It’s been forty years since the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians started the long process to gain federal sovereignty designation. That change would allow them to access millions of dollars in health care, education, and economic development benefits. The move would also bring them the ability to expand Alabama gambling.
Richard Shelby is an American lawyer and politician serving as the senior United States senator from Alabama whose efforts began in the early 1980s.
Shelby’s retirement, which is only a few weeks away, makes the tribe worried their rights could be taken from them.
Shelby’s role in the MOWA’s expansion of Alabama gambling
Shelby is a ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. That body is considered among the most potent committees with great power to authorize federal spending priorities.
As AL.com reports, hundreds of federally recognized Native American tribes fear the master appropriator has one final political trick “up his sleeve.” They fear Shelby has the political clout to upend the long-running tradition of tribes earning federal recognition through an expert-led process overseen by the US Dept. of the Interior.
Shelby’s role could be the main factor allowing the MOWA tribe to become the second in Alabama to gain federal recognition. The other is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
The recognition could also initiate the prospects of Indian gaming in Mobile or Washington counties like those existing on federal trust land for the Poarch Creeks in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery.
In an interview with AL.com, Shalby 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.”
141 tribes oppose the legislation
Shelby is backing legislation to grant federal recognition to the tribe primarily based on 300 acres of land west of Mount Vernon. Nearly 5,000 people who claim to be MOWA live in Alabama according to tribal chief Lebaron Byrd. Byrd says the total membership is estimated to be between 6,000 to 7,000.
141 other tribes, including the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, oppose the legislation. They fear federal lawmakers will bypass the traditional recognition process through the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) by sliding it into a federal spending package.
Federal recognition is about much more than gaming
Richard French, chairman of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Council, was among the tribal leaders who participated in a video released by the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma (UNIO). He said that the tribe’s primary concern is “the must-pass bills that Congress is considering.”
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.
French also said:
“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.”
Federal recognition through congressional approval is likely the last effort and the only tool remaining from the MOWA tribe that has come up short in its applications before the BIA.
“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. All we are saying is follow the process.
Federal recognition is 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.”
Lebaron Byrd, on the other hand, pointed out 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. Gaming is probably pretty far down the road.”