After more than 13 years, the feds say the Alabama-Coushatta's casino in Livingston can finally reopen. And here's the kicker: according to the federal government's reasoning, the tribe's casino should never have been forced to close in the first place.
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 changed everything. “The community really came together then,” Alabama-Coushatta spokesman Carlos Bullock says. “We had steak dinners, crawfish boils, there was a real community feeling when the casino was open.”
The casino brought jobs to the community and, even better, it 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 was a big step forward. These are things a lot of people take for granted but they were a big deal to us, people buying their own vehicles and getting their own places to stay,” Bullock says.
It only lasted for about nine months. In 2001 the state passed a law allowing "charitable bingo," but the state refused to let tribes have their own bingo games. Texas officials aren't big fans of gambling — especially if they aren't the ones controlling the gambling as with the lottery, horse races and dog races — and the state sued the tribe shortly after the casino opened.
The legal fight dragged through the court system, with Texas maintaining that the tribe was required to follow state laws as outlined in the Alabama-Coushatta Restoration Act signed in 1987, which gave the tribe federal recognition and required them to follow Texas gaming laws. Meanwhile, the Alabama-Coushatta have claimed that the Indian Gaming Regulation Act of 1988 meant they were allowed to gamble on reservation land. Texas officials quickly challenged the Alabama-Coushatta's right to have gaming. After the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Texas, the tribe gave up and closed the casino.
But it turns out the tribe was right all along. Recently, the tribe asked the Department of Interior and National Indian Gaming Association to clarify their legal standing, gambling-wise. In October, the Interior Department and the National Indian Gaming Commission decided that the Alabama-Coushatta (along with the Tigua, a tribe located on a reservation near El Paso) do actually have the right to offer bingo and electronic bingo on the reservation, meaning the Alabama-Coushatta will soon be open for business.
The Interior Department warned both the Alabama-Coushatta and the Tigua to be careful and line everything up with the National Indian Gaming Commission, considering the state isn't likely to be happy with this development. Bullock says they're intent on doing everything by the book. “The state hasn't responded to us yet. I can't say what their position is. I can't anticipate what they'll do, and we're not going to. We're going to do what the federal government allows us to do and that's all.”
At the end of the day, the casino re-opening will be a game-changer for the people living on the reservation. There's no firm opening date, Bullock says. The casino has been standing empty and acting as a sort of community center for more than a decade, but the tribe has already voted unanimously to pull money out of their permanent funds to get the casino ready.
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“It has cost our tribe dearly over the years. We were cut out of gaming because of the language in the restoration act, even though Texas law itself had actually changed and the state got the lottery and bingo and horse racing and dog tracks. But we were shut out,” Bullock says.
Everything changes with the casino, Bullock says.
“People get off government assistant and welfare, they're able to move and to do things, things most people don't even think about," he says. "This is huge for us."
So the tribe is happy and ready to get going. Bullock doesn't even sound bitter about the fact that they've spent more than a decade struggling to get by and relying on the federal government while that casino they built has been sitting empty, an absolute waste, and all this time, the law was actually on their side. Go figure.