Reprinted from San Antonio Express News
By John MacCormack
LIVINGSTON — Tucked into the deep woods of the Big Thicket about 90 miles northeast of Houston, the Alabama-Coushatta reservation is a peaceful refuge of tall loblolly pines, compact houses on huge lots and few outside visitors.
The Indian Village, gift shop and forest railway that once drew curious tourists are only fading memories.
The tribe of about 1,100, which depends on tobacco sales at three smoke shops for most of its income, struggles with unemployment, inadequate housing and the financial problems from being largely dependent on the federal government.
“We’re always one major catastrophe from wiping out our health care budget for the entire year,” said Carlos Bullock, a tribal council member. “Our Indian Health Services funding runs out pretty much every year. Say someone has a broken leg. We can’t take them to the hospital unless it’s life or death.” In recent budget meetings, the tribal council came close to cutting precious jobs.
And at $400,000 a year, its Head Start program, which enrolls many more area children than tribal kids, is becoming difficult to maintain. But not long ago, for nine magical months, things were very different here. Back in 2001, when a casino was operating at the new tribal gift shop and museum, hundreds of outsiders streamed to the reservation, tribal members had jobs and the tribal government had its own money to spend. The building has been largely idle since, except for the occasional wedding. But black security cameras still hang from the ceilings, and on the walls are posters reading “House Rules for Blackjack” and “Royal Reward Club.” They are reminders of a giddy time when people jammed the parking lot around the clock, waiting for others to leave the packed-to-capacity casino. On busy weekends, the wait for a seat at the poker tables sometimes reached 10 or 12 hours.
“It was one of the best things we’ve ever had here. It was a happening thing,” recalled Davie Johnson, 51, a tribal member who was presiding this spring at a children’s powwow that drew dancers from two dozen tribes to the 7,800-acre reservation.
“The casino sustained us financially. It gave us the sense that we didn’t have to depend on the federal government, that we could provide for our own people,” he said as drums pounded and little girls in elaborate costumes waited to perform.
“And gosh, when they took that away, it hurt. It really did. There were 400 people employed there, and a third of them were tribal members, including some of my family, so it hurt financially.”
Ripped off by lobbyist
Like the Tigua Indians in El Paso, who also were forced by the state to close their casino in 2002, the Alabama-Coushattas have never forgotten the fantastic riches of gaming. Both tribes were caught in a peculiar legal bind that had as much to do with bad timing as the law.
At the time they became federally recognized tribes in 1987, the Texas Constitution forbade gambling, and as a condition of recognition demanded by Texas, both promised to forego gambling on their reservations. The constitution was later changed, and the lottery, pari-mutuel race tracks, bingo and other forms of gambling, including illegal 8-liner parlors, now proliferate in Texas. But the tribes were stuck. After a bitter confrontation with the state, both tribes were forced to shutter their thriving casinos. For both, the closures and the messy aftermath left economic hardship and bitter memories.
Some of the scars were inflicted by Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who gained eternal infamy in Indian country for his cynical and greedy exploitation of various tribes, including two in Texas.
With his partners, “Casino Jack,” who later served 31/2 years in prison, collected an estimated $60 million representing Indians, some of whom he derided in secret e-mails as “monkeys,” “troglodytes” and “stupid folks.”
His promises induced both the Tiguas, and indirectly the Alabama-Coushattas, to fund his efforts to pull political strings and reopen their casinos. The Alabama-Coushattas gave him $50,000; the Tiguas more than $4 million, some of which has recovered.
But Abramoff was secretly working for other clients who wanted to keep both Texas Indian casinos closed.
“We were financing our own enemies. They were protecting their market,” said Bullock, the council member. “But we’ve gotten beyond that.”
White man’s game
In the years since, as casinos have proliferated on hundreds of reservations around the country, both Texas tribes have repeatedly sought legislation in Austin and Washington to allow them to reopen their casinos. Thus far, they have failed at every step.
In the past, the Alabama-Coushattas didn’t get involved in state or federal politics, but they now retain lawyers and lobbyists to make their case, and they make political contributions to sympathetic officeholders.
“We have to play that game. We have to play the white man’s game with the politicians in the federal and state government to gain support,” said Ronnie Thomas, the tribal chairman.
In their latest effort, the Alabama-Coushattas have proposed an unusual deal to the federal government: Give us back our casino, and we will drop all our aboriginal claims to land, money and resources, and we will dismiss pending litigation against the government.
Among the tribe’s biggest bargaining chips is a $270 million award made a dozen years ago by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The award, which followed 14 years of litigation, is compensation for damages the tribe suffered when it lost millions of acres to white settlers in the 19th century.
