Prussian politician Otto von Bismarck once said laws are like sausages because it is best not to see them being made, and Indian gaming lobbyists are worried the wisdom of Bismarck’s observation will be confirmed yet again in Congress before the end of the year.
As the ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama wields enormous influence in the selection of measures to be included in an omnibus spending bill in December to keep the government running.
Shelby, 88, is retiring this year and as he leaves, he wants to pass a bill he introduced in January which would extend federal recognition to the Mobile-Washington County Band of Choctaw Indians (MOWAs) in Alabama.
Shelby’s bill does not have any co-sponsors.
The state of Alabama formally recognized the MOWAs as a tribe in 1979.
But without federal recognition, a tribe is prohibited from opening gambling operations on its lands, according to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.
The problem for Shelby is the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) at the U.S. Department of the Interior has rejected the MOWAs’ application for federal recognition not just once, but twice.
Assistant secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover signed a “final determination” on December 16, 1997, after concluding the MOWAs did not descend from the historical Choctaw tribe or any of the other five tribes it claimed.
A second BIA rejection followed in 1999.
That did not stop the MOWAs from opening the Choctaw Entertainment Center in 2013 with 50 electronic gaming machines on its 160-acre reservation in southwest Alabama.
Before the end of the year, law enforcement authorities had seized all 50 machines and shut down the MOWAs’ gambling operation.
Neither Shelby’s office nor the MOWAs replied to requests for comment on the senator’s bill to grant the tribe federal recognition.
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which has three casinos on its reservation, is the only federally-recognized tribe in Alabama.
Although there is a history of friction between the two Alabama tribes because of federal recognition, the Poarch Band did not comment on Shelby’s bill.
“If a tribe can get a powerful senator to circumvent the process for federal recognition, then what’s the point of having a set of procedures for recognition over at Interior? There is no point,” said a tribal gaming lobbyist who requested anonymity.
Shelby has been sponsoring bills calling for federal recognition for the MOWAs for more than 30 years, and is unlikely to abandon those efforts during the lame-duck session of Congress in December.
The concern is that he may even hold other Native American bills hostage until his MOWA recognition measure is included in the omnibus spending package at the end of the year.
On July 18, 1991, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted 11-2 to approve a previous version of Shelby’s bill for federal recognition of the MOWAs.
“I believe we’ll be able to pass the bill, but we need to get more documentation regarding establishment of their tribal identity,” Shelby said after the 1991 vote, according to the New York Times.
Eddie Tullis, who was then chairman of the Poarch Band, disagreed.
“Congress should not be allowed to recognize tribes that have not been scrutinized by experts,” Tullis said.