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Catawba Nation Prepares for Critical July Elections

Chief position, executive committee up for election on July 29

An outside view of the Longhouse building
The Longhouse on the Catawba Nation reservation. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

When I ask Jason Harris what he’s most proud of from his 20 years of on-and-off involvement with the Catawba Nation’s Executive Committee, he points out the window.

Sitting in a chair at the round table within the Longhouse, a building on the tribe’s reservation in South Carolina where the tribal government handles day-to-day operations, just one building could be seen across the parking lot, where kids played in a bounce house. But his sweeping arm gesture made it clear he was referring to the 700-acre reservation located along the tribe’s namesake river in York County.

“Looking back, as you drive in and you see all the buildings that we have now, you didn’t see that,” he responds. “All you would see is this; you would just see the Longhouse building. I think when I first came into office, October 2004, we thought we knew what was going on, and we really didn’t know.”

Currently the assistant chief serving under Chief William Harris, Jason has sat in every available seat on the Executive Committee — from committee member to secretary/treasurer to assistant chief. Twice during those two decades he has lost election campaigns to become chief of the Catawba Nation.

Now as Jason prepares to face his cousin Brian Harris in a third try for the chief position, he says his experience in helping lower the massive debt the tribe faced in the early aughts and his later work to open a casino under the tribe’s control proves he’s ready for the top leadership position within Catawba Nation.

“I’ve been the backup quarterback. I’m ready to start leading the team,” he tells me. “This is what I do. I live this.”

Yet some tribal citizens see Jason as representative of a status quo in leadership that has obfuscated records and courted controversy at a time when the tribe is at the precipice of an economic windfall.

Supporters of Brian Harris say a new start is needed after recent controversies involving a lack of transparency from tribal government and a public split between the tribe and the company it had partnered with to help operate Two Kings Casino in Kings Mountain.

Catawba Nation parted ways with Sky Boat in early 2023. Along with its subsidiary companies, all controlled by Greenville businessman Wallace Cheves, the company was set to develop and manage the casino, providing slot machines and leasing the casino’s parking lot.

After originally approving the partnership, the tribe’s General Council, which includes any tribal citizen 18 years old or older, voted to dissolve it following a National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) report that questioned how the tribe allowed the Greenville company to have so much control over the casino’s management. The NIGC voiced concerns that the tribe had moved forward with the partnership prematurely, ignoring regulatory approvals meant to ensure the tribe is the primary beneficiary of gaming operations.

Some also blame Jason and his supporters for a rise in derision and division during the current election cycle, which has seen allegations of harassment and reports of physical confrontations leading to at least one police report, with tensions playing out over social media.

While Brian Harris did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story, Jason tells Queen City Nerve that he has learned from each of the above-mentioned incidents and controversies and wants a chance to implement his own form of leadership.

Jason Harris stands in front of the great seal of the catawba indian nation
Jason Harris is a candidate for chief in Catawba Nation’s upcoming election. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

And if the results of this election, scheduled for July 29, go the way of his previous two campaigns for the Catawba Nation chief position, it will likely be his last attempt.

“If the tribe chooses to keep me with the resources I’ve got, I’m going to do the very best that I can for them in that four years. I’m going to give them everything I got to keep winning like we have been,” he says. “And if it’s time to call it an end, I’ll take my resources and I’ll go probably to the federal government,” he continues, adding that he’s had multiple job offerings to do just that.

“I chose to stay because I knew in my gut that we were going to have what we’ve got today … I’m glad that I stayed here in my community and can see what we’ve got now. And now I just want to finish it.”

The election is a pivotal moment for the Catawba Nation

Alex Osborn is a visual artist who grew up on the Catawba Nation reservation. He resigned from his position in the Longhouse’s communications department in 2022. Speaking to Queen City Nerve as a neutral observer, Osborn says he sees more clearly now as an outsider why so many tribal citizens feel cut off from what’s happening in tribal government.

Issues involving transparency have come to the forefront as the tribe has faced a pivotal moment in its history; the opening of Two Kings Casino has brought the implementation of “per-cap” payouts to residents based on money the facility brings in. The first such payments in the tribe’s history.

The payouts began in December 2022, with a second one arriving in June 2023. The payments were around $2,500 each, according to a tribal citizen who didn’t want to be named in this story.

The per-cap payouts are calculated based on a Revenue Allocation Plan approved by general Council at its January 2022 meeting. The tribe holds two meetings of the General Council each year, during which major issues within the tribe are voted on, while the Executive Committee is entrusted with handling day-to-day decisions in between those meetings.

In its current form, the RAP places revenue from Two Kings Casino into four buckets: 40% to per-cap payments, 20% to tribal government services, 20% to economic development, and 20% to capital reserves.

As we near the July election, some in the Catawba tribe have called for larger per-cap payments while others have simply said there hasn’t been enough transparency around how much revenue has been brought in by the casino since it opened in July 2021.

There are also concerns about other deals being made by the Executive Committee to bring on new partners after the split with Sky Boat, some without General Council approval.

“I think tribal members consider themselves shareholders in our tribal businesses,” wrote Brian Harris on his public Facebook campaign page. “I also think it has been necessary (in the past) for the General Council to approve the process for creating tribal businesses and did so with certain expectations.

“I think tribal members are entitled to much more information than we have been provided,” Brian continued. “However, I want to give the Executive Committee the opportunity to meet those expectations. Let’s hope they will provide relevant information on all the new deals that were created to remove Sky Boat.”

