A New Chahta Homeland: A History by the Decade, 1980-1990
September 1, 2022
Iti Fabvssa is currently running a series that covers the span of Oklahoma Choctaw history. By examining each decade since the Choctaw government arrived in our new homelands using Choctaw-created documents, we gain a better understanding of Choctaw ancestors’ experiences and how they made decisions that have led us into the present.
This month covers the 1980-1990 period in which Choctaw Nation expanded into gaming endeavors and embarked on a new era of Choctaw economic development that is the foundation for what Choctaw Nation does today.
When Chief David Gardner was first elected chief in 1975, he had a long list of tasks to bring Choctaw Nation into its new era of governance. His death at the young age of 38 left his successor Hollis Roberts with numerous tasks to turn Gardner’s vision for the Nation into reality. Chief Roberts’ previous experience in the Oklahoma House of Representatives and public profile in tribal affairs made him well suited to guide the Choctaw Nation’s venture into a new era in a vastly transformed world. Most important was the creation of a new constitution suited to the demands of a new economic and political landscape.
After the passing of the 1979 constitution that was discussed in last month’s article, some Choctaws made their opposition to it known. In the late 1970s, a grassroots group of Choctaws filed a lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of the 1979 constitution. This was partly a response to a Supreme Court ruling that found that neighboring Muscogee “Creek” Nation’s pre-statehood constitution was still valid and had to be followed when revising the constitution. Chief Roberts responded to the lawsuit by Choctaw community members by pushing the General Council to draft a new constitution that took the 1860 constitution into consideration before the judge could rule on the constitutionality of the 1979 constitution. Before that draft could be completed, the judge ruled that the Choctaw Nation’s 1860 constitution was still in effect and instructed that a committee should be formed to create a new constitution based on the 1860 version and to take in community input.
The revised constitution had significant differences from the 1860 and 1979 constitutions. By 1980, the political landscape of the Choctaw Nation had gone through massive changes and many parts of the 1860 constitution were not feasible for the twentieth century. The extensive court system and a bicameral legislature (House and Senate) that Choctaw Nation used to operate were not financially possible at the time. The state of Oklahoma had since come into being and was a powerful actor that often challenged the tribes, which it had sought to displace politically. The new draft introduced the appointed position of the Assistant Chief and new criteria for tribal citizenship, which became based on lineal descent from by blood Choctaws listed on the final Dawes Rolls. The modifications between the 1979 constitution and the new draft were a bit more minor in comparison. It changed the number of Council representatives from fifteen to twelve. Previously, three of the representatives were at-large members, which represented Choctaw people not living within the reservation boundaries. It also staggered council member elections, so only half of the council was up for election every two years. Four years later, in 1983, Choctaw voters approved the new constitution.
With a new constitution and elected council in place, Choctaw Nation could focus on providing for tribal members and protecting Choctaw sovereignty. It worked with the federal government to allow Choctaw Nation to take over Indian Health Services with its own healthcare system that it managed. Meanwhile, the Choctaw Nation Housing Authority worked to provide homes. The Choctaw Nation also went to court to defend our lands and rights. Along with the Chickasaw and Cherokee Nations, Choctaw Nation filed a lawsuit against the federal government regarding the Arkansas riverbeds. The Tribes argued that their respective removal treaties granted them ownership of the dry lands that later appeared on account of changes to the river over time. This eventually resulted in a 2002 settlement of $40 million, with half paid to Choctaw/Chickasaw Nations and the other half to the Cherokee Nation.
As Choctaw Nation worked to expand its services and reach, Indian gaming was taking off in other Native communities and proving to be an effective way to sustain economic development. Chief Roberts pushed for the opening of a gaming facility, starting with bingo. It was not immediately accepted by Choctaw community members, and it took sustained effort to gain support. One former council member recalled discussing a bingo gaming proposal with constituents in his district and many opposed it on moral grounds. As a result, he voted against one of the first council bills that would have established gaming in Choctaw Nation. But Chief Roberts asked to meet with those community members to discuss the new opportunities gaming could bring. This convinced many people to change their minds and soon the bill was passed.
In 1987, Choctaw Nation opened the Choctaw Bingo Palace in Durant, Oklahoma, near the intersection of Highway 69 and 75 – not far from where today’s casino-resort stands. What used to be a cattle pasture quickly became a hub of activity. For many who worked at Choctaw Bingo, the time when it was open brings back fond memories. Former employees remember the family-like atmosphere and how some developed lifelong friendships with bingo patrons. They recall packed weekends with patrons bussed in from neighboring states, regulars who brought lucky trinkets to line up on their tables, the money air machine booth where winners sometimes got a chance to catch cash, and how the first million-dollar bingo win in the United States was at the Choctaw Bingo Hall.
Just as it was envisioned, Choctaw Bingo created new opportunities for many Choctaws in need of a job or even a first job. Current District 9 councilman James Dry’s first job while at Southeastern Oklahoma State University was flipping burgers at the Choctaw Bingo Palace. Other former Bingo employees can be found still working for the Choctaw Nation. To open the bingo hall, Choctaw Nation took out a loan which it paid off ahead of schedule in part because of its success. The revenue from this initial investment and other ventures helped provide Choctaw Nation with much-needed funds that allowed it to expand services for tribal members and assert its sovereignty in ways akin to the 19th-century form.
Next month, we will conclude the ‘A New Chahta Homeland’ series with the 1990-2000 period in which Choctaw Nation transitioned into casino gaming and developed some of its first compacts with the state of Oklahoma.
About Iti Fabvssa
Iti Fabvssa seeks to increase knowledge about the past, strengthen the Choctaw people and develop a more informed and culturally grounded understanding of where the Choctaw people are headed in the future.
If you have questions or would like more information on the sources, please contact Megan Baker at [email protected]