By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
A portion of this story is based on conversation we had with employees at the Wind Creek Casino and Hotel in Atmore, Alabama. We stayed at the hotel and casino complex for two days without reveiling that we were reporters or doing a story on the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI). On the last two days we disclosed who we were and why we were there to a few people. The people we interviewed before reveiling that we were reporters are quoted in this story but their names are changed or omitted because they did not know that they were speaking to reporters. As guests we asked employees four questions in the course of casual conversation, they were, how do you like your job, are you a part of the PCI tribe, what would you do if you did not have a job at the hotel and what do you think of Bryan Taylor and the Escambia County Commission questioning PCI’s rights as a sovereign nation?
ATMORE–Wind Creek Casino and Hotel is a monolith that raises out of nowhere, a architectural anomaly on a barren horizon.
But once inside Wind Creek you could be in any luxury hotel in Europe.
The only giveaway is the Southern accents.
But hidden beneath the beautiful ambiance of the hotel and the smiling employes is worry and fear.
On Friday, April 13, The Escambia County Commission accompanied by their newly hired attorney Bryan Taylor announced their intention to question the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ (PCI) sovereignty.
According to Taylor and four members of the commission, the PCI should pay taxes to the county because they allege that they are not legally a sovereign nation inside the United States. A fifth county commissioner, Brandon Smith does not agree with his fellow commissioners.
If this assertion made by the commission were true the tribe would lose its rights to self-governance and self-determination. The PCI would also forfeit their right to operate gaming within the state of Alabama.
Many see greed and racial prejudice as the driving force behind the actions of Taylor and the county commission. Some add to the mix politics and ambition because Taylor a sitting State Senator is seen as a rising star of the Republican party.
Former Tribal Council Member Larry Flurnoy said, “This is pure racism and greed. The commission and their hired man want money they don’t have any right to but underneath it all is race.”
A young man who is an employee at the hotel said, “Israel sits in the middle of a hostile Arab world. Muslims continue to try to drive the Jews off their ancestral land. Most Americans are outraged by the terrorist attack on Jews. Where is the outrage over our situation?”
PCI officials say they are confident with the tribes standing before the Federal Government and they believe that Taylor and the commission’s claims are not legally sound and that there is nothing to be concerned about.
Robert Thrower, cultural director, sees this as an attack on the tribes sovereignty. “This is about sovereignty,” said Thrower, “We are a nation within a nation and our sovereignty is clear and legal.”
According to Taylor the only thing the PCI needs to do make the commission back off their threat of a lawsuit is to pay taxes on the tribes casino operations.
“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,” said Taylor. “From the County Commission’s perspective, there would be no dispute, nothing for a court to resolve.”
“This is extortion,” says Flurnoy. “It is blackmail.”
In fact since 2008 the PCI has donated over $400,000 directly to the County Commission, another $360,000 to the Escambia County Drug Task force, and $1.3 million that was contributed last year to education for all students.
Taylor says his clients see this as a tax issue.
“As PCI knows, there is absolutely no legal reason why they couldn’t increase their payments to reflect the actual amount of taxes that would be owed, without putting the casino or its employees’ jobs at any additional risk,” said Taylor. “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.”
Flurnoy’s 13 year old son, Colby, sees extortion everyday at his school. A school system that his father points out has received over a million dollars from the PCI government.
“Kids come up to me all the time and say, you’re rich, give me a dollar,” said Colby. “I don’t even carry a dollar to school anymore because someone always wants it from me.”
The bullying has become so constant they Colby has come to hate going to a school he once loved.
Colby’s 19 year old sister Megan Flurnoy says that people are envious of the Indian’s new found prosperity. “Their are people who are jealous of our birthday checks.” Megan is talking about the money that PCI kids receive after they turn 18, graduate high school and complete a financial management class.
Colby who was born with a cleft lip and palate says he wants to study hard and become a doctor so he can treat the people in his hometown who like him needed a physician to make them whole.
Colby’s father says everyone in the tribe is given $40,000 for education. “That money is given to everyone from the youngest to the oldest.” He says that the Tribal Council has placed a great emphasis on education.
He says children who want to go on to higher education like medical school are given additional college funds if they will agree to work within the community for a period of years.
“There was a time when Indians were denied the right to go to public school and those that did attend school could only attend up to the six grade.”
“The white man did not want us educated,” said Flurnoy. “Most blacks were allowed to go to school but not the Indian.”
A hotel employee of African American decent said he has worked in fine dinning for years and thinks that the facilities at Wind Creek are first class. He also said, “I have been treated well by everyone here at the hotel, these are fine people who know how to run a first class operation. They have been very good to me, treating me like family.”
Another employee at the hotel who is a female and not a tribe member said, “This is a small country town, the PCI has been good to this community. I don’t know what I would do without the job they have given me. I have children to feed and there is not even a Wal Mart here where I could get a job. After all the tribe has done for the people here I can’t believe they are now trying to take it all away. I don’t know what me and my kids would do without the tribe.”
A group of male employees were asked what their jobs options would be if the hotel/casino was not here. There reply was that the only other option was that there are two prisons in Atmore and that would be their only option unless they left the area.
Megan says, “At the hotel, people are upset with what the commission is doing, not just Native Americans but whites too.”
But Commission Chairman Stokes says he had no intentions of backing down until the Indians pay taxes on the casino.
“It is never enough for some people, especially those who see us as ‘Those Indians,’” said Flurnoy, “When I was growing up we didn’t have much but we worked together to help everyone get by. We stood together and that is why we are where we are today. Now that we have a little bit, they want that too.”