The Mobile County Commission has officially endorsed the latest efforts of the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians to become a federally recognized Native American tribe — marking off one item from a long to-do list for tribal leaders who say federal recognition would bring more resources to members.
Named for its position between Mobile and Washington counties, the MOWA Choctaw Reservation sits on 300 acres near McIntosh, Mount Vernon and Citronelle. The tribe was recognized as a sovereign government by the state of Alabama in 1979, but despite several previous efforts, the tribe’s members have not been able to gain federal recognition and reap the benefits that come with that designation.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), recognized tribes are eligible for federal funding and services, but they are also possess certain inherent rights to self-government through treaties with the U.S. That type of “tribal sovereignty” is also what allows the federally recognized Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore to bypass Alabama’s prohibitive gambling laws and operate certain types of gaming operations on lands held in trust by the government.
Former U.S. Rep. Joe Bonner introduced a bill in 2012 that would have officially recognized the MOWA tribe, but it died in committee and never made it to the House floor. Other efforts to gain recognition through the BIA have also proved to be unsuccessful dating back as far as 1988.
However, Tribal Chief Lebaron Byrd said the MOWAs tribal council has recently been working with U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and Sen. Richard Shelby to get another congressional bill introduced.
“The biggest benefits for us would come from grants that, right now, only federally recognized tribes are able to apply for, and it would also give us a better opportunity to provide health benefits for our members,” Byrd said. “Federal tribes get dollars to operate clinics, hospitals and things like that, which tribal members can attend, and they tend to have better health facilities than we do.”
Byrd said federal grants for housing and education are also more accessible to federal tribes, though he did note the MOWA Indians are one of the only non-recognized tribes that receive federal funding through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Community Service Block Grants.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has also awarded the MOWA tribe $519,474 through its Indian Housing Block Grant program in the past. Byrd said he doesn’t believe it would be much of a stretch for the MOWAs to become fully recognized by the same government.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Byrd didn’t focus on whether the tribe would seek to establish some type of gaming or electronic bingo operation were it to become federally recognized. However, he didn’t rule the option out, either.
“If it came down to it, and we needed it, I wouldn’t say we would not apply for gaming using the sovereignty of a federally recognized tribe, but we’re looking at more of the impact federal recognition would have on our tribal members and the services they could receive,” Byrd said. “Gaming, if it were to happen, would be just an additional avenue to bring in more resources for the tribe.”
In 2013, before Byrd was elected chief, the tribe opened the short-lived Choctaw Entertainment Center in Mount Vernon, but it was quickly shut down by state officials who claimed the center was operating illegal electronic bingo machines. All 50 machines were seized along with more than $10,090.
After four years in legal limbo, a Mobile County Circuit Court Judge ruled against the tribe — sending the money to the state’s general fund and ordering that the electronic bingo machines be destroyed.
Byrd said the tribe rekindled its interest in gaining federal recognition after Congress approved a bipartisan bill recognizing six tribes in Virginia in 2017. That bill recognized the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond tribes and ended a nearly 20-year effort to obtain federal funds for their 4,400 combined members.
“They had also been denied federal recognition through the Office of Federal Acknowledgement, and we said, ‘if Virginia can do that with six tribes, we’re going to work on trying to get our tribe recognized,’” Byrd said. “Right now we’re trying to gain support like what the Mobile County Commission just did, which they haven’t done in the past. That’s one of the ways we’re going to show that we’re still here.”
The resolution of support unanimously approved by Mobile County Commissioners last month noted that the tribe’s members have preserved their cultural identity as Native Americans and continue to have a high proportion of Choctaw speakers. It also said the MOWAs have made and continue to make “substantial contributions to the culture and history of Mobile County.”
Commission President Jerry Carl, who is also running for Alabama’s District 1 congressional seat, said he listened to the MOWAs concerns wearing two hats. He gave his support from the tribe’s current efforts as a commissioner, but said he’s also looked into what hat might mean if he’s elected to Congress.
“They explained that they had, in the past, tried to get a congressional bill up there recognizing them and haven’t been able to,” Carl said. “I’ve been looking into it, should I be elected. Obviously, I’m still trying to learn what all there is to that before I step in to it too far.”
Lagniappe reached out to Rep. Bradley Byrne’s office asking about the MOWAs’ efforts but did not receive a response as of this publications press deadline.
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