After nearly a decade of lobbying in Washington, D.C., the Poarch Band of Creek Indians (PCI) has cleared the first legislative hurdle in an attempt to clarify the status of its federally held trust lands.
As Lagniappe has previously reported, the Alabama tribe has spent millions supporting similar legislative efforts since 2009, when a decision by the United States Supreme Court thrust Indian tribes across the country, including PCI, in a legal gray area.
This year, however, PCI found success with U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne’s HR 1532, which passed the House with a unanimous voice vote on Jan. 16.
“HR 1532, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians Land Reaffirmation Act, is a common-sense, bipartisan bill that would provide much-needed certainty to an Indian tribe in my district,” Byrne said on the House floor. “This legislation is necessary due to the legal uncertainty caused by the Supreme Court decision in Carcieri v. Salazar. This decision has unnecessarily created legal ambiguity about whether the Poarch Creek land is actually in trust or not.”
The court case Byrne referenced stemmed from a legal challenge to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s authority to take land into trust for recognized Indian tribes, which was long thought to have been established in the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
Since the act passed, more than 8 million acres of land have been taken into the trust by the federal government for a number of Native American tribes, including roughly 460 acres owned by PCI, which became a federally recognized Indian tribe in 1984. However, Carcieri held that the secretary of the interior was only authorized to take lands into trust for tribes that were under federal jurisdiction by 1934.
The ambiguity has been a concern for PCI because, if its lands aren’t properly held in trust, they wouldn’t be subject to the exemptions from state law that have allowed its gambling operations in Atmore, Wetumpka and Montgomery to flourish.
Though PCI has historically focused on state politics, there’s been a substantial increase in its donations to candidates in federal elections in recent years. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, PCI spent just $20,000 lobbying at the federal level in 2007, but in 2008 — the year SCOTUS agreed to hear the Carcieri case — that jumped to $305,000.
In the years since, PCI has continued to lobby bills that would “reaffirm the authority of the Secretary of the Interior to take land into trust for Indian tribes,” and Byrne, whose district includes Escambia County, has consistently supported or sponsored bills that would accomplish that.
Byrne has also reported some $13,000 in direct contributions from PCI since 2015.
In his remarks on the passage of HR 1532, Byrne clarified the bill would not change anything about the way PCI or the land the tribe owns are currently treated in Alabama. Instead, he said, the goal of the bill was to provide “legal certainty” and “help prevent future challenges regarding the status of the tribe’s land.”
Byrne was referring to a number of lawsuits that have been filed against PCI, mostly unsuccessfully, since the status of its trust lands was called into question by the Carcieri ruling in 2009. Two of those involved the State of Alabama, which saw its assertion that PCI’s lands are not properly held in trust thrown out by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on two occasions.
More recently, the Alabama Supreme Court considered the issue in a lawsuit filed by a man who claimed he was denied a $1.4 million jackpot while playing electronic bingo at a PCI facility in Montgomery.
When the man filed suit, PCI claimed it had sovereign immunity from state law because of its status as a federally recognized indian tribe, but based on the issues raised in the Carcieri ruling, the plaintiff argued the tribe did not.
Two lower court ruled in favor of PCI, and while a majority of the Supreme Court upheld held those decisions, they did so because if they were to rule in the plaintiff’s favor based on the assertion that the casio land was not properly held in trust, they would be unable to help him recover the winnings because they would effectively be deeming them illegal gambling proceeds.
While Byrne’s bill has cleared the House, it still needs a companion bill in the Senate and to be signed into law by President Donald Trump. Representatives from PCI met with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama) about the matter last week, but Jones has yet to announce a formal position.
Lagniappe has reached out to PCI on numerous occasions seeking comment on the recent challenges to the status of its federal tribal lands and its lobbying efforts in Washington but has yet to receive a response.