Alabama-Coushatta Tribe: PASS HB 4985 - the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta Tribes of Texas Equal and Fair Opportunity Settlement Act

Tribes once again ask Congress to recognize sovereign rights in Texas

Two tribes are once again asking Congress to restore their gaming rights amid long-standing opposition in the state of Texas.

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, also known as the Tigua Tribe, want to participate in the $32 billion Indian gaming industry just like their fellow sovereign nations. But some politicians in Texas claim the tribes have to abide by a ban on casino-style activities in the Lone Star State.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) is not one of those politicians. He has introduced H.R.4985, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta Tribes of Texas Equal and Fair Opportunity Settlement Act, to ensure that the tribes can continue to operate gaming facilities on their homelands.

"We will advocate vigorously for passage of this bill," Alabama-Coushatta Chairperson Jo Ann Battise said after the measure was introduced in February.

The tribe will get a chance to do that later this week. The House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs is taking testimony on the bill at a legislative hearing on Thursday, with Alabama-Coushatta and Tigua leaders expected to testify.

Chairperson Jo Ann Battise of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe. Photo: Support Naskila / Alabama-Coushatta Tribe

The dispute dates back nearly two decades. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the state convinced the courts to stop the tribes from offering slot machines, table games and related offerings on their reservations.

As governor of Texas, Bush had supported litigation. When he was campaigning for president, he made an alarming remark about tribal sovereignty and the federal government's role in protecting and respecting it.

According to candidate Bush, “state law reigns supreme when it comes to Indians, whether it be gambling or any other issue.”

Texas law at one point did reign supreme when it came to the Alabama-Coushatta and Tigua tribes. During the disastrous termination era, Congress placed both under the "supervision" of the state.

They lived that way for decades until their fortunes changed in 1987, when Congress reversed the policy and restored the tribes to federal status with the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama and Coushatta Indian Tribes of Texas Restoration Act.

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe owns and operates Naskila Gaming, a Class II gaming facility, on its reservation in Livingston, Texas. Photo: Naskila Gaming

The law, however, contains provisions that have been used used to deny the tribes the ability to engage in gaming. The state's interpretation led to the closure of the Alabama-Coushatta casino and the Tigua casino in 2002, a year into the Bush presidency.

During the Barack Obama era, the tribes saw their fortunes shift in a more positive direction. The Department of the Interior developed an interpretation of the 1987 restoration law that recognized their authority to offer games that aren't outright banned in Texas.

That means bingo, pull tabs and electronic versions of those games. Elsewhere, these Class II games are not subject to state interference.

But Texas thinks otherwise, with ongoing lawsuits seeking the closure of Naskila Gaming, owned by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe outside of Houston, and the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, owned by the Tigua Tribe in El Paso. So far the state appears to be winning and two court decisions have already cast doubt on the pro-tribal interpretation of the federal restoration law.

Passage of H.R.4985 would clear up the situation. It confirms, once and for all, that the tribes can engage in Class II gaming like just about everyone else in Indian Country.

"HR 4985 offers federal protection for Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and its Speaking Rock entertainment center," the Tiguas say in a Speaking Rock support page. "Your representatives in Washington need to know that Speaking Rock keeps entertainment dollars in Texas and provides hundreds of jobs in the region."

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe also maintains a site seeking to encourage support for the bill.

Thursday's hearing takes place before the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice. A witness list has not yet been posted online.

House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs Notice
Legislative Hearing on Indian Affairs Bill (September 13, 2018)

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