over. The leaders are new. But the problems between the Catawbas and the county and state's politicians, and the courts, remain.

The problem is money. And gaming -- called gambling by regular people, but called gaming by politicians when they want the proceeds -- that makes money. The Catawbas have neither money nor gambling.

The tribe in 1993 settled a long-standing land lawsuit with the state of South Carolina and the federal government. All sides agreed for the Catawbas to have the right to bingo in York County and one other site in the state.

Claiming the state lottery killed its York County business, the tribe closed its Rock Hill bingo hall last year. People in Horry County and Orangeburg County, every time the Catawbas try to open another bingo hall that was guaranteed them by politicians, have claimed that vice and corruption would follow. The Catawbas' attempts failed each time.

A new push for Catawba bingo is on in Marion, to get beach traffic. The anti-gamblers again are spoiling for a fight. Where are the politicians who agreedto bingo 14 years ago?

The only legal gambling money now is a state-sponsored lottery, and a huge chunk, billions, goes into state coffers. Politicians don't want to share the gambling money.

New Catawba Chief Donald Rodgers said he wants the tribe to look at new venues for York County bingo. I hope he includes near Interstate 77 at the state line in Fort Mill Township.

I live close by, and let me be the first in line to say I hope the Catawbas get it.

Maybe a huge place, golden domed, lined inside with retirees from Charlotte and other places dropping their kids' inheritance one bingo card at a time. Maybe they could run a bus, slow, the few miles from the huge Sun City Carolina Lakes retirement community in Lancaster County's panhandle.

When the settlement was agreed to in 1993, there was no state lottery. Billions have been spent in the past few years on games of chance. Fort Mill lottery retailers rake in the dough. The state line is where the money is.

Right now, the tribe has no bingo, no source of income, no potential jobs for its people.

The Catawbas need to go get that Fort Mill money. I'm all for taking money from Charlotte, any time.

After bingo died, the Catawbas vowed to operate video poker on the eastern York County reservation, saying the lottery took their bingo money away so they had no choice. But the cops and politicians cried foul. Against the law, they said. They also brought in the vice argument, held hands with the moralists, all saying video poker brings crime and depravity.

Fort Mill was dubbed "Fort Vegas" during video poker days before 2000. Charlotte players filled the places. There was crime. It was seedy, no doubt. The shells of old poker parlors are still there along U.S. 21 and S.C. 51.

The state Supreme Court didn't pound stakes into the moral high ground like the politicians who once had video poker and now have bingo do, but the high court said the Catawbas' attempt at reservation video poker was illegal, too.

The tribe now has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. If the Catawbas lose again, or the Supreme Court says no to even hearing their argument, the tribe might stop being so gracious with those who said one thing about bingo and money in 1993, then do another again and again.

Maybe the Catawbas should ask, or demand, to re-negotiate the 1993 settlement. Ask to be under federal Indian gaming law. Land the big casino, forget bingo.

You really want to hear the politicians scream and those moralists wail against all games of chance, while the lottery, which is gambling, pays for scholarships and school buses? There would be howls.

But before saying siding with the Catawbas is crazy, ask yourself: Have the Catawbas been treated right and fair? Are the ground rules of 1993 -- when the state allowed video poker and had no state-sponsored lottery, and the Catawbas gave up their chance at a fortune -- the same as now? No.

The Catawba leaders and members, good-hearted, Christian people just like the people who took their land from them centuries ago, played nice in 1993. They settled for bingo. Even though the real money was in casinos.

The tribe gave up the chance to operate under federal Indian gaming regulations, like other tribes around the country enjoy. A Cherokee casino in boondocks western North Carolina draws tour buses and takes truckloads of money to the bank. The Catawbas here, where more than a million people live within an hour or two, along an eight-lane highway, draw crickets.

Catawba leaders have not played their cards on what might happen, but more than one leader told me after the elections that state and county politicians seem to block their attempts.

The Catawbas had a sign posted on their Longhouse this week about where the poor can apply for help to pay the light bill. That is the reality for the Catawbas.