by Kelli Barnes
Polk County and Tyler County Chambers of Commerce "met in the middle" at a business builders breakfast Thursday, to learn more about the new Naskila gaming center and restaurant located at Alabama Coushatta Tribe of Texas.
Over a full breakfast buffet, chamber members heard from various tribal leaders including marketing coordinator Yolanda Poncho, tribal council chairperson JoAnn Battise, tribal council vice chairman Ronnie Thomas, tribal councilman Clint Poncho, and tribal council secretary Johnny Stafford.
"We just want the opportunity to be self sufficient," said Yolanda. "We can take care of ourselves." And they can. In just the short time Naskila gaming has been open, Alabama Coushatta has employed 210 people, with 190 of these being full time positions. The annual payroll and benefit package exceeds $7.5 million. Forty-three percent of employees are tribal members and the other fifty-seven percent come from surrounding counties in East Texas. The Tribe has spent $9.9 million to develop the venue and operate for the first three months. Of this amount, $7.3 million was spent in Texas and $5.5 million was spent in Polk County.
Quoting the great-great grandson of Sam Houston, Mr. John Murray, Yolanda read, "I know exactly what my great-great granddad would say to the State of Texas...
'leave my people alone! They aren't hurting anyone.'
My family has been passing down the story of the Alabama-Coushatta's relationship with my great-great grandfather for generations. I have a deep respect for the Alabama-Coushatta's...and I love Naskila Gaming."
The "leave my people alone" comment stems from recent legal action filed by the state of Texas asking the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Texas to find that under the Tribe's Restoration Act of 1987, the Alabama-Coushatta cannot offer gaming under the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). If the Court ultimately agrees with the State's position, the State further asks the Court to issue an injunction prohibiting the Tribe from gaming under IGRA.
The National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) regulates Naskila Gaming, which is a Class II Indian Gaming facility offering electronic bingo.
"We are not being fined $10,000 per day by the state of Texas," said Roland Poncho. Recent reports suggested this, but according to Chuck McDonald, spokesman for the Tribe, the State submitted an amended motion on August 17 stating that if the Tribe is found in contempt of the June 25, 2002 injunction, they should pay any investigation costs associated with this case, as well as any Court costs and attorneys' fees incurred after June 15, 2016. "We will continue to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week until the Court makes its final decision," said Poncho.
Chamber members on both sides of the Reservation were asked to go to www.supportnaskila.com and join the many who have signed on in support of the Tribe's bingo gaming. "Residents of Deep East Texas who enjoy gaming and want to do it in a friendly alcohol-free environment are now able to do so on our reservation," said Battise. "As most of our neighbors know, our Tribe has occupied our tribal lands in the Big Thicket region for more than 200 years. However, what many in the region may not realize, is that our Tribe is a fully functioning sovereign government with a full array of health and human services to support. Gaming offers a stable source of income to sustain and improve these vital Tribal services, while creating jobs for both tribal and non-tribal citizens."