EL PASO, Texas ? The Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo received bad news on Jan. 17 from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. It came in the form of a three word ruling; "Affirmed. Stay Vacated."
The ruling may temporarily end the Cinderella story of the poor tribe that made good. Those three words have brought the economic future of the Tigua Tribe to a grinding halt as tribal officials begin the bleak task of laying off nearly 800 workers at their Speaking Rock Casino.
The ruling failed to address the crucial issue of the extent to which Tigua tribal sovereignty had been compromised by its acceptance of the 1987 Restoration Act, which restored its trust relationship with the federal government.
Tribal officials had hoped that the court would decide in their favor and allow the casino to remain open, but now they are faced with not only the closure of their casino, but renewed pressure from Texas Attorney General John Cornyn. The archenemy of the casino, and Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, is asking the court to expedite the closure. If Cornyn is successful, Speaking Rock Casino will close before Feb. 7.
Marc Schwartz, spokesman for the tribe, said he believes the rush to close the casino is simply political maneuvering by Cornyn to distance himself from the issue. "We think the reason he filed for this mandate is so he can have a quicker issuance of the mandate," Schwartz said. "He needs to get some distance between him and this decision before our March 1pre-election. It has become political baggage for him."
Jane Shepperd, spokeswoman for Cornyn, told ICT that his office had no comment about the Tigua case.
Employees of the Speaking Rock Casino are now facing an uncertain future. The Tigua Tribal Council and the management of the casino told employees Jan. 21 the casino would in fact shut down if pending court appeals are defeated.
The 800 employees will receive severance pay and full benefits for 60 days after they are laid off. Tribal officials also told employees that they would continue to fight in court to keep their gaming operation open.
Even though they were told they would lose their jobs, casino employees gave the Tigua Tribal Council a standing ovation in recognition of the fight to keep the casino open.
"We have without a doubt the best group of employees that any business or enterprise could ever be blessed to have," Schwartz said. "For all of this time and all the issues that have come up, we have had no wavering from our employees. We have seen employee levels stay even after we announced the court's decision back in December. They protested with us in the largest single protest, when John Cornyn came to El Paso, that El Paso has ever had.
"These people attended rallies, sent letters ? the tribe has kept them informed and let them know that this fight would continue, but that they also recognized that an order could come through that the tribe would have to comply to, so they gave employees full pay and benefits for 60 days.
"I will tell you something and you aren't going to believe this, but it is the God's honest truth, imagine after saying what I just said, the employees standing up and giving the tribal council a standing ovation. It was the most electric moment I have seen in twenty five years. Have you ever heard of employees who have just found out they lost their jobs applauding their employers?"
Criticism of the ruling has been quick and full of condemnation for both the court and the state of Texas for closing down the Tigua Tribe's main source of revenue. Alabama-Coushatta Chairman Kevin Battise quoted the words of a local letter to the editor: "Leave the Indian alone."
Battise thanked tribal leaders all over American for voicing their strong concern. "The Indian Wars are over in California, the Indian Wars are over in New Mexico, the Indian Wars are over in Minnesota, the Indian Wars are over in Michigan and the Indian Wars are over in Dakotas ? but unfortunately for us and our local community they are not over in Texas," Battise said.
He added that the ruling set no legal precedent for the state attempt to close the newly opened casino belonging to the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe.
"The legal process will go forward and we will seek to bring to the attention of the court and to the people of Texas the untold and unfair story of the Texas Restoration Act," Battise said. "We choose to go down this road because it is right, we know that such a road will have many valleys but then the road for Native Americans in Texas has never been an easy road to travel."
In a press release issued by the National Indian Gaming Association on Jan. 18, NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. blasted the state of Texas and Cornyn for "unfairly attacking" the tribe.
"The Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo is being unfairly attacked and stonewalled by the State of Texas," Stevens said. "The Attorney General is playing politics with the lives and jobs of thousands of the citizens he represents, and in his legal position ignores two centuries of decisions that recognize Indian Tribes as sovereign governments.
"The district court in this case simply got it wrong when it found that the laws of Texas apply to the Tribe just as they do to any association. The Fifth Circuit's disregard for this case in its one sentence opinion only compounds the insult that the lower court bestowed upon the Tigua Tribe by deeming this Sovereign Nation an association. We hope this situation will be corrected on appeal.
"NIGA is proud to stand with the Tribe in support of its goal to attain economic self-sufficiency, and provide jobs and basic governmental services to its people."
Citizens, politicians and veterans groups have also stood up on the side of the Tigua Tribe.
If the courts can't answer the question of whether or not Indian gaming is legal in Texas, Schwartz said he believes the state Senate will. Texas tribes have the support of both Democrats and Republicans, he said. "In 2003 when the next state Senate is convened, we will be there," Schwartz stated. "It is a sovereignty issue. We cannot allow it to die."
Schwartz said that tribal members were disappointed that the court only issued an order, rather than addressing the issues before them, and that the tribe will now seek to have the full appellate court review the case.
"They failed to write an opinion," Schwartz said. "They simply issued an order and failed to tackle any of the issues before them."