“Politics and money make strange bedfellows.” Charles Dudley Warner
In June of 2012 the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians announced plans to build a gambling casino in Cherokee County, NC approximately 17 miles due north of the Track Rock archaeological zone. That same month past visitors to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, who lived in Georgia, received questionnaires from Harrah’s corporate offices that asked them if they would be inclined to patronize a casino inside Georgia. The proposed location is in the general vicinity of Track Rock Gap and about an hour closer to Metropolitan Atlanta than the main Cherokee casino. The site is served by a four lane expressway that is directly connected to Atlanta’s interstate highway network.
It is not known if Cherokee tribal officials knew about their lessee’s marketing letter to Georgia patrons. What is known, though, is that in November of 2012 the Eastern Cherokee Council indefinitely tabled funding for beginning construction of the second casino in Cherokee County, NC. Meanwhile, in Oklahoma a judge's decree forced the United Keetoowah Cherokee Band to close a big casino and pay $240 million in damages to the State of Oklahoma.
The letter to gambling patrons did not explain how it would be possible to build a casino in Georgia. Georgia’s laws prohibit gambling casinos, but federal law allows them, if they are built on a federally-recognized tribe’s land that is held in trust by the U.S. Department of Interior. There is no federally-recognized Native American tribe in Georgia. What does the gambling conglomerate know that the public doesn’t? It is interesting, though, that the two Georgia archaeologists, who have most vocal and sarcastic in the criticism of the "Mayas in Georgia" theory were directly involved in an earlier effort to establish a Keetoowah Cherokee Reservation and casino in the Northwest Georgia Mountains.
The word “casino” always ignites a feeding frenzy
Native American gambling casinos have a surreptitious connection with Georgia politics. While head of the Christian Coalition and several Republican political consulting firms, Georgian Ralph E. Reed shuffled donations and business fees back and forth to both lobby for Native American gambling casinos and fund “Christian” campaigns to oppose state operated lotteries in the same states. In 2006 he severed his connections to the Christian Coalition to run for Lieutenant Governor, just as the results of an investigation into his simultaneous association with gambling enterprises and anti-gambling organizations were becoming public knowledge.
That same year, Georgia “movers and shakers” were searching for a means to bring a gambling casino to the Peach State. Their solution was to have the descendants of a single white man and his mixed-blood Cherokee wife declared to be a federally recognized tribe.
The location of the casino was to be on the site of an abandoned Ford Motor Company plant which was adjacent to the Atlanta Airport. That location was a brilliant idea from a marketing standpoint. There was one major problem, though. The proposed casino site was in a location far from where the Cherokees ever lived. In fact, it was about 25 miles from the original capital of the Creek Indian Confederacy.
No problem, the governor’s office ordered creation of a new map of Georgia, which showed the northern half of the state to have always been Cherokee territory. History would have to take a back seat to political expediency. The fact was that there were no Cherokees in Georgia until the 1720s and then only a couple of hundred until after the American Revolution. Fine points of history are irrelevant to many politicians, when big money is at stake.
Word went out to state agencies to present the state to the world as always “Cherokee.” In their provincial minds, the politicos presumed that Department of Interior bureaucrats would be fooled by the show. The thousands of Cherokees, who died on the Trail of Tears, after being forced out of Georgia, were probably turning in their graves. As always, Native Americans were considered to be pawns, to be used, played against one other or chased away, as potential profits dictated.
For several years Etowah Mounds State Historic Site had sponsored a “Traditional Creek Barbecoa” each spring. It was both a social and fund-raising event that always featured a key speaker from the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The 2006 event, though, was to be especially spectacular. The Muscogee-Creek Nation had funded an archaeological study of the entire town site, using underground radar. It has also funded the professional construction of a massive 8 x 6 feet model of the town, based on the archaeological study. Prior to being shipped to its permanent place in the rotunda of the Creek capitol in Oklahoma, a large delegation of tribal officials, led by Second Chief Alfred Berryhill, planned to unveil the model at the Etowah Museum and leave it on display for a month.
Apparently, the state parks director feared that the annual event might affect federal recognition of a one family Cherokee tribe in Georgia. She un-invited the Creek delegation, two weeks before the event. The model builders were told that the State of Georgia did not have a van or truck available to bring the model 45 miles from a workshop to the museum. The name of the event was changed to “A Woodland Feast.” A tribal employee from the Cherokee Reservation in North Carolina replaced the delegation of Creek elected officials. Prior to the “Woodland Feast” all books by Creek authors were removed from the shelves of the museum gift shop and replaced by books of Cherokee authors.
