The Big Money
When Landon French turned 18 in 2012, the big check arrived: $70,000, which he deposited into his Wells Fargo account. Man, I’m rolling in the dough now, he thought. The first thing he bought was a Red Hot Chili Peppers T-shirt. Then, instead of buying a new car, he decided to make repairs to his bright-red Jeep, which he called “Jenny,” after the character from his favorite movie, Forrest Gump. When Landon got to college later that year, he bought a new TV for his dorm room and began eating out every night, usually at Red Lobster (he liked their cheddar biscuits). He also donated $1,500 to the Muhammad Ali Center, in memory of his favorite boxer; it was a big enough gift that he got a brick with his name on it. Landon also kept an eye on his mother’s bank account, topping it up whenever it dipped below $1,000.
The big check had been growing each year. A decade earlier, someone like Landon could have expected the equivalent of $34,000; by 2016, the amount had grown to six figures—that year Tyra Maney received her check for $109,000 after taxes. “It was crazy,” she says. “I’d never, ever had that kind of money in my life.” Tyra received the money on a Friday. On Monday, the teenager, her mother, and her grandmother went to a local Ford dealership to purchase Tyra a new car.
Landon and Tyra are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, a federally recognized tribe with roughly 14,000 enrolled members. Headquartered in Cherokee, North Carolina, the EBCI is surrounded by the Qualla Boundary, 56,000 acres of ancestral land that was purchased from the government in the 1870s. The tribe struggled with economic development until 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Reagan had championed private-sector solutions for Native self-determination, even as he cut federal programs to help Native Americans, and the IGRA allowed federally recognized tribes to negotiate for gaming rights as a way to enhance their own economic development.
After several years of negotiation between the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the state of North Carolina, slot machines and casino-style games like craps and roulette became legal on the Qualla Boundary. In 1995, the EBCI opened a small casino, and members started receiving per capita distributions the next year; the initial payment was $600 ($976 today). In 1997, the much larger Harrah’s Cherokee Casino opened in Cherokee. Owned by the EBCI and managed by Harrah’s, which also oversees casinos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Harrah’s Cherokee has grown considerably over the past two decades. With the completion of a $633 million expansion in 2013, it currently boasts three hotel towers, a golf course, 11 restaurants, a bowling alley, an arcade and a spa, plus 150,000 square feet of gaming space. In 2015, Harrah’s and the EBCI opened a second casino, an hour away in Murphy, North Carolina, and in June 2018 Harrah’s Cherokee broke ground on yet another expansion, adding 700 new hotel rooms to the 1,108 already in existence.
From the first per capita distribution in 1996, the amount dispersed to EBCI members has grown exponentially, thanks to the continued expansion of Harrah’s Cherokee. The resulting profits are split between a general fund across the Qualla Boundary that covers things like road infrastructure, housing, and higher education. Enrolled members of the EBCI—who must apply and meet genealogical criteria set forth by the tribe—receive their first check after they turn 18 and graduate from high school. Then biannual checks are distributed among the enrolled members of the tribe from a per capita fund administered by the EBCI Office of Budget and Finance. (The largest biannual per capita distribution in the history of the program occurred this past December: $7,007 before taxes.) The initial lump sum is paid from the Minors Fund, a trust that begins accruing money the moment EBCI members are born, and is dispersed with taxes taken out. They call it the “big money.”
Tyra paid for her dream car—a Ford Focus—in full, along with a year’s worth of car insurance. Then she bought a small Prada bag, bright white with a tassel, and clothing for the Miss Cherokee pageant. “I didn’t have any traditional clothes,” she explains, “so I used maybe about $1,000 or so and I bought moccasins and a basket, and I got my wool set [of traditional Cherokee clothing].”
Standing alongside the banks of the Oconaluftee River, which runs through the Smoky Mountains and ends at Fontana Lake, some 30-plus miles from Cherokee, Tyra reflects on conversations she had with her peers over what they would do when they got their big money. “A lot of people in my friend group were like, ‘I’m gonna be smart, and I’m gonna maybe buy this and then put the rest up,’ ” says the 22-year-old, who works as a retail associate at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, in downtown Cherokee. “Maybe 20 percent of us actually did that, and the rest were like, ‘Oh, I have money, so I’m gonna use it.’ And they blew it.”
