Bill calls for constitutional amendment to allow gambling on Native American lands in Texas

Zainab Calcuttawala

In alliance with the Alabama-Coushatta and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo tribes, state Reps. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston) and James White (R-Woodville) authored a resolution in March that would authorize gambling on all Native American lands. 

If passed, House Joint Resolution 129 would lead to a November ballot measure proposing a state constitutional amendment allowing gambling on tribal lands. 

Ronnie Thomas, vice chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, said he is optimistic that Texans will pass the amendment. 

Out-of-state gaming organizations have shown opposition, but if the legislation passes and the issue goes on the ballot, there is a high chance that voters will approve the measure, Thomas said. 

In 2001, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe opened a casino on its reservation in Livingston. However, after nine months of earning approximately $1 million in monthly revenue, a federal court ordered that the casino be shut down. Currently, the Kickapoo tribe runs the only functioning casino in the state in Eagle Pass.

UT anthropology professor Shannon Speed said gaming rights for Texas’ Native American tribes vary according to the method the tribes used to retain federal recognition.

“The Kickapoo tribe in Texas managed to gain their recognition [in 1983] by applying for it through the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Speed said. “The Alabama-Coushatta gained recognition through a congressional act, which stated that the tribe could not engage in any activity that the state of Texas did not allow its citizens to engage in. Because operating a casino in Texas is illegal, this has become the basis of the disparity in tribes’ rights to engage in gaming activities.” 

Because Native American tribes represent sovereign nations rather than minority groups, Speed said restricting tribal gaming rights within reservations limits the tribes’ ability to self-determine with regard to their economic structure. 

“If you are pursuing your civil rights as a minority, you are pursuing your rights as a citizen of a nation, but most native tribes are actually looking for their rights as sovereign nations apart from the U.S.,” Speed said. “So if tribes are unable to participate in gaming based on an act from a foreign government, it really encroaches on the tribes’ sovereignty.”

Speed, who is a member of the Kickapoo tribe, said legal gaming has the potential to create huge financial and cultural opportunities for the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, as the casino in Eagle Pass did for the Kickapoo tribe.

“[The Kickapoo] began gaming in the late 1980s, and now the Kickapoo Foundation is actually the second-largest employer in the state of Oklahoma after Wal-Mart,” Speed said. “The tribe has been able to effectively redistribute the funds from gaming to tribal members through social services like free medical care, housing loans, fellowships for education, awards for the arts and more.”

Rep. Thompson said the Legislature should pass the resolution to let Texans decide on equal rights for Texas’ tribes.

“[Rep. White and I] ask the Legislature to let the people decide,” Thompson said. “We believe the voters will decide to let them do the same thing the Kickapoo are doing in Eagle Pass. Let the people decide.”