More than 100 community supporters of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas gathered Monday, May 16, to celebrate the sixth anniversary of the opening of Naskila Gaming and its profound economic benefit to the region.
Elected officials, community supporters, Tribal citizens and others marked the anniversary of Naskila Gaming, an electronic bingo facility that has welcomed more than 5 million guests since it opened in May 2016.
“Thanks to the success of this facility, we are able to take better care of our people: our elders, our sick, our families and our children,” said Ricky Sylestine, the Chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Tribal Council. “But the impact on the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas is only part of what we are celebrating today. In fact, what we are celebrating is a major economic engine for East Texas.”
Throughout Monday’s celebration, Tribal leadership recognized and thanked elected officials who have fought on behalf of Tribal citizens and Naskila Gaming employees.
“We are extremely proud of what Naskila and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas have built here and we are very encouraged by the legacy they will leave for many generations,” said State Rep. James White, who has long represented the Tribe in the Texas Legislature.
Added Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy, another longtime champion of the Tribe, “It has been a wonderful experience to partner with the Tribe.”
Naskila Gaming is responsible for 700 jobs and it is the second-largest employer in Polk County. The Texas Forest Country Partnership has estimated the facility’s annual economic impact at $170 million.
“This Tribe is a friend to Texas and the community,” said Eddie Hopkins, the Executive Director of the Jasper Economic Development Corporation.
Rachel Iglesias, a member of U.S. Rep. Brian Babin’s staff, read a certificate from Rep. Babin expressing support for the Tribe and Naskila. Rep. Babin has represented the Tribe in Washington and has been a champion for the community for many years, although the reservation will no longer be part of his congressional district under redistricting plans signed into law last year.
Morgan Luttrell, the Republican nominee for the new congressional district that includes the Alabama-Coushatta reservation, was also on hand Monday and briefly spoke. “I can assure you I will be an advocate for you in D.C.,” Mr. Luttrell said.
Monday’s celebration came amid a continued struggle to keep Naskila Gaming’s doors open.
The State of Texas has long tried to use the courts to close Naskila Gaming and a similar facility operated by Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo in El Paso. The state claims the two tribes do not have authority to operate their facilities, which the courts have allowed to stay open as the case has worked its way through the legal system. The issue is now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court and, if decided favorably, could provide greater long-term certainty for Naskila Gaming and a similar facility operated by Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo in El Paso.
Separately, legislation approved last year by the U.S. House of Representatives could also make clear that the two tribes have the right to offer electronic bingo on their reservations. A U.S. Senate version of that bill — S. 4196 — was introduced last week by Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Jon Tester of Montana.
Community support for Naskila Gaming is strong. More than 80 business and community groups have approved resolutions supporting the facility, while more than 30,000 visitors have sent letters to Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz encouraging them to support the Tribe’s right to operate Naskila as well.
“The fight to keep this facility open is ongoing,” Chairman Sylestine said. “We have some important moments coming up this year in the judicial system and in the halls of Congress. But today’s event is really about celebrating what we have achieved to this point.”
Ronnie Thomas, the Treasurer of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Tribal Council, noted in his remarks Monday that Tribal citizens exercised their sovereignty when they voted to open Naskila Gaming.
“The decision to open Naskila is providing for our people and allowing us to preserve our cultural traditions and way of life,” Treasurer Thomas said. “Because the Tribe exercised its sovereignty, we are able to build homes for our people, we are able to provide health care for our tribal citizens, and are able to increase the salaries for our Tribal employees so they can provide for their families. The revenues received from Naskila allows the Tribe to pay for costs of tuition, books, and housing for those Tribal citizens who are seeking post-secondary educational opportunities.
Treasurer Thomas added, “We are a sovereign Nation and people; and will continue to exercise the rights our Creator gave us as a Native American tribe to use our collective powers to sustain our people and traditions for as long as our people remain attached to this land. That is why today we not only celebrate the opening of Naskila, but we also honor our Tribe’s exercise of its sovereignty and those who have gone home before us who fought for the sovereign rights of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.”