The Alabama-Coushatta aren't officially opening their casino, located on the tribal reservation just outside of Livingston, until June 2, but the tribe gathered this week to sing songs and say prayers before a soft opening of the place.
On Monday night, about 300 tribe members gathered at the casino, now called Naskila Entertainment ("naskila" means "dogwood" in the Alabama-Coushatta's tribal language). "They were so excited," Alabama-Coushatta spokesman Carlos Bullock says. "It was so good to see the tribe members there trying out the food and playing the games. They would win $1.50, and they acted like they'd just won $150. There was so much joy."
Once the casino had been celebrated and blessed by the tribe, it was time to get back into the business for real. At noon on Tuesday, it opened its doors to the general public in a soft opening designed to work out all the kinks in the business before larger crowds start showing up.
After all, this is the second time the tribe has opened its reservation casino. Back in 2001, the Alabama-Coushatta opened their casino on the reservation just outside of Livingston, and they found out why casinos are such a big get for reservations. It brought jobs to the community and, even better, pulled in money, Bullock says.
The federal government is always quick to cut the reservation's budgets and programs, as we wrote in 2013. Housing is a problem on the reservation – often there are three and four generations in one house – but when the casino was open, people were working and some could afford to rent apartments in town. Others used the money they were bringing in to buy cars and other things that had simply not been possible before.
It lasted only about nine months. Texas officials are big fans of gambling, and they took the tribe to court when the casino opened. The case bounced through the court system, with the state insisting that the tribe was bound to follow state gaming laws, while the tribe maintained that they were governed by federal law and thus were allowed to have gaming on their reservation. Ultimately, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas and the casino's doors were closed.
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Bullock and his fellow tribe members have been fighting to reopen the business ever since. Last October, the tribe asked the Department of the Interior and the National Indian Gaming Association to clarify the tribe's legal standing, gambling-wise, and the two entities decided that the Alabama-Coushatta (along with the Tigua, a tribe located on a reservation near El Paso) have the right to offer bingo and electronic bingo on their reservation. Ever since then, Bullock and the rest of the tribe have been waiting to see if state officials would respond to the decision, but state officials have stayed quiet, Bullock says.
The casino is still housed in the original building, but the building was gutted and almost completely redone in preparation for reopening the business, complete with new wiring and plumbing and a renovated interior. On Tuesday, eager patrons, some of whom had lined up two hours before the doors were slated to open, walked into a space that was almost entirely new on the inside.
Meanwhile, watching customers enter the casino, just as they'd done years ago, was a triumphant moment for Bullock and the rest of the tribe, particularly sweet after 15 years of struggle. "There were a lot of times when we felt like giving up. We kept hitting walls and having doors slammed in our faces and walking the halls of the state Legislature and the halls of the U.S. Congress and not seeing results. But so many people believed in us, would come up to us and tell us to keep fighting, so we did, and finally the day has come," Bullock says, his voice suddenly shaking with emotion.
Now that the casino is finally technically open for business, Bullock says he can already see a difference on the reservation. For one thing, they've already hired about 200 people from the tribe and the surrounding area to work, doing everything from servicing the machines to running the new restaurant, Timber Grille. "Nobody has gotten their first check yet, but the atmosphere has already been changed," Bullock says. "Young people who might not have taken the time to care for themselves well before, who might not even have had a job, are working in the casino and they walk around the reservation with their heads held high."