Tyra remembers kids who, after receiving their first check, would go to the mall and spend a thousand dollars on shoes at the Nike store; others would burn through the money in a year. After Tyra made her purchases, she put $35,000 of her big money into CDs and mutual funds. “I didn’t blow that much,” she says, “but I did go to the mall and thought, ‘I want to buy this bag.’ ”
During her first semester at UC Berkeley, Lou Montelongo, a member of the EBCI who grew up in Cherokee, was on a tight budget. Though the tribe paid for her tuition and her meal plan, she explains, unlike many of her classmates, she didn’t have any extra spending money. “My friends would have their parents send them $200 and $300 a week,” says the sophomore, who is majoring in rhetoric. “[But] my mom doesn't have that much money to help.”
For some, the per capita system has created a financial divide between the generations: An 18-year-old graduating from high school in 1997, the year Harrah’s opened, would have received a lump-sum equivalent of around a thousand dollars; the current payment is a hundred times larger. “We grew up really poor, and there were times when I would see my mom having to struggle because our dad passed away when I was eight,” Lou says. “We've been humbled a lot growing up.”
In 2015, as part of her work with a youth-leadership program called the Junaluska Leadership Council, which brings together enrolled EBCI teenagers from surrounding area high schools, Lou and others drafted a resolution for the Tribal Council to change the dispersal of per capita checks from one lump sum to smaller amounts. “We’ve seen a lot of our peers who would get their money and then just run through it all,” says Lou. “There wasn’t a lot of financial literacy.” Lou learned to be careful with money after watching family members and friends blow through their big money at a young age. The lump sums also meant teenagers were responsible for large tax bills—“I heard stories of people having to pay $20,000 in taxes,” says Lou—and they prevented young people from getting financial aid or grants for higher education.
The resolution approved by the Tribal Council in 2016 divided the Minors Fund payments into blocks. Starting in June 2017, the EBCI began releasing $25,000 to individuals when they turned 18, another $25,000 when they turned 21, and the remainder of the fund when they turned 25. In order to receive that first check, teenagers are required by the EBCI to complete an online money-management course and submit a copy of their high school diploma after they turn 18.
Lou didn’t receive her money until the second semester of her freshman year: $18,000 after taxes. First, she bought a new iPhone to replace an older, cracked phone, and then surprised her family with a trip to New York City for Christmas. They stayed at a hotel in Staten Island and took the ferry over to Manhattan to see Wicked, her sister’s favorite show. She put the rest of the money in a CD. “[My family] doesn’t really place any value on money,” Lou says. “We’d rather spend time with each other.”
After receiving the big money, all tribal members receive per capita checks twice a year; in 2018 the checks totaled more than $12,000 per person before taxes. Cars are often advertised for sale on the side of the road the month before the checks go out; sellers hope that those passing by and headed to school or work might consider an upgrade. Cautionary tales of spending can be found throughout the Qualla Boundary. The money can be especially hard for those who are already vulnerable to certain stresses to begin with.
Chad Feather, 34, says that his 2003 check ($25,000 after taxes) came at a particularly troubled time in his life. After buying a car and a house, he ran out of money within six months due to issues with substance abuse and addiction. “My dad used to drink a lot, and I watched that growing up,” explains Feather, who works in downtown Cherokee doing powwow-style dancing for the public. “I did spend [the money] on drugs and alcohol, because I had a problem. Addiction has no race, no creed or color; it affects everybody.”
And then there is the peer pressure, friends and family members who show up out of the blue, looking for handouts or trying to influence the way young adults spend their money. Landon French, now 24, witnessed this firsthand with his brother, Cheyanne, who received around $40,000 in 2010. “He immediately just did the normal thing the majority [of EBCI teens] do; he got a new vehicle and started going to Atlanta, Georgia, just about every day,” he says. “People would come around if they know you get a big check…they were able to influence him to buy a lot of stuff he didn’t really need to buy,” like a new Dodge truck, even though Cheyanne already had a car.
Now working as a math teacher at the New Kituwah Academy, a Cherokee language immersion school in Cherokee, Landon has had time to reflect back on the $70,000 he received in 2012, of which he still has $10,000 in savings. After high school, he attended Mars Hill University, a private liberal arts college near Asheville. When he met his now wife, Lucia, in college, he didn’t tell her about his financial circumstances right away. “You never know how someone is going to react when you tell them that you’ve got money coming in every six months,” he says.