One member who works in the Longhouse, speaking on condition of anonymity so as to provide context without concern for their job, explained the difficult dynamic between ceding too much power to the Executive Committee and ensuring that the tribe can operate on a day-to-day basis when General Council only meets every six months.

“I think there’s just a lack of trust where people feel like the General Council should be making a lot of the decisions that the Executive Committee is making,” the tribal citizen told Queen City Nerve. “And I feel like it’s really because there’s not clear differentiation between the roles of those two separate entities in our Constitution.

“So I understand some of the grievances that tribal members have, feeling like these decisions are being made without them in the room,” they continued. “But I also understand that if you give people power to use it in circumstances where you’re not in session that they’re going to use those powers right, and should use those powers because they’re granted them.”

Each position within the Catawba executive committee is also up for election on July 29.

According to Jason Harris, there are federal laws against increasing per-cap payments past 45% of a gaming facility’s revenue. If he’s elected, he says he’d be willing to bring that decision in front of General Council, which would then have to be approved by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“They can vote for it to go up to 45%,” he says, “but that’ll take it from tribal economic development, or you can take probably take it from capital reserves, but you would take that 5% from a line somewhere. And that’s something they can do. We can certainly do that.”

Jason says his opponent has pushed for larger payouts beyond that, which he does not support.

“Unfortunately, people who are not on this side of the desk in here don’t see our revenue that comes in from the casino and know what all of our expenses are, what our liabilities are, all the things that it’s going to take to build the permanent facility out, paying to get rid of our old agreements, all of those things,” he says. “You can’t just take everything that you got or that you’re draining out of the cow and say, ‘Here, I’m going to give it off to you.’”

Jason says he agrees with some critiques that have called on the tribal government to be more transparent, but cited new issues brought up by COVID-19 as reasons the current government has become more wary of certain disclosures.

According to Jason, members of the General Council became restless during the pandemic because they couldn’t get 86 members together to meet quorum and ended up missing three meetings over 18 months. The tribe finally implemented virtual meetings, but that led to incidents in which members would screenshot private records shared with the tribe and send them to reporters.

“We don’t want to look like we’re not transparent, we want to give them as much information as we can,” he says. “But I think by us growing and jumping into the Zoom, that type of stuff, we took some criticism because we weren’t showing everything because we were trying to protect the tribe’s resources and assets. And sometimes they don’t see that. But as we swear to uphold and protect our Constitution, that’s something we have to do on this side of the table.”

Still, he insists that if he were to win the upcoming election for Catawba chief, he would make transparency a priority.

“Not taking anything away from the current chief, he has a management philosophy that works for him, but I have a little bit of a different one,” he says. “I’m not scared of transparency. As long as you tell them the truth, you shouldn’t ever be scared of it anyway.

Tribe members say they’ve ‘never seen an election like this’

An increase in the tribe’s use of technology has had more effects than with just transparency. The implementation of Zoom meetings made some on the reservation uncomfortable, as it allowed for more participation from tribal citizens living elsewhere in the country, seen by some to be not as invested in what’s happening on the reservation.

More viscerally, multiple Catawba tribe citizens tell Queen City Nerve that the increased vitriol surrounding this election has been impossible to ignore.

For instance, a June 26 Facebook post from tribal citizen Cody “Great Bear” Parks, which was shared to Brian Harris’ public campaign page, alleges that Jason Harris threatened to escalate an argument that began over a tribal senior lawn care program into a physical fight.

Parks turned down a request for an interview for this story, but in his post he wrote, “It hurts this man is running for Catawba Chief yet he continues down a destructive path. He speaks of leadership but turns tribal people against one another. That is NOT the Catawba way. It feels if existing leadership cannot control a program they squash it out of fear. We are NOT to be governed, we govern ourself.”

In a response on Facebook, Jason Harris called Parks’ claims a “phony story,” pointing out that a police report was filed but no charges brought against him, which he claimed as evidence that the claims were fake.

For Osborn, the entire atmosphere of this election feels different from any he’s experienced in the past as a member of the Catawba Nation.

“I feel like we as Catawbas, have always been really opinionated, but I think that this time I’m a little concerned because I see it mirroring U.S. politics and U.S. issues. And I can’t really put my finger on any of that specifically, but I see that ideologically that tends to follow some of the same trends of like, ‘This person stands for that, that person stands for this,’” he says.

“We have social media, we have an ability to gather in spaces together to meet all of the candidates and things like that. Whereas historically it was, ‘Do I know this person,’ or, ‘Is that person my cousin?’ Now it’s tied to the casino, which is tied to finances; it’s tied to political relationships and people’s actual ability to engage with people and interact with people on certain levels. And I don’t really think we know how to navigate that, to be honest.”

For his part, Jason Harris says he engaged with social media reluctantly after being told he would need to in order to reach voters.

“I think from a political standpoint, social media has changed our world to me,” he says. “I’m a little bit older. I’m 56. I didn’t see the value of social media. And I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t like it because people can go on there and say anything and people will take it and they’ll run with it … So from that perspective, I hadn’t liked it, but I realized that I had to engage in it. And me being limited to social media exposure, I decided that because this election is so important, I had to engage with it.”

Osborn adds that, thanks to the casino and the outside partners that development has brought in, there are more eyes on this election than any he’s ever witnessed — for better or worse.

“Just seeing the political ramifications and the financial ramifications, I can’t help but think that this is one of the more notable times that I can remember, really, that people other than the people who are members of the tribe would be interested in how this turns out,” he says. “I think we have never seen an election like this and I’m not really sure that we even really appreciate it yet.”

[CORRECTION: A previous version of this issue stated that Brian Harris served as assistant chief in 2013, which is untrue.]

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