Texas battles against tribes questioned
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Two of Indian Country's strongest advocates expressed solidarity with Texas tribes on Tuesday but said there might be little they could do about legal battles that have shut down one casino and may close another.

The leaders of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held a hearing to address a 1987 law which restored federal recognition to two tribes that were among the poorest and most neglected in the nation. The Tigua Tribe and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe had been terminated and put under the control of the state.

"In the late nineteenth century, the indifference of the United States toward the Alabama Coushatta Indians was so complete that not only didn't we count as representatives of a sovereign nation, we were not even counted," said chairman Kevin Battise.

Battise said the situation has improved with the advent of gaming. Many employees at its casino are tribal members and reservation unemployment has dropped considerably to a still high 20 percent, he testified.

But he said the gains are threatened by Texas, which considers tribal gaming illegal and has moved to close the operation. If that happens, the Alabama-Coushatta could the way of the Tigua Tribe, whose casino was shut down earlier this year.

Those actions were discussed at the hearing although no Texas representatives testified. Witnesses spoke of the state's seemingly contradictory stance, considering that other types of gambling -- including bingo, casino cruises, horse racing and video game machines -- are considered legal.

"I guess I'm just trying to figure out what Texas is complaining about," responded Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the panel's vice chairman.

To fix the apparent disconnect, Battise asked the committee to modify the 1987 law to make it clear that reservation gaming is allowed. The federal courts have so far interpreted the statute in the state's favor.

Witnesses argued that the law is ambiguous and should be resolved to benefit the tribes. Alex Skibine, a University of Utah law professor who helped draft the original bill, said it was up to Congress to patch up an old mistake.

"When everything else fails just blame it on the staff," he testified.

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), committee chairman, offered support for the effort. But he said the Texas delegation and state officials would "be against" any modifications.

"We'll do our best," he said. "There are many ways to do things around here. We'll do it legitimately."

The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe is currently in federal court in Texas. The Supreme Court is waiting for Texas to respond to the Tigua Tribe's petition for review.

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (6/18)

Relevant Links:
Speaking Rock Casino, Tigua Tribe -
Office of Attorney General, Texas -

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