Sheena Brings Plenty, 32, has talked at length with her 17-year-old stepdaughter, Maleaha, about the value of money. “Definitely have a balance in your financial life, because that’s something that I never had growing up,” says Sheena, who works with beads to make Native crafts. “Being given the gift of a huge sum of money, that’s a huge opportunity to set her up for the rest of her life. She doesn’t have to sit and worry about bills and finances as long as she takes care of it and respects it for what it is.”
Lou Montelongo’s younger sister, Ella, is a junior at Cherokee High School and is set to receive her first check, for $25,000, in December of 2019. She’s interested in going to school in New York to pursue acting and singing after graduation. “I have people telling me, ‘Don’t be like this person and spend it all,’ ” she says. “I think that’s what gets people to spend their money. Because they never had it before.”
As the per cap grows, seemingly with no decline in sight, the EBCI has made adjustments to how the payments are distributed, in order to best help the community. In 2016, the Tribal Council approved the Per Capita Loan Program, which helps struggling members apply for a $500 monthly loan to be taken out of their per cap check. The tribe also allows members to access their per cap allotment early for certain emergencies, like health care: Tyra’s family, for example, used a portion of her big money to remove a tumor on her head when she was just 3 or 4, after their insurance couldn’t cover the full amount of the surgery. (In order to avoid fraud or theft, the rules mandate that if a parent or guardian needs emergency access to their child’s fund, they must provide appropriate documentation to the Tribal Council.) Minors can also apply to have their funds dispersed early for orthodontics, emergencies, education, or education-related travel.
In addition, the EBCI has made it a priority to provide all enrolled members access to higher education by paying for individuals to get a bachelor’s, master’s, or Ph.D., should they choose to continue their education beyond high school. Monetary incentives to do well in school are also offered each semester, based on students maintaining a GPA of 2.5 and receiving no grades below a C-. “If you are a full-time student, the tribe gives you that $1,000 for whatever you need,” Lou explains. “I think recently they just changed their guidelines, but when I was in my first year, I [also] got $1,000 for each A, and I got $500 for each B.”
However, the EBCI knows the per cap is not a bottomless fund. “While per capita distributions provide a helpful financial resource, the likelihood of continuous and perpetual year-over-year growth of per capita will become increasingly challenging,” says Susie Wolfe, accounting manager at EBCI Finance. “The EBCI has enjoyed a casino gaming market largely free of competition; as neighboring states look to legalize gaming activities, there will be an ongoing challenge to the EBCI’s gaming activities.”
The EBCI Finance office will continue to work on expanding financial literacy, hopeful that preparing minors for large infusions of cash will create better results in how the money is spent. “The lump-sum distribution of the minor’s fund, while good for some, generally yielded negative results,” says Wolfe. “That is a direct reflection of a lack of financial knowledge available in our community and generational challenges. Grandma and grandpa, mom and dad have not generally managed $100,000+ lump-sum payments, and therefore our children do not have the financial knowledge to adequately manage their resources.”
In 2003, I was a student at Brevard College, a liberal arts college about an hour and a half from Cherokee, when I received my big money, around $17,000 after taxes. I remember going onto the car-sale lot with my parents, holding a giant brown paper bag of cash, ready to buy a new 2003 Toyota Corolla. We joke about it today, because we didn’t realize how odd it looked, turning up with a bag full of cash. But I know my whole family was just so excited that I had an opportunity to buy a car and didn’t have to worry about making payments on it. I will never forget the pride and independence I felt, the smile on my face as I drove down the interstate with music playing and my hair swirling around with the windows down.
My little gray Toyota lasted me almost 10 years; then it was time to trade in for a car big enough for a child seat, diaper bag, and the 100 other things that come with starting a family. I used to feel it was unfair that I got my big money long before it reached the amount it is today. What might I have done with $100,000? Then I remind myself that being able to purchase a new car and not worry about car payments is a luxury most people can’t afford. I belong to a tribe that has consistently worked toward building a better community and creating opportunity for all of its members, and for that I am grateful.