Alabama tribe could get federal recognition, casino gambling under final legislative push by retiring Senator –

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., leaves the Senate Republicans lunch in the Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
It’s been four decades since the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians began the long journey to gain federal sovereignty designation that would allow them to access millions of dollars in health care, education, and economic development benefits – and the ability to host casino gambling.
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby was a Democratic lawmaker in the U.S. House when those efforts first began in the early 1980s.
But with Shelby’s retirement a few weeks away, hundreds of federally recognized Native American tribes are now worried the master appropriator has one final political trick up his sleeve. They fear that Shelby has the political clout to upend the long traditions of tribes gaining federal recognition through an expert-led process overseen by the U.S. Department of Interior.
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Shelby’s role could, they say, be a key factor allowing the MOWA tribe to become the second in Alabama – aside from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians – to gain federal recognition.
The recognition could also kickstart the prospects of Indian gaming in Mobile or Washington counties similar to what exists on federal trust land for the Poarch Creeks in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery.
Shelby, during an interview with on Nov. 15, called the MOWA’s efforts a “long shot” but one that could happen during the waning days of the current lame-duck session that will end sometime before Christmas.
“I think they ought to be a tribe,” Shelby said. “I think the proved they are. But now politics are involved. The people who have (federal recognition) don’t want to share with others. That’s human nature. They are blocking others from getting it, including their cousins.”
He added, “That’s possible (at getting approved). Don’t give up yet.”
Shelby, who has long supported the MOWA’s efforts, is sponsoring legislation to grant federal designation to the tribe that is largely based on 300 acres of land west of Mount Vernon. About 5,000 people who claim to be MOWA live in Alabama, according to tribal chief Lebaron Byrd. Total membership is between 6,000 to 7,000, he said.
But to the 141 tribes opposed to the legislation, the fear is that federal lawmakers will circumvent the traditional recognition process through the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs by sliding it into a federal spending package. Shelby is a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, considered among the most powerful committees with enormous power to authorize federal spending priorities.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who did not respond to a request for comment, are among the tribes in opposition.
“Our primary concern is the must-pass bills that Congress is considering in the lame-duck session,” said Richard French, chairman of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council and among the tribal leaders who participated in a video released by the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma (UINO) sounding alarms over what they say is a process that will establish “dangerous precedence” leading to a rash of congressional approvals of federal sovereignty applications.
Senate Health Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill on June 17, 2021, in Washington. Native American groups in Alabama and North Carolina are hoping that two outgoing U.S. senators can help them achieve something that's been elusive so far: federal recognition as tribes. Victories in Congress could mean millions in federal funding for both. Burr is sponsoring legislation for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)AP
Aside from the MOWA tribe, UNIO is worried about the inclusion of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina by retiring Republican U.S. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina.
“As they have done in the past, we expect proponents to try to insert Lumbee and MOWA bills into either the National Defense Authorization Act or the end-of-the-year spending bill that Senator Shelby will partly author,” French said. “The senators know these bills wouldn’t pass in regular order, so they hope to overcome robust opposition by attaching these measures to critical bills that fund our military and keep government operations funded.”
Federal recognition through congressional approval is viewed as a last-ditch effort and it is likely the only tool remaining for the MOWA tribe that has come up short in its applications before the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Neither group has demonstrated that their members are even of native ancestry, let alone meet the standards to qualify as a historical sovereign tribal government,” French said. “All we are saying is follow the process.”
The MOWA band of Choctaw Indians performing at a cultural event at Calcedeaver Elementary in Mount Vernon.
The MOWA – named after the first two letters of Mobile and Washington counties – was the first in Alabama to gain state recognition in 1979 and gained further acknowledgement as a tribe in 1991 from the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Roadblocks soon ensued as the MOWA’s efforts were stalled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which consists of a panel of historians, genealogists, and other experts who assess claims.
The federal agency denied the MOWA’s petition for federal recognition in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, then-solicitor of the Department of Interior John Leshy wrote in a letter that “there was no evidence” of Choctaw or other Indian ancestry for 99 percent of the MOWA membership.
