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PCI Tribe walks the long trail of success and challenges of self-rule and sovereignty

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—In 1813 a Creek civil war erupted in what is now Alabama. The following year Andrew Jackson and his force of Tennesseans annihilated the main Creek force at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. More Native Americans are thought to have been killed on that day than on any other day in American history.

Jackson was directed by the federal government to negotiate a peace treaty with the Creeks. In the peace negotiations Jackson demanded many things from the Creek including they hand over 22 million acres of their land–roughly half of their tribal home.

The battle for self-rule or sovereignty still continues to be waged, long after the death of Jackson, the man the Indians called Sharp Knife.

This has even been evident in a recent action where the Escambia County Commission under the guidance of attorney State Senator Bryan Taylor (R-Prattville) tried to coerce the Poarch Creek Indians (PCI) into paying taxes on their gaming operation.

At the time Taylor wrote saying, “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.” The resolution he had in mind was for PCI to give the commission money so they would not take the Tribe to court.

Carcieri v. Salazar, No. 07-526 (2009), was a case involving the Narragansett Tribe of Rhode Island, in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that the term “now under Federal jurisdiction” referred only to tribes that were federally recognized when the Indian Reorganization Act became law, and the federal government could not take land into trust from tribes that were recognized after 1934.

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Attorneys for the PCI concluded that the Carcieri decision did not impact the legal status of the lands that the United States has held in trust for the Tribe for over 25 years. They say the decision in Carcieri did not divest the United States of the 1,800 acres of land that the United States already held in trust for the Narragansett Tribe. Likewise, the decision did not divest the United States of the lands held in trust for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

Even after a letter from the Interior Department of the U.S. contradicted the Escambia County Commission accretions and after Taylor was relieved as legal council for the commission the Senator has continued to hold press conferences and speak out questioning the Tribe’s sovereignty.

In the long and troubled history of relations between Native American Tribes and the Federal government Ronald Reagan was the first contemporary president to explicitly refer to tribal sovereignty. In his Indian Policy Statement, January 24, 1983, Reagan said, “Throughout our history, despite periods of conflict and shifting national policies in Indian affairs, the government-to-government relationship between the United States and Indian tribes has endured. …”Our policy is to reaffirm dealing with Indian tribes on a government-to-government basis and to pursue the policy of self-government for Indian tribes without threatening termination. …“This administration pledges to assist tribes in strengthening their governments by removing Federal impediments to tribal self-government and tribal resource development. This administration affirms the right of tribes to determine the best way to meet the needs of their members and to establish and run programs which best meet those needs. …“A lingering threat of termination has no place in this administration’s policy of self-government for Indian tribes, and I ask Congress to again express its support of self-government.”

Reagan more than ever is deemed as the standard-bearer for the conservative movement but many conservatives—even Supreme Court Justices—have ignored his advice and continue to attack Indian sovereignty.

The last thirty years have witnessed a stunning transformation of the American Indian nations in the United States. According to the 2004 study “Myths And Realities of Tribal Sovereignty: The Law And Economics of Indian Self-Rule,” by Joseph P. Kalt and Joseph William Singer, “The foundation of this resurgence has been the exercise of self-government—sovereignty.” In the study Kalt and Singer say, “…Sovereignty is not a set of ‘special’ rights. Rather, its roots lie in the fact that Indian nations pre-exist the United States and their sovereignty has been diminished, but not terminated. Tribal sovereignty is recognized and protected by the U.S. Constitution, legal precedent, and treaties, as well as applicable principles of human rights.”

The work suggests that tribal self-rule is the policy that has led to “replenishing the social and cultural fabric that can support vibrant and healthy communities and families.” They cite the fact that this policy has allowed the tribes to break the “debilitating economic dependence on federal spending programs.”

While Indian gaming is a part of tribal success and the one that gets the most attention, the study shows “self-rule is creating more and more economic success stories in Indian Gaming success itself is spurring self-sufficiency.”

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This is evident in the growth of Alabama’s PCI community in education, health and self-sufficiency.

On Wednesday, the Poarch Creek Indian Gaming Authority (PCIGA) held a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Wind Creek Wetumpka Hotel. This will be an expansion of the existing Wetumpka facility. The construction is estimated to cost $246 million and is expected to generate big revenues for Elmore County.

The project is anticipated to create 1200 jobs during construction alone. The casino currently employs 400 full-time employees with benefits. This expansion will employ another 600 with benefits for a total of 1,000 jobs in Elmore County. The current payroll is $67 million but upon completion will reach at least $87.5 million.

While the resort and casino will generate roughly the same amount of jobs maybe more than the Airbus plant in Mobile. Yet, there was no political fanfare at the groundbreaking of Wind Creek Wetumpka event.

After landing the Airbus facility-—in which the state and local government pledged $160 million dollars in tax and cash incentives-—Governor Bentley and eighty other Alabamians including many government officials made a victory lap through Europe. Yet, for the PCI only a handful of Elmore county and local officials joined them in celebration.

One economic development opportunity self-financed, self-sufficient and homegrown–the other government-subsided, dependent on another nation and foreign. Both are good for Alabama but the contrast in the state’s response is telling.

These types of slights do not seem to bother the PCI as they continually say, “We just want to be good neighbors.”

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In Kalt and Singer’s study they say, “Despite–or, perhaps, because of–the economic, social and political success of Native self-rule, tribal sovereignty is now under increasingly vigorous and effective attack.” It would seem that for some in Alabama the spirit of Sharp Knife is still alive and well.

Written By

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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