North Carolina is one of many states where federally recognized Native American tribes offer legal gambling on their lands, as the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act allows. In the case of North Carolina, there are a couple of tribes with casinos in the state, even though one of those two tribes is headquartered just over the border in South Carolina.
Here is a rundown of key information about tribal gambling in North Carolina, including the tribes and casinos and their history, details about the compacts the tribes have with the state, information about the revenue that the casinos generate, and more.
Quick facts about North Carolina tribal casinos
- Number of tribal casinos in North Carolina: 3
- Number of tribes with tribal-state gambling compacts: 2
- Date first tribal casino opened in NC: 1997
- Date tribal casinos began offering live table games: 2012
- Minimum age to gamble in North Carolina tribal casinos: 21
Tribal casinos in North Carolina
There is only one federally recognized Native American tribe located in North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, with headquarters in Cherokee.
There are eight state-recognized tribes in NC. However, of those eight, only the Cherokees have federal recognition. That makes the Cherokees the only NC-based tribe able to enter into a gambling compact to operate casinos in the state.
However, a second tribe does have a compact with North Carolina despite being based just over the state line, the Catawba Indian Nation. The Catawba tribe’s headquarters are in Rock Hill, South Carolina, in York County, just a few miles across the state line and, in fact, still part of the Charlotte metropolitan area.
Tribal-state compacts in North Carolina
Under North Carolina’s compacts with the two tribes, there are three tribal casinos currently operating in North Carolina. This is the list of tribal casinos in North Carolina in 2023:
- Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort
- Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River
- Catawba Two Kings Casino
The tribal compacts are similar.
Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ tribal-state compact with North Carolina permits the tribe to provide Class III casino games. After negotiations with the state, the tribe and Gov. Roy Cooper agreed to an amended compact in December 2020. In February 2021, the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the US Department of the Interior approved the new compact and published it in the Federal Register. That compact is not scheduled to expire until 2045.
The first gambling compact between the Cherokees and the state received approval in 1994, six years after passage of the IGRA in 1988. In 1997, the tribe opened Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
The initial compact between the Cherokees and NC has gone through multiple changes. A late 2000 amendment (approved in January 2001) raised the minimum age for gambling in the tribe’s casinos from 18 to 21.
Then, in 2012, another amendment enabled the Cherokees to begin offering table games while additionally expanding the number of casinos from one to three. Three years later, in 2015, the tribe opened its second casino, Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River, in Murphy. The tribe has indicated intentions to pursue a third casino project at a future date.
The Cherokees’ compact allows the tribe to conduct gambling activities anywhere in the Eastern Cherokee lands covering five western NC counties. In addition to the two casinos, the Cherokees also own and operate a bingo hall, Cherokee Tribal Bingo, located near Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort.
The compact also prohibits any other entities from offering gambling west of Interstate 26. If you look at a map of North Carolina, you’ll see that I-26 runs north-south through Asheville and the mountainous western part of the state.
Catawba Indian Nation
The Catawbas’ situation is a bit different. As we mentioned, the Catawba Nation is based in South Carolina, with its reservation split into two sections in York County. But when South Carolina denied the tribe’s efforts to open a casino there, the tribe looked north of the border for other options.
Following years of federal review and litigation, the Department of the Interior placed almost 17 acres of land in Cleveland County, North Carolina, in trust for the Catawba Nation. The tribe has claimed historical and ancestral ties to the land, and there are many vestiges of the Catawbas in NC, including the Catawba River, which originates in the state and flows south over the border.
In February 2021, the Catawba Indian Nation and the state agreed to a tribal-state compact allowing the tribe to offer Class III gambling. The BIA approved the compact in March 2021 and published it in the Federal Register. The compact is not scheduled to expire until 2051.
In July 2021, the tribe opened the Catawba Two Kings Casino in Kings Mountain. The casino is located about a half-hour west of Charlotte and just a few miles away from the South Carolina border.
Note that both tribes can legally offer sports betting along with slots and table games at their casinos. For the Cherokees, that latter provision actually was not formalized until the most recent tribal-state compact amendment. The Catawbas’ original 2021 compact, meanwhile, included sports wagering as a legal activity.
The Cherokees’ legal challenge against the Catawba Nation
In 2013, when the Catawba Nation first announced its intention to open a casino in Kings Mountain, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opposed the move. The state of North Carolina and then-Gov. Pat McCrory were against it, as well, and the Catawba Nation’s application to place the Cleveland County land in trust was ultimately denied in 2018.
