Ice House

Betting on the Fate of Gambling in Texas

At Naskila, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe hopes to keep the lights on inside its 24-hour gaming facility as Texas tackles its right to operate a casino.

By Adam Doster October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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A pack of white-haired Houstonians exits their coach bus gingerly and teeters into Naskila Entertainment, 90 minutes up the road from the city on the Alabama-Coushatta reservation. Like other curious gamblers from the area, they’ve cruised through Livingston and bent east on U.S. Route 190 into the forest, peeling off near the ramshackle Presbyterian church constructed by visiting missionaries 136 years ago, directly on sacred ceremonial ground. Around the corner, Naskila’s parking lot is jammed; evidently, Wednesday morning is an auspicious time to press one’s luck.

Inside, the motif is modern log cabin: vaulted knotty pine ceiling, bear-themed light fixtures, mounted flat-screen televisions. Rows of electronic bingo machines bleep and bloop rhythmically on the main floor. It’s these 365 games, with goofy names like Coin Slinger and Nugget Mountain, that folks in the region are seeking out in earnest, some 38,000 players between June and August, Naskila’s first three months of operation. But if a federal court sides with the state’s Attorney General, the strapped Alabama-Coushatta—one of just three federally recognized tribes in all of Texas—might be forced to unplug their newly-installed money-makers permanently.

Carlos Bullock, 39 and a regular at Naskila, weaves through the lunchtime rush at the adjoining Timbers Grille and grabs a table in the back room. His thin black hair is tied up in a ponytail, his nose slightly twisted, like it’s seen a few scrapes. The Alabama-Coushatta crest, inspired by old pottery, is printed on the left breast of his polo. He points to a double-headed woodpecker at its center, representing the tribes’ two ceremonial chiefs. “There are seven feathers on both sides of him,” he says, “because you have to anticipate seven generations in the past, and seven generations going forward.”

Bullock is the tribe’s spokesperson, and one of its 1,250 living members. The Alabama-Coushatta like to say they were here before Texas was Texas: They migrated westward in the 18th century, fought the Spanish during the Mexican War for Independence, and were deeded 1,280 acres by the Texas legislature in 1854.

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Naskila operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Even though he grew up just off the reservation, Bullock still spent loads of time on it. He’s old enough to remember the long-shuttered tourism program, when the tribe maintained a reptile garden and staged powwows for schoolchildren and other curious Anglos. At 27, he was elected to the tribe’s seven-member governing council, on which he served for nine years. It was complicated work—as a sovereign people, the Alabama-Coushatta maintain basic municipal services (police and fire, courts), manage 250 housing units, and run educational and historic preservation programs, all on a razor-thin budget.

Financial pressure spurred their first foray into gaming, 15 years ago. But that casino was shut down by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals just nine profitable months after the Alabama-Coushatta prematurely swung open their doors. Bullock and his colleagues took a more conservative approach the second time around, having spent the last decade-plus generating political support and studying the intricacies of Native American gaming law. Little of it—the requisite statehouse lobbying, the public presentations, the door-knocking, the research—came easy. “We weren’t advanced in the political arena,” Bullock says. “It was a daunting task.”

The regulatory issues at play are sticky, to say the least. Back in 1988, Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), establishing three classes of legal reservation gaming. Only Class III—full-scale, Vegas-style slots and table games—require tribes to negotiate agreements with their resident state; in Texas, that type of gambling is outlawed. But the federal government, and the Department of the Interior specifically, can independently authorize lower classes of gaming. Of the 493 Indian casinos nationwide, most are Class II outfits, running games of chance (like electronic bingo) under the watchful eye of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC). Together, they generate some $28 billion in annual revenue.

Last year was a decisive one for the Alabama-Coushatta. Their membership passed a Class II gaming ordinance, which was submitted to NIGC in July and approved in September. Then began the hurried process of retrofitting the site of the previous casino, a 10,000-square-foot building on the grounds that they’d been using for tribal dinners and parties: new electrical, new sewage, new landscaping, the addition of Timbers Grille. For 210 jobs, they fielded 1,000 applications in two weeks. Security and hospitality training ensued. (Alabama-Coushatta members make up 43 percent of the workforce.) Naskila opened for business on June 2, and the 24-hour facility hasn’t shut off the lights since.

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Thousands visit the casino every month.

Attorney General Ken Paxton isn’t a wagering type. This past August, his office filed a motion for contempt in U.S. district court. At issue is language in a law called the Restoration Act, which Congress passed one year prior to the IGRA, in 1987. That statute granted the Alabama-Coushatta federal recognition (and the chance to access crucial Washington funds), but restricted them from operating any form of gaming prohibited under Texas state law. Says Kayleigh Lovvorn, an AG spokesperson: “Their electronic bingo machines are an illegal lottery.”

The tribe is cautiously confident about their case. A trial date will be set in June of next year. As a gaming market, Texas is both large and largely untapped, and there are powerful interests—casinos in adjacent states, anti-gambling activists, charitable bingo operators—who’d prefer it stay that way. “There are a lot of people going to be watching it,” says Chuck McDonald, a public relations specialist assisting the tribe.

In the meantime, Bullock—like a lot of East Texans—is relishing the time he’s spending in Naskila. “It’s a quaint little spot,” he says, “and we’re proud of it.” He ambles past a flyer for the Seven Feathers Players Club, Naskila’s loyalty program, and turns left at the dim VIP lounge, cordoned off by a velvet rope. Bayou Bucks II, Bullock’s favorite machine, shimmers in the distance.

Given his choice, he enjoys saddling up late at night, when the crowds have died down. Just two weeks ago, one customer took home a payout worth more than $80,000, by far their largest yet. “I’m probably down, overall,” Bullock admits. “If I win $20, though, I’m out the door. That will pay for lunch!”

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