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  • Asserting Tribal Sovereignty through Compact NegotiationsA Case Study of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana
  • Jay Precht (bio)

In 2001 Lovelin Poncho, chairman of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, declared the community’s new gaming compact with the state “a win for southwest Louisiana, our local communities and for the tribe.” The agreement included an unprecedented appendix that dictated how local non-Indian governments would divide Coushatta grants, required annual audits, and included a safeguard that decreased Coushatta payments if casino revenue fell. This agreement suggests that the Coushattas had successfully navigated what political scientists Jeff Corntassel and Richard C. Witmer call the “politics of perception” in the era of “forced federalism.” According to Corntassel and Witmer, the increasing role of state governments in Indian affairs, highlighted by tribal-state compacts required for Indian casinos, marked a new era in federal Indian policy beginning in 1988 that increasingly forced tribal leaders to use new political strategies to deal with negative public perceptions of gaming tribes. Obstacles faced by tribal leaders during this new era include demands that gaming revenue fund state and local governments and assumptions by outsiders, including government officials, that tribes are unable to handle their new business ventures. As a result, these tribal leaders have increased their political participation at the state and federal levels to overcome opposition to Indian gaming and often to influence overall gaming policy. Corntassel and Witmer’s forced federalism survey of tribal leaders begins to assess the impact of these new relationships, but only by studying the recent histories of specific gaming tribes can scholars fully understand how successfully these communities have employed lobbying strategies to assert their sovereignty and how different [End Page 67] regional, economic, cultural, and historical contexts impact a tribe’s ability to maintain or even increase their level of self-determination through negotiations with state, local, and federal governments. This article offers a case study of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, a community with a successful casino and increased political influence in their region, based on the correspondence of local Coushatta and non-Coushatta political leaders, newspaper articles, and an analysis of the tribe’s 1992 and 2001 gaming compacts with the state of Louisiana. Between 1990 and 2001 the Coushatta Tribal Council overcame both internal and external political opposition and successfully navigated policy shifts on the local, state, and federal levels as each government adjusted to the challenges and opportunities created by Indian gaming, illustrating Steven Andrew Light’s contention that politics often prove more important than laws for issues surrounding Indian gaming. Coushatta success stemmed in part from a tradition of successful diplomacy, a clearly established Indigenous identity, experience working with local and state governments, and lessons learned from an earlier attempt to establish gaming on the reservation. However, the tribal government’s success came at a cost, as the push to establish their casino also marginalized tribal citizens opposed to the venture, and efforts to limit competition in their market embroiled the tribe in a lobbying scandal.1

Throughout their history, the Coushattas practiced shrewd diplomacy to ensure their survival and prosperity. The Coushattas have lived in their current location near Bayou Blue north of Elton, Louisiana, since the late nineteenth century. However, before settling there, community members relocated repeatedly to ally with powerful Indigenous confederacies to enhance their defense and trade opportunities. They often located in borderlands between European and European American nations to facilitate diplomacy. They made their first move between 800 and 1200 from their original homeland west of the Mississippi to the Tennessee River Valley and formed part of the Coosa chiefdom. Faced with English-inspired Cherokee and Westo slave raids, the Coushattas moved to the convergence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in present-day Alabama in the seventeenth century and joined the Creek Confederacy. By the late eighteenth century, Coushattas had begun moving west to Louisiana, then Texas, and by the mid-nineteenth century, some of them had moved back into Louisiana, settling first at Indian Village near Kinder before finally homesteading land along Bayou [End Page 68] Blue beginning in 1884. In 1898 a Coushatta woman named Sissy Robinson put her 160-acre estate in trust with...


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