During this period, the State of Georgia planned to sell Etowah Mounds National Landmark to a private entrepreneur, who would then build a golf course subdivision in the flood plain around the former town’s moat. The proposed purchaser was one of the largest individual donors to the Bush presidential campaign. A private foundation with a Cherokee name was to run the museum and archaeological site of behalf of the developer. This ownership change never happened.
Upstream, the Georgia Department of Transportation was building a new bridge over the Etowah River that impacted the edge of a former satellite town of Etowah Mounds. The state's archeological consultants had barely scratched the ground of the proposed construction site, when the Georgia DOT issued a nationwide press release that announced, "GDOT archaeologists prove that Cherokees have been in Georgia for 1000 years!" Normally, the public is unaware that a GDOT archaeological study is even underway. No Cherokee artifacts were ever found at this site. It was a historical Creek town on top of a proto-Creek town.
Georgia Creeks were outraged. For 250 years they had tried to keep a low profile and assimilate. This was their "reward." When the GDOT director refused to retract the article, Native Americans in Georgia organized. The premier of "America Unearthed" was a direct result of that organization.
The U. S. Department of Interior essentially laughed at the application to give federal recognition for a single family, whose percentage of Native American heritage varied between 1/32 and 1/128. Georgia officials then invited the Cherokee Nation and United Keetuwah Cherokee Band in Oklahoma, plus the North Carolina Cherokees to establish a reservation and casino in Georgia. Only the Keetuwah Band expressed an interest publicly in doing so.
"White folks do crazy things when the words, Cherokee casino, are mentioned." Bubba Mountainlion
The announcement in the Examiner of the Track Rock archaeological zone provoked diverse responses from the region around it. Outdoor enthusiasts, history lovers, “regular folks” and especially people who made their living from tourism, publically expressed enthusiasm for upgrading access to the site and funding archaeological studies. The local Chamber of Commerce stayed silent. The Blairsville-Union County, GA Chamber of Commerce reportedly receives at least $1000 a year from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, plus its officers get “perks” from the Harrah’s Casino and Hotel.
A possible hint that “someone” was pulling strings behind the scenes soon appeared. A group of retired Florida transplants organized to make the ethnicity of the enormous ruins’ builders a rightwing political issue. They promoted the belief that Cherokees built the Track Rock terraces. Faith in the Cherokees was equated with Christian faith. Apparently, no one in that county stopped to question why a group of wealthy men in their sixties and seventies, who had no cultural ties to the region or any Native American group, would be so obsessed in demanding that it be called a Cherokee site.
Fishy is an understatement for the behavior of the U.S. Forest Service’s local offices during the past year. They ignored the archaeological zone for decades. In March of 2012 the USFS instantly granted an Asheville, NC film company a permit to film the site for a Travel Channel program on haunted sites. The next month it denied permits to the History Channel and National Geographic to create prime-time documentaries. The following month, over a hundred trees were sawn down to block the access trail. When that travesty was exposed, the USFS Southeastern public relations officer issued a statement that wind had blown down “a few trees.”
The reason given by the USFS was that great Cherokee warriors were buried there and that the North Carolina Cherokees did not want any photos made of their graves. This excuse seemed preposterous at the time, but has since then been confirmed an interview by a North Carolina Cherokee leader with an Oklahoma newspaper. He had never personally seen the ruins, however. It is unlikely that more than a handful of members of the entire tribe have ever seen them.
The extreme level of staff time devoted by the staff of the USFS in northern Georgia in a failed attempt to persuade the public that Maya refugees didn’t come the Georgia reeks of heavy-handed political pressure from powerful interests in the private sector. Employees have gone far beyond the acceptable activities for their job descriptions. For example, a major North Georgia newspaper wrote a favorable review of the premier of the History Channel’s “America Unearthed.” The article barely mentioned the Track Rock archaeological site. Nevertheless, the next day its editor received a hostile email from an administrator at the Gainesville, GA USFS that accused the newspaper of misrepresenting facts to the public.
Why the possibility of a gambling casino would result in so much frenzied behavior by so many people, cannot be explained by rational analysis of its potential impact. Some casinos have brought economic booms to communities. Others have been financial failures. As more are built, the potential shares of gamblers decline. Why the ethnicity of a 1000 year old archaeological zone would have any relevance to the profit potential of a casino is a question only answered by speculation at this time.
Those readers who wish to ask Richard Thornton questions about architecture, urban planning or Native American history may email him at Native Question@aol.com .