How Gambling Changed the Lives of Many Native Americans


Gambling and Native Americans, two subjects that are likely to turn taboo quickly and involved in the same sentence could be a recipe for disaster. But, when it comes to the people of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Reservation, gambling can be a very good thing.

In 1994, the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino located in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina opened to many mixed feelings in the area. There were plenty of local tourists in the state of North Carolina and the surrounding states who were exciting to have such a large casino in their own backyard. This location was sure to bring more tourists to the area who were willing to test their luck in hopes of striking it rich. Since it was built over a decade ago, the casino has proven to be a winner for the community. But due to the controversy that surrounded it, this Harrah’s location almost wasn’t built.

The casino is situated on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian Reservation which is one mile from the downtown area. It cost $93 million to construct and contains 175,000 square feet of video gaming, restaurants, and entertainment. There are dazzling lights that bring the spirit of Las Vegas to the Smokies, and glitzy finishes line the interior where visitors can play 3,500 video slots, poker, blackjack and other games that are reported to pay out more than $159 million per year.

Today, the casino is the state’s largest tourist destination, the alcohol-free casino attracts 3.3 million visitors each year and continues to grow. Due to the popularity of the casino, Harrah’s has constructed with the adjacent fifteen-story hotel and conference center and they plan to do the same with another tower very soon.

In August of 1994, Governor Jim Hunt signed a seven-year contract with former Indian Chief Jonathan Ed Taylor that permitted gambling on the reservation. Hunt, who was at first opposed to gambling in the area, decided to sign the contract because of the economic difficulties of the depressed reservation. At the time, the Cherokee area had one of the highest unemployment rates in the state of North Carolina.

The casino is owned by the Cherokee Indians who pay Las Vegas-based Harrah’s Entertainment to operate it. In addition to gaming, the casino also offers top-name entertainment from musicians and groups in their 1,500 Cherokee Pavilion Theater.

Cherokee Indians Gain Benefits Directly From the Revenue

Harrah’s Casino currently provides employment for approximately 1,800 individuals with the average salary being $37,000 each year. Each of the 12,500 enrolled tribal members, children and adults alike, receive biannual checks that average around $3,500. These checks are drawn from the 50% of casino revenue that is distributed to the Cherokee 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 don’t receive the money until they turn 21.

A Cherokee who is born today would stand to receive at least $168,000 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, however around 10,000 of them still 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 around $10 million a year to more than $120 million. The tribe is developing a home ownership program that will help people buy mid-range priced homes to get rid of the mobile homes in the area. Tribal leaders have agreed to pave every driveway on the reservation.

The Reservation Also Benefits from the Revenue

Obvious changes can be seen throughout the reservation in the form of better housing, attractive landscaping and upgraded water and sewer systems. They also have improved schools. The money from the casino has 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 the earnings are put back for a higher education fund which will provide college scholarships for tribal members. Charitable causes in Western North Carolina also benefit from the profits. The tribe uses funds for local hospitals and operates a senior citizen’s facility.

Historically, the Cherokee Indian Reservation businesses closed their doors for the winter months. But since the opening of Harrah’s casino, business has remained steady all throughout the year. 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 the local police force, helping to prove that gambling isn’t always a bad thing, as long as you play responsibly.