Four decades have passed since the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians began the journey to gain federal sovereignty designation. The move would allow them to access millions of dollars in health care, education, and economic development benefits, as well as the ability to host casino gambling.
U.S. Senator Richard Shelby was a Democratic lawmaker in the US House when those efforts began in the 80. However, with his retirement a few weeks away, the tribe worries their rights will be taken from them. 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, reports AL.com.
Shelby’s role could be a key factor in allowing the MOWA tribe to become the second in Alabama, aside from the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, to gain federal recognition. It 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.
As reported by AL.com, Shelby 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. I think they 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,” Shelby said.
Shelby is sponsoring legislation to grant a federal designation to the tribe. 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.
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.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians is among the tribes in opposition. 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 (UNIO), said that the tribe’s primary concern is “the must-pass bills that Congress is considering."
French sounded the alarms over what they say is a process that will establish “dangerous precedence” leading to a rash of congressional approvals of federal sovereignty applications.
Aside from the MOWA tribe, UNIO also worries about the inclusion of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina by retiring Republican US Senator Richard Burr. “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," the Union noted.
Session at Alabama's Senate
“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,” French added.
Federal recognition through congressional approval is viewed as a last-ditch effort and it is likely the only tool remaining from 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 was the first in Alabama to gain state recognition in 1979. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs denied the MOWA’s petition for federal recognition in 1997 and 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’s 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 acknowledgment process.”
“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,” he added.
Lebaron 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."