War Dance

Alabama-Coushatta Indians are shedding their passive ways in big bets on land claims and casinos. But some fear they could be gambling away their great tribal heritage.

The Alabama-Coushattas also had an example in West Texas to follow: the Tiguas of El Paso, who experienced a similar rags-to-riches transformation practically overnight on their Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Before the tribe opened their Speaking Rock Casino in 1993, the children of the tribe often went without shoes, and their chief had to pick cotton for a living. The casino is now raking in about $60 million a year, and the Tiguas have begun buying up land, including a 68,000-acre ranch in Culberson County, and contending with the city of El Paso over water rights. The Tiguas, however, have faced a different kind of state government and considerably more moral opposition around Texas than the Coushattas did in Louisiana.

In 1999, then-Governor George Bush granted Attorney General John Cornyn $1.5 million to go after illegal gambling in Texas, and the Tiguas were the prime target. Cornyn sued to shut them down. The Tiguas, claims Cornyn, have broken a promise they made back in 1986 not to pursue gambling on their reservation. The trial has been tentatively set for late this month.

The Alabama-Coushattas, like the Tiguas, are not governed by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that affects other tribes in the country. The two tribes are bound by separate federal laws that restored them from state to federal tribe status. Those laws stipulate that the tribes cannot engage in gambling or other activities forbidden by state laws.

Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Battise says the success of the Coushatta casino in Louisiana led the tribe here toward a gaming future.
Deron Neblett
Tribal Council Chairman Kevin Battise says the success of the Coushatta casino in Louisiana led the tribe here toward a gaming future.
Spokeswoman Sharon Miller: "We'll be here after you're gone."
Spokeswoman Sharon Miller: "We'll be here after you're gone."

During this past legislative session, some lawmakers signed on to two bills designed to help the Tiguas keep their casino open -- and that would have opened the door to gambling for the Alabama-Coushattas. Senate Bill 253 and House Bill 514 would have modified the Texas penal code in accord with the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. It calls for agreements between tribes and state governments concerning casinos.

At first, there appeared to be a flurry of opposition to the bills in the Piney Woods towns surrounding the Alabama-Coushatta reservation. For Dan Ellis, the district's state representative, the prospect of a casino had become something of a hot potato. His Republican challenger in 1999 had tried to sew up the conservative vote by railing against the casino. Ellis had had to hem and haw on the issue, pointing out the traffic and law enforcement problems a casino would cause. Two years later, however, Livingston merchants were talking about the economic benefits of a casino, and the indignant opposition was left to Livingston's ultraconservative Church of Christ.

The church pastor and a group of church members sponsored lurid full-page ads in the Polk County Register predicting the casino would bring an invasion of the town by Satan and his minions. The bills stirred remarkably little legislative debate, with the House handily passing its bill, despite the negative vote of Dan Ellis.

Indian gambling met a big roadblock in the senate, in the form of Bill Ratliff, acting lieutenant governor. He simply sent the bill back to committee, the graveyard of dead bills, declaring that he was "adamantly opposed to casino gambling anywhere in the state of Texas." The Alabama-Coushattas had gotten a lesson in state politics that they won't soon forget.

From the tribe's point of view, the lottery and video slot machines that dispense gift certificates mean that gambling is already legal in Texas. So it should be legal for them as well. The tribe is forging ahead with plans for their temporary casino. If Cornyn loses his suit against the Tiguas, they'll build a permanent casino, probably right off Highway 190. If the attorney general wins, they may move forward anyway, setting up a legal showdown with Cornyn.

For a tribe that was totally bypassed by the militancy of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, the Alabama-Coushattas have their own kind of quiet feistiness. In a way, the casino is just small change if the Alabama-Coushattas reap the benefits of another continuing legal battle they've been waging. This one has to do with land. That is, the huge expanse of land that they once owned, in the way that Indians used to own land -- land where they hunted and planted and made their homes, but which they could possess no more than they could possess the air. This issue is like the big bear in the room that no one talks about. The Alabama-Coushatta land claim is so big that it's almost too much to fathom.

In the mid-1960s, then-young lawyers Alan Minter of Austin and Tom Diamond of El Paso had looked into land claims for the Alabama-Coushattas and the Tiguas. They intervened in another tribe's suit to pursue Alabama-Coushattas' land claims that covered pretty much the original expanse of the Big Thicket -- an area spread over a dozen counties in East Texas and totaling about 9 million acres. They were eventually thrown out of that suit, but they did lay essential groundwork for establishing aboriginal title, thanks to a white man named Howard Martin.

Martin grew up near Livingston and went to school with students from the reservation. He was an amateur historian, and in his youth he began collecting material relating to the Alabama-Coushattas. He continued collecting, even after he had moved to Houston to work for the city's Chamber of Commerce, using his vacations to visit various repositories of materials relating to the Alabama-Coushattas. Martin, who was named official tribal historian by the Alabama-Coushattas, wound up with a double garage full of files that included diary entries from Spanish soldiers who had recorded in detail their encounters with the tribes. The result was a well-documented picture of where the Alabamas and Coushattas had lived. Martin made an effective witness, says Minter, as did then-Chief Fulton Battise, otherwise known as Chief Kina, who "looked every part the Indian chief," he says.

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