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Muscogee Nation in battle for recognition

BRUCE — Ann Tucker laughs when she says her double-wide trailer in this rural area of north Walton County puts her in the upper-middle class.

She comes close to crying when she talks about the rest of her tribe.

"We deserve to win. We may not, but we deserve to," Tucker said recently in the cluttered council house of the Muscogee Nation of Florida, a tribe of Eastern Creek Indians who say their ancestors were forced to leave home and settle here 150 years ago. "I may fail, but I'm going to go down fighting."

Tucker is fighting for the federal government to recognize her tribe. For decades, it hasn't. Recognition would make the Muscogee Nation eligible for funding for health benefits, clinics for the elderly and scholarships — and casino development.

Her last victory was in 2007, when Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez introduced the Muscogee Nation of Florida Federal Recognition Act. The bill, a giant leap after a series of baby steps, remains under consideration in the Committee on Indian Affairs.

Reps. Jeff Miller and Allen Boyd are co-sponsoring a House version.

The bill could take another leap later this month, when either committee could send it up for a vote.

The tribe, with many construction workers who have been underemployed since the collapse of the housing market, has been asking for recognition since 1947, when Tucker's great-grandfather wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs asking for compensation for lands taken in 1814.

The bureau's response: "You cannot possibly be who you say you are."

That skepticism has survived, Tucker said. Today, years after she claims segregation-era Jim Crow laws erased much of the Creek tribe's existence from historical records, she still has her motivation questioned.

This stems in part from $1.1 million billed by Washington lobbyists, categorized by one watchdog organization as casino lobby money, a label both Tucker and lobbyist Mike Pate of the firm Bracewell & Giuliani denied.

"I don't have any hidden investor behind the door," Tucker said of speculation that some other entity must be bankrolling her poor Creek tribe.

Pate said simply: "I haven't been paid in years, but I believe in what she's trying to do."

The tribe does not have much land for a casino near its lodge in Bruce. It owns about 13 acres near Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, but Tucker said that land is a protected archaeological preserve with 4,000-year-old shell mounds on it.

Tucker insists her quest for federal recognition — and money — is about the tribe's well-being, not about casino development.

"It first and foremost has to be about people," she said. "The casino question, it blurs the issue of Indians. And that's not something I caused, but it's something I have to contend with."

Muscogee Nation in battle for recognition 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 11:37pm]

    

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