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Priorities for the tribe, he explains, are set largely by the Tribal Council, whose seven members are up for election every three years. The tribe has two chiefs, a first and second, whose main roles are ceremonial. The first chief is 69-year-old Sylestine, in the seventh year of his reign. He's known for his mischievous humor, and he seldom disappoints. He says that becoming chief did not really change him. "I woke up the same old rascal," he says. "I didn't get big-headed," he says, his eyes twinkling.
The most crucial matters are decided by votes of the tribal members as a whole. The Alabama-Coushattas, like most Indians, are a very political people, and their tribal system of government is far older than America's democracy. One of the most contentious issues has been tribal membership, which is automatic for those who are born of full-blood parents. It becomes a matter of tribal adoption, to be voted on by the whole tribe, for those who are half-blood. "How would you feel if you had to win a popularity contest to be considered an American citizen?" asks one angry outsider whose daughter married into the tribe, and whose grandchild was put on a "waiting list" to be adopted by the tribe. Matters of blood run deep, particularly for a small tribe whose members are usually related to each other in complex ways.
In 1992, the Tribal Council got one of its first big tests in taking on the outside world when three young tribal members refused to cut their hair, as ordered by their public school in the nearby town of Big Sandy. The school would not let the students attend regular classes and isolated them in a separate room, as though they had a contagious disease. One of those young men was Gilman Abbey, the drummer, who was already taking part in performances for tourists. For him, it was not only a matter of economics, with his job at stake, but of pride. "We have the right to wear our hair long because of our religious background," he says. "I can still remember when they wouldn't let us talk our language or do anything Indian," he says of Big Sandy. The Tribal Council sued on behalf of the students and won.
It was the casino issue, however, that turned up the political heat for the tribe to an unprecedented degree. It was back in the early '90s when folks in the tribe first began talking about getting a casino, or a bingo parlor, as so many other tribes had done. The first vote to explore the possibility of gambling was taken in 1994. Seventy percent of the tribe voted against it, with the skeptical elders voicing the strongest opposition. But in a 1999 vote, 70 percent supported the gambling efforts.
The young had spoken, and the elders had muted their opposition. There was still resistance from some members of the Presbyterian church on the reservation, although their main objection was more to do with proximity than principle: gambling would be so close to the church. Young people traveled in from all parts of the country to vote to make sure the issue passed. Others among the young, however, like Rochellda Sylestine, remain ambivalent. She criticizes the tribe's decision to end the dance performances for the public, which she believes educate members and the public about Indian traditions. "It breaks my heart," she says.
Kevin Battise says the change in the election outcomes resulted from the undeniable success of their cousins, the Coushattas of Louisiana, who started a casino operation in 1994, just when the Alabama-Coushattas of Texas had vetoed the idea. Until they decided to go for a casino, the Coushattas of Louisiana were among the poorest tribes in the country. They lived much like their neighbors, the blacks and Cajuns who had also settled in the bayous, making a living from hunting, fishing and trapping. In order to open a casino, they needed to buy land in a good location and have it approved as Indian land by the Department of the Interior. And they needed the approval of Edwin Edwards, then governor of Louisiana, for the land transfer and construction of a casino. The Louisiana Coushattas, however, had learned to get things done the "Louisiana way," as one of Edwards's colleagues put it when the governor and a coterie of cronies went on trial last year for multiple counts of racketeering. According to trial testimony, the Louisiana Coushattas paid between $200,000 and $300,000 to one of Edwards's associates to help pave the way for the casino. Although government prosecutors defined the payments as extortion, the associate who pocketed the money from the Coushattas was found not guilty on that charge. In a sense, the Coushattas had gotten themselves a bargain. Their new casino, the Grand Coushatta, is the largest land casino in Louisiana and one of the largest Indian casinos in the country. The casino employs three thousand people, and each tribal member receives a monthly stipend in addition to the millions of dollars that have poured into tribal coffers.
It was frustrating to the Alabama-Coushattas, says Battise, to watch the traffic zipping by the reservation on U.S. 190 on the way toward the casino in Louisiana. "Before they had the casino, they had nothing," says tribe member Lawrine Battise, who was against the casino at first. Though she and her husband Jack are strong on preserving tribal traditions, they acknowledge that the casino could bring much needed economic opportunities to the tribe. Even Chief Sylestine went over to visit the casino in Louisiana, he says, though he was none the richer for the experience. "I went in broke and came out broker," he says. "They have some big homes over there now."