A long federal legal process then ensued and was capped in 2008, when Chief U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade ruled the tribe waited too long to file a lawsuit challenging the federal government’s ruling.
In 2013, authorities seized 50 electronic bingo machines from a gambling hall at the MOWA’s North Mobile County reservation. The MOWAs attorney argued the tribe was a sovereign entity, despite the lack of federal designation, because it had the state recognition.
French said that unlike the federal process, state recognition “is extended without historical standards or documentation and is based solely on self-identification.” He said a status as a state-recognized tribe “has no validity in the federal acknowledgement process.”
There are nine state-recognized tribes in Alabama. In 1984, the Poarch became the first and only federally recognized tribe based in Alabama.
Wind Creek Atmore employees demonstrate social distancing and spot cleaning procedures ahead of the casino reopening during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
French said that gaming interests “isn’t relevant to the 141 tribes” opposing the MOWA and Lumbee efforts.
“However, setting a precedent that allows any group of people anywhere to play politics and illegitimately become a tribe should be of concern for communities across the country,” he said. “Federal recognition is about much more than gaming or acknowledging someone’s claimed heritage. It creates a government-to-government relationship in which tribes are empowered to set laws, collect taxes, incarcerate citizens, and much more.”
Byrd, the MOWA’s tribal chief, said that gaming is not their top priority with the latest pursuit.
“Our primary focus right now is to get federally recognized as it would bring economic development, health care and education and things that would benefit our tribal members and the benefits they could get,” he said. “Gaming is probably pretty far down the road. It’s not on our agenda right now. Our main concern is to get federally recognized.”
The dispute has also put the federal designation process into the spotlight, once again, and raises questions on whether the MOWAs can even gather the information needed to appease federal authorities that would enable them to become federally recognized.
According to Press-Register archives, experts in Native American anthropology argued in the past that federal bureaucrats set an unrealistic high demand for the MOWAs to produce records showing their ancestors to be “documented Indians,” or Indians whose names appear on federal documents such as treaties. The MOWA tribe, according to previous stories, lacked documentation in the early part of the 19th century mostly because its members were isolated and suspicious of outsiders and did not want to get involved with the federal government.
Mairin Odle, an associate professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Alabama, said it’s not surprising that tribes based in the Southeastern U.S. – such as the MOWA and Lumbee – have difficulties gathering the volumes of information needed for federal recognition.
“Southeastern Native American communities were affected by Jim Crow laws like everyone else in the South,” she said. “Often those policies, and law forced people into racial categories. In most states, you were listed as either ‘white’ or ‘colored’ and there was no third category.”
She added, “If you’re pulling birth certificates of ancestors or pulling documentation, none of that stuff will say, ‘Indian’ or ‘Native American’ but it might say ‘colored,’ which is ambiguous. It creates issues for tribal nations here in the Southeast that they are often histories of people hiding in plain sight.”
The U.S. government officially recognizes 574 Indian tribes in the contiguous 48 states and Alaska. The most recent recognition was granted to The Little Shell Tribe, based in Montana, in 2019.
French said the process that has long been in place is worth continuing. Congressional action would allow groups like the Lumbee to “evade any scrutiny of their claims” and for the MOWA to “override” the 1999 determination that 99 percent of their group has “zero native ancestry.”
“Replacing historical verification with political horse trading will create a path for hundreds of other groups that claim – but can’t demonstrate – affiliation with existing tribes to plunder other tribes’ cultures, identities and sacred items with lobbying campaign(s),” he said.
Philip Carr, a professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at the University of South Alabama, said the opposing tribes are concerned about “wannabe Indians” undermining their own legitimacy.
But Carr said he doubts one or two senators can secure a tribe’s federal designation.
“I know of no situation that has happened,” said Carr. “I know a senator could potentially move (a tribe’s request) to the front of the line, and give consideration sooner than later, and I’ve heard of those situations. But I’d be surprised if any senator can decree this to happen.”
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