By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
MONTGOMERY–The Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) of Atmore, Alabama, are being threatened by the Escambia County Commission in a move that could take away their land rights and livelihood.
On Friday, April 13, the Escambia County Commission announced that they would seek to find if the PCI have a legal right to use their historical land as promised by the Federal government when the tribal land was taken into trust in 1985.
The commission at the urging of their attorney Bryan Taylor of Prattville, Alabama, cited a 2009 Supreme Court ruling Carcieri v. Salazar which they say renders the PCI’s Land Trust null and void. If the commission is successful in their pursuit this could strip the tribe of their land and sovereignty and return it to the state of Alabama.
If the taking of ancestral land away from Indians sounds familiar it should.
In a recent conversation with former National Tribal Chieftain Bruce Taylor he said, “This is the history of our people. Every time the Federal government gives us something, the minute the Indian begins to build a good life and prosper on that land then the government comes back and takes it away. This is an old story for my people.”
According to the story from the county commission the dispute between the PCI and the county commission began over the tribes wanting to purchase land and bring it into the trust to build a truck stop. The commission has said that the PCI did not inform them of their wanting to take more land into trust and that is when they decided to take legal action. According to Escambia County Commissioner Brandon Smith the truck stop was opposed by some on the commission because the people who own the competing truck stop complained about the PCI’s unfair advantage.
But that beginning seems long ago in a different Escambia County.
On April 17, 2012, the Escambia County commission sent a letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar asking for a clarification of the PCI land trust rights under Carcieri v. Salazar. Robert McGhee who is a member of the Tribal Council and represents the PCI in “government-to-government,” issues points out the letter is more of a restatement of the Supreme Court ruling and seems to say the commission already believes the PCI does not have the right to have their land in trust.
One commissioner does not agree with sending the letter or pursuing any action against the PCI.
“The county commission is shooting itself in the foot,” said Escambia County Commissioner Brandon Smith who does not agree with his fellow commissioner on pursuing the Tribe.
“I remember when you could drive by the Poarch and there was nothing there but some huts and broken down buildings, today it is a beautiful place with a thriving people,” said Smith. “The Poarch Band of the Creek Indians did this by themselves. They now give generously to everyone in our community, the city is thriving, the county is thriving all because of what the PCI has done in this community. A community that never lifted a finger to help them when they had nothing. Now, the commission wants more, more money.”
At the Friday 13 press conference the chairman of the Escambia Commission David Stokes said, “On February 24, 2009, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Carcieri v. Salazar, tossing out everything we thought we knew about the legal status of Poarch Creek Indian lands.”
Stokes went on to say, “The Poarch Band of Creek Indians received federal recognition in 1984–50 years too late to have lands lawfully set aside . . . under . . . the Indian Reorganization Act.”
According to Federal law if a tribe’s land is not held in trust then the land is not under the sovereign authority of the tribe but subject to the state. This mean that if PCI land is ruled to be not held in trust under Carcieri then the tribe has no right to conduct gaming in the state of Alabama and must immediately shut down all it casino activity and other gaming establishments within the state.
What started as a dispute among neighbors over a truck stop has escalated into a fight that could destroy all the PCI has built as well as cripple the economy of Escambia County.
In numerous statement the county commission has held that all they want the PCI to do is pay their fair share of taxes.
Bryan Taylor the attorney for the commission wrote in response to questions we emailed said, “After Carcieri, there is also no legally justifiable basis for the County to look the other way while the PCI escape paying the same taxes every other taxpayer in Escambia County has to pay. It’s a tax fairness issue for other taxpayers, and as County Commission Chairman David Stokes said, “This issue can be resolved.”
Robert McGee, thinks the commission’s agenda may have change with the entrance of Mr. Taylor. “Certain members of the County Commission feel that Bryan Taylor has a different ulterior motive then what the County Commission had,” said McGhee.
Taylor is a sitting Alabama State Senator and began his career in government under then Governor Bob Riley. Taylor join the governor’s staff as a senior policy adviser, as a young man and was very engaged in Riley’s attempt to end gambling in Alabama.
As a lawmaker, Taylor has cultivated a persona within the Senate and among the media as a ernest and moral advocate of ethics and judicial reform.
This however does not stop people from questioning Taylor motivates.
PCI Tribal Councilman Arthur Mothershed is one such critic. “I find myself questioning their alignment with Bryan Taylor,” Mothershed said. “That’s a very unusual partner. He’s a state senator and former policy advisor for Bob Riley, and I don’t think it is any secret about how the former governor felt about gambling — and all of the sudden Bryan Taylor shows up in our backyard.”
“Governor Riley has played absolutely no role in this matter whatsoever,” said Taylor. “ I advise the Escambia County Commission based on the law, as I do with every client, plain and simple. That’s my job.”
But the connection to Riley is the very reason the county commission hired Taylor.
According to Smith the commission contacted Taylor after his name had been mentioned as a good attorney for the commission. “The commission decided to use Mr. Taylor because he had worked for Governor Bob Riley in breaking up gaming in Alabama.”
After several calls the other members of the commission have failed to respond for this report.
Smith says he doesn’t know who suggested Taylor but no one has come forward to identify the person who gave Taylor the nod.
Persistent rumors plagued Riley as governor, accusing him of not only taking money from the Mississippi gaming interest represented by the Choctaw Indians but for also doing their bidding in his administration’s effort to bring down the PCI. The accusation was that Riley worked for the Choctaw to send all of Alabama gaming business to Mississippi. While Riley has denied such allegations they still persist.
Taylor says that he believes, “…As far as the Escambia County Commission is concerned, a judicial or administrative ruling regarding the trust status of PCI lands would be totally unnecessary if PCI were paying its fair share of taxes. From the County Commission’s perspective, there would be no dispute, nothing for a court to resolve.”
However, Taylor’s remarks concerning the county commission calls into question the legality of such a compromise. The question then becomes if the PCI is operating illegally according to the Supreme Court ruling then does the county commission or any other government entity have the authority to not uphold the law.
In a recent statement Escambia County Commissioner Stokes said, “We see the Poarch Creek’ predicament and recognize their disappointment but a Supreme Court ruling is a Supreme Court ruling.”
However, It would appear the Escambia County Commission according to Taylor’s statement is not concerned about the law but about enriching the county with PCI tax dollars.
“This whole thing goes a lot deeper. The city of Atmore has [privately owned, on city land] hotels, that stay full and businesses that are making good money and the city and county are doing well because of the tribe,” said Smith, “If the PCI land goes down in this fight, we go down along with them.”
In part two we explore the case made by the commission and whether Carcieri v. Salazar has any relevance to the PCI.