The tribe resubmitted its application, and in March 2020 the Department of the Interior approved it. The Cherokees promptly filed a lawsuit against the DOI (as well as against other federal agencies and officials) arguing against the decision. But in April 2021, a US district judge ruled that the Cherokees’ suit lacked standing and the Catawba tribe was free to move forward with its Kings Mountain property.
By then, the tribal-state compact between the Catawbas and NC had already received federal approval. The Cherokees appealed the district judge’s ruling and indicated their intent to continue challenging the Catawbas’ compact. But those efforts subsided once and for all in late 2021 when US lawmakers passed HR 1619, the Catawba Indian Nation Lands Act.
The legislation reaffirmed the DOI’s earlier decision to transfer the 17 acres in Cleveland County into trust for the Catawba Nation. The House voted in favor of the bill by a 361-55 margin. The Senate then passed it as part of a larger piece of legislation focused on military spending, the National Defense Authorization Act. On Jan. 3, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law.
Where does North Carolina tribal gambling revenue go?
In North Carolina, most of the tribal casinos’ revenue goes back to the tribes, although the state also receives a share.
Revenue sharing with North Carolina
Both tribes with casinos in North Carolina provide a percentage of their revenue to the state as their compacts require. In fact, both tribes have similar arrangements with the state for how much revenue they share in exchange for the exclusive right to conduct live table games.
The “revenue sharing provision” is similar in both compacts in that it requires the tribes to pay a percentage of revenue on live table gambling (i.e., blackjack, craps, roulette) to the state. The only difference is that the Cherokees’ compact began earlier than the Catawbas’ compact did, and thus the sliding scale of revenue sharing increases began later for the Catawba Nation.
Note that “live table” gambling does not include electronic table games or slot machines, but only “games that utilize real non-electronic cards, dice, chips, and equipment in the play and operation of the game” (to quote directly from the compacts). Keep that in mind as you see the percentages below.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has shared (and will share) gross gambling revenue from live table games with the state according to the following schedule:
|Years||Percentage of gross gambling revenue shared from live table games|
For the Catawba Nation, the revenue sharing schedule is similar:
|Years||Percentage of gross gambling revenue shared from live table games|
According to the agreement, the state receives monthly payments from the tribes that go directly into a special Indian Gaming Education Revenue Fund. The State Board of Education then allocates those funds to local school administrative units, charter schools, and regional schools in the state. According to NC General Statute 143C-9-7, the money “shall be expended for classroom teachers, teacher assistants, classroom materials and supplies, or textbooks.”
Both tribes’ compacts require them to contribute a share of their sports betting revenue to the state, as well. The compacts describe this shared revenue as helping defray costs that North Carolina must absorb for allowing sports betting in the tribes’ casinos, including those associated with helping support responsible gambling initiatives and support for gambling addiction.
For both tribes, the once-a-year payments from sports betting revenue began at $191,000, with the amount scheduled to increase by 3.7% per year.
Tribal uses of revenue
Under the IGRA, meanwhile, the tribes must use revenue from their gambling activities in certain ways, including the following:
- to fund tribal government operations or programs
- to provide for the general welfare of the tribe and its members
- to promote tribal economic development
- to donate to charitable organizations
- to help fund operations of local government agencies
Each tribe has its own foundation to which it must allocate a certain amount of funds each year generated from tribal gaming in North Carolina.
The Cherokees must fund the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, which began in 2000. The Catawbas, meanwhile, annually contribute to their own Catawba Indian Nation Foundation. In both cases, payments range from $5 million to $7.5 million per year.
Both tribes also make direct payments to tribal members on a regular basis, the amount of which depends on the overall revenue their gambling facilities generate.
Revenue estimates for NC tribal casinos
Native American tribes do not have to report revenue earnings the same way that licensed and regulated commercial casinos do.
However, in the past, the Cherokee tribe’s Office of Budget and Finance has reported that Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort has generated close to $400 million annually in revenue and as much as $449 million (in 2007). In July 2019, The (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that “gaming revenue from Harrah’s totaled more than $393 million in 2018.” That’s a significant amount, more (for instance) than the annual revenue of Harrah’s Atlantic City.
Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort is by far the largest tribal casino among the three in North Carolina, more than twice the size of Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River. If the revenue differences are similar, that would mean the Valley River location generates less than half the annual revenue of the larger Cherokee casino. Meanwhile, the recently opened Catawba Two Kings Casino is still under construction, with plans to eventually rival the Valley River property in size.