The court ruled that the federal government had failed to protect the tribe’s interests and that the tribe retained “aboriginal title” to 5.5 million acres in 11 counties of East Texas that it once controlled.
But unless Congress appropriates the money, the huge award is essentially uncollectible, short of more litigation. Last year, tribal members voted to drop the claim in exchange for a casino and the same legal rights to gambling as other tribes.
“It’s been 14 years of cajoling, begging and pleading with Congress to please appropriate this award, and they flat out won’t do it,” tribal lawyer Andy Taylor said. “The beauty of this piece of legislation is that it wipes this off the books. We’d be giving away our rights in court and getting something enforceable.”
“Basically, the tribe is saying, ‘We’ll forget the transgressions of the past, and we’ll not challenge the present uses of this 5.5 million acres of land that we have an interest in, in exchange for one single thing,’” he said.
The deal is contained in House Resolution 1144, a bill filed last spring and still languishing before the House Natural Resources Committee. Tribal lobbyist Larry Meyers said that despite the apparent lack of progress, he is optimistic.
“We’ve met with all the members of the Indian Affairs subcommittee, and received no indication of opposition. We have 10 sponsors, and that’s very encouraging,” he said.
Meyers predicted that the bill will be heard when the committee eventually takes up other similar “Indian country” bills in a single hearing. Tribal leader Thomas said it all comes down to common sense and fairness.
“It’s not for us to be disruptive. We just want to be treated right. Let us have the opportunity to become self-sufficient. If HR 1144 works out, it will give us that opportunity,” he said.
As the log trucks roll up and down U.S. 190, few cars make the turnoff to the reservation. These days, the only noticeable outside activity is the widening and repaving of the short main road to tribal headquarters. Visitors still occasionally patronize the campground built around a small lake, but it’s been years since tourists came regularly.
Commerce aside, for many tribal members, this is a home, a secluded place that affords peace and security in a bustling and uncertain world dominated by other cultures.
“If you came to our reservation, don’t look for a theater or a store. We really don’t have a social climate. It would just be quiet,” said Billie Sue Williams, 63, director of the tribe’s Head Start program.
“I have never felt lonely living there. I have never wanted to get out of there. We’re very close-knit. Anytime anyone needs something, people help,” she said. Carlene Bullock, 53, the tribe’s youth program director, also grew up in the woods here. She left briefly as a teenager, only to see it clearly for the first time.
“For six months I lived in Phoenix. I thought, ‘I’ll never miss these pine trees,’ but once I was there about three months, they looked adorable,” she said.
And while the essential quality of the reservation as a place of safety remains, much else has changed, from simple things such as the custom then of walking everywhere on trails, in a time before roads, to more subtle shifts.
“When I was growing up, we knew our culture. It was pretty much beaten into us: I was forbidden to speak English at home, and I couldn’t speak Alabama at school. Nowadays, our kids hardly know our culture or language,” Bullock said.
But in one sense, she said, growing up on the reservation creates a barrier for ambitious tribal youths who are thinking about going away for college. Some who leave soon find themselves lost far from the protections of home, she said. Most try to attend colleges that are an easy drive from the reservation.
Sheila Alec, 44, runs the tribe’s convenience store on U.S. 190, next to the tobacco shop where unfamiliar brands such as Seneca, Native and Heron are sold. She also has fond feelings about reservation life.
“I lived in Houston for five years. I moved back here to raise my kids. I wanted them to grow up here,” she said. “I feel safer here than I do anywhere else. Things happen here but not like in the city. You know where your kids are and who they are with.”
And, she said, her family knows firsthand how life off the reservation can become a struggle. Her eldest son left for college in San Antonio but got “burned out” after attending three semesters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He now has a child and is working at San Antonio International Airport, she said. “He’s learning the hard life. He’s learning how life is off the reservation. He’s got a 4-month old child, and they live with her parents,” she said.
Tribal councilman Kyle Williams, 35, who returned to the reservation as a teen after living in Dallas, worked in the tourist center before it shut down in 1999 for lack of visitors. “It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I was a dancer and singer. I learned how to do the traditional dances, and I learned the tribal history. It kind of revived my culture and heritage,” he recalled. But, said Williams, whose teenage son recently joined the military because he couldn’t find a good job locally, the tribe’s long-term economic viability depends in part on reopening the casino.
“We’ve seen what gaming has done for other tribes in terms of economic sustainability and growth. With a casino, we’d be able to serve the people a lot better,” he said. He said the basic goal is to become economically self sufficient, with gaming as one essential component. “We’re in the infancy stages. We’re starting late and trying to catch up with every other tribe,” he said.
“A prime example is the Kickapoo. The majority of them grew up under a bridge, and they just had a $95 million (casino and hotel) expansion. And they are probably more secluded than we are.”