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Court Ruling May Mean 'Millions' To Alabama-Coushatta

LIVINGSTON, TX -- As American Indian nations go, the Alabama and Coushatta probably have one of the smallest on the map.

Just half of the tribe's 1,012 citizens live on a 4,600-acre reservation two hours northeast of Houston near Livingston off U.S. 59.

But it could be bigger. In fact, according to a recent federal court ruling, it should be much, much bigger.

After 17 years of litigation, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Claims finally ruled in June that 2.8 million acres of East Texas pine forest was stolen from the Alabama and Coushatta Indians by European settlers.

"The ruling was very important to the nation," tribal administrator Joseph Bergen said. "They were elated."

The case is about much more than patriotism and bragging rights. The split decision by the court also cited the U.S. government for failing to protect the Indians' rights.

Unless the Justice Department asks the court to reconsider its ruling, as it did in a 1996 decision, the court now will decide how much money the Indians should be compensated for the lost land.

The Justice Department is currently reviewing the court of claims opinion and hasn't decided whether it will ask the court to reconsider, said Patricia Weiss, an attorney with the federal agency.

Lawyers for the tribe -- and there are six of record -- said the Alabama and Coushatta will ask the court to reimburse them for timber, oil, natural gas and land they never got to sell in a vast tract from the Louisiana border to north of Houston.

"We have experts calculating those figures," said Austin Attorney Alan Minter. "It's potentially a huge sum. I don't know how large yet. It is into the millions."

If other similar cases are any indication, it could be many millions.

In 1994, the Catawba Indians settled their land dispute claim against the federal government and South Carolina for $90 million, according the Boulder, Colo.-based Native American Rights Fund.

Federal, state and local governments put $50 million in trust funds to pay for land acquisition, economic development, elder care and individual payments to tribe members. The remainder of the settlement came in the form of services and in-kind contributions from federal and local units of government.

Over the past 20 years, the government has settled about a dozen similar claims, said Don Miller, lead counsel for the Alabama and Coushatta and an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

The crux of the Alabama and Coushatta lawsuit can be found in federal common law recognition of aboriginal land rights. The rights are established by the long-term and exclusive use of a piece of land by a native people. In this case, it is the Alabama and Coushatta tribe, which migrated from what is now Alabama and Mississippi around the time of the Revolutionary War, Miller said.

Those aboriginal land rights can be extinguished only by an act of Congress, either through a treaty with the tribe or a simple resolution. Neither was done with the Alabama and Coushatta, Miller said.

Since the Indians' ownership rights were never severed, the federal government had a duty to protect them, the court of claims found.

In 1954, Congress turned over trusteeship of the tribe to the state of Texas. The key issue in the case is what the tribe is owed for those 109 years from 1845, when Texas became a state, until 1954 when the federal government should have been protecting the tribe's rights but wasn't. Miller said the claims court ruling gives the tribe strong legal and moral grounds for demanding compensation from the federal government.

"There has been a recognition of the fact that this was Indian land wrongfully taken away and it puts the burden squarely on the federal government and the state of Texas to make things right," he said.

It may be some time still before any such compensation is paid. Unless Congress decides to settle the case, the amount of money owed the tribe also must be litigated before the court of claims. The court's decisions then must be forwarded to Congress for action.

Miller said he is confident that the Alabama and Coushatta will get some compensation. It was a 1983 special resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives that enabled the tribe to file the lawsuit in the first place, so it is unlikely Congress would just ignore the court's findings, he said.

The Alabama and Coushatta are hoping they will be compensated for the land. The tribe is in such need of money that it is considering opening a casino on its reservation -- a move that would surely drag it into a fight with the state of Texas, which prohibits gaming.

(From the Houston Chronicle)