Chief Framon Weaver, testifying before Congress, said his Alabama-based tribe, with roots dating back to the 1830s, had a distinction no one else wanted when it came to recognition by the U.S. government, a stamp of approval that could mean millions in federal funding of Native American groups.
“It is clear that our tribe, the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, (is) the literal poster child of the structural failures evident in the federal recognition process,” Weaver told the committee.
That was in 2012, so long ago that Weaver is no longer the boss. The MOWAs are still seeking federal recognition and are one of two state-recognized tribes hoping Congress will right what they see as the wrongs of the past, with the help of two influential U.S. senators who are retiring. It is a problem connected not only with history, but also with the possibility of gambling income.
Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Appropriations Committee, is sponsoring legislation that would grant federal recognition to the roughly 6,500-member MOWA Band. GOP Sen. Richard Burr is pursuing similar legislation for the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina, which, with 60,000 members, calls itself the largest nation not recognized by the federal government.
Both groups say the federal recognition process has become rigged and now favors money over history. They say that’s partly because of the billions generated by Indian gambling, something they can’t offer because of a lack of federal recognition.
Similar recognition bills have repeatedly failed in the past, and it’s unclear whether any of them will win approval this year. But current MOWA Band boss Lebaron Byrd has taken on Weaver’s lobbying efforts and is hoping that Shelby’s final push will make a difference this time.
“We’re always optimistic,” he said. “We are not giving up hope.”
Neither Shelby nor Burr’s offices responded to messages seeking updates on the legislation.
Byrd said winning federal recognition would initially mean between $50 million and $100 million in benefits, including health care, education and economic development for MOWA, which takes its name from the band’s location along the Mobile-Washington County line in southwest Alabama about 30 miles (48 kilometers) north of Mobile.
Passing the Lumbee Act would cost about $363 million in expected spending between 2024-2027, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The biggest share, about $247 million, would come from benefits offered by the Indian Health Service, she said.
Both bills oppose a coalition of tribes already recognized by the US government. A branch of the Bureau of Indian Affairs determines whether groups qualify as tribes through anthropological, genealogical and historical studies.
Groups that lose bids for agency recognition can challenge those decisions through administrative appeals or litigation, something MOWA has tried and failed to do. The Lumbee won partial federal recognition through a law in 1956, but are still blocked from key federal programs, a decision they continue to fight more than six decades later.
The policy should not shortchange the process other tribes have used to gain federal recognition, Native American groups opposed to the laws argued during a forum held in July at the U.S. Capitol.
“It’s terrible when you can buy your way in,” said Margo Gray, chairwoman of the United Nations of Native Americans in Oklahoma.
Action by Congress would infringe on the rights of other tribes by making the process cheaper, said Richard French, chairman of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“When you claim to be someone you’re not, you’re messing with other people’s sovereignty,” he said.
Both the MOWA Band and the Lumbee Tribe claim that history is on their side, even though other tribes are not.
The MOWA group, first recognized by Alabama in 1979, says it is descended from the Choctaws who remained in the area after Native Americans were forced to move west in the 1830s to make way for white settlers.
The MOWA Band deliberately kept a low profile, with only sparse written records, to avoid exposure after other bands were pushed out during the decades that Alabama was racially segregated. The members lived in the same rural community near the Mississippi line, where many stayed, said Byrd, the current chief.
MOWA sought federal recognition but was rejected by the government in 1997 after a study found that the group was not part of the Choctaw historical groups and that only 1% of its members had documented Indian heritage. Subsequent appeals and a lawsuit failed, leading to pressure for a congressional action for recognition.
First recognized by the state of North Carolina in 1885, the Lumbee have sought federal recognition since 1888. They describe themselves as survivors of tribal peoples from the Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Siouan language families and live primarily in four counties in the southern part of the state.
Lumbee member Arlinda Locklear, an attorney who specializes in tribal law in Washington, DC, said the passage of federal legislation in 1988 that allowed gambling operations by federally recognized tribes made it more difficult for new groups to gain recognition. Existing tribes didn’t want to risk sharing markets and gaming revenue with newcomers, she said.
“That’s what gives the opposition wings when it comes to the Lumbee,” Locklear said.
While the Indian Gaming Association said national revenue topped $39 billion last year, the Lumbee denied gambling was their main reason for seeking recognition. Instead, Tribes describes gaming as “the least of all motives” for his decades-long pursuit.
The Alabama tribe opened a video game operation nearly a decade ago in a small building that still sits near the tribal office, but authorities quickly closed it because the group lacked federal recognition.
Federal recognition could finally open the door to gaming operations, but MOWA would compete with Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, which already operates casinos. Either way, Byrd said, recognition could improve life for the descendants of a group of people who refused to leave their homes nearly 200 years ago.
“One of our cemeteries dates back to the 1800s,” Byrd said. “We’re telling everyone we’re staying.