The Alabama Indian Affairs Commission (AIAC), headquartered in Montgomery, Montgomery County, was established by the Alabama State Legislature in 1984 to serve as a liaison between Native Americans in the state and local, state, and federal agencies. Primarily, the AIAC aims to connect the Native American community in the state with local, state, and federal resources, including funding, for their social and economic development programs. In addition, it is tasked with developing criteria for recognition for Indian tribes, bands, or groups, and advocating for and promoting Indian rights.
The state government recognizes nine Native American tribes in Alabama: the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, the Echota Cherokee Tribe of Alabama, the Cherokee Tribe of Northeast Alabama, the Ma-Chis Lower Creek Indian Tribe of Alabama, the Star Clan of Muscogee Creeks, the Cher-O-Creek Intra Tribal Indians, the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians, the Piqua Shawnee Tribe, and the United Cherokee Ani-Yun-Wiya Nation. Of this group, only the Poarch Band of Creeks is officially recognized by the federal government.
As the modern civil rights movement for African Americans began to achieve results in the 1960s, Native Americans in the country began to assess their own minority status and lack of economic opportunities. (The Indian Civil Rights Act was passed in 1968.) Conditions were similar in Alabama, where Native Americans were treated as second-class citizens, restricted by segregation, and struggling to gain restitution for the loss of historic lands.
In 1974, the Governor’s Advisory Board on Indian Affairs was established under Gov. George Wallace to oversee Native American policies and issues. By this time, Wallace’s allegiance to white supremacy had softened, and he showed sympathy for the plight of the state’s Native Americans, notably the Poarch Band, who were seeking to reclaim land in the state. In 1976, the state established the Alabama Creek Indian Council to act as a liaison between the state government and Native Americans in the state. It was spearheaded by state senator Wendell Mitchell, who pushed the legislation at the urging of the Star Clan of Muscogee Creeks, a small band of Creeks living in and around Troy, Pike County. Both the advisory board and the council ceased to exist in 1978, when the state government created the Southwest Alabama Indian Affairs Commission (SAIAC) with the passage of the Mims Act, sponsored by state senator Maston Mims. He was a descendant of several of the people killed in the Fort Mims Massacre of 1813, the first major conflict of the Creek War. Mims sponsored the bill on behalf of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Atmore, Escambia County, who were not represented on the Alabama Creek Indian Council. This new commission, however, focused almost exclusively on the Poarch Creek, excluding the Star Clan as well as populations of Choctaws, Cherokees, and other Native American groups in the state.
During its existence, the SAIAC engaged in outreach efforts, with publications such as the Alabama Indian Advocate and a broadcast radio spot called the Alabama Indian Journal. These outlets disseminated information about topics such as job training programs and funding and employment opportunities for SAIAC members, as Native Americans typically had higher rates of unemployment than other populations in Alabama. The SAIAC also worked to help members market craft goods to promote cultural and economic opportunities. Other tribes soon tried to join the commission and seek state and federal recognition and access to the federal funds that recognition entails. Some state and Indian leaders believed that the issue of recognition should rest with the commission and not the legislature, but other Native Americans disliked the thought of having to prove their authenticity. Exclusion from the SAIAC and the centralization of power within the Poarch Band also bred resentment among other tribes in the state.
In 1980, Gov. Forrest “Fob” James appointed non-Indian Leonard Hudson, a retired pharmacist, as chair of the SAIAC, which created tensions among himself and the rest of the council. Against the views of the Poarch Creeks, he welcomed other tribes into the council in violation of the traditional recognition procedures. When the Poarch Creek protested, he introduced an amendment to the Mims Act to include the MOWA Choctaw and Jackson County Cherokees, but it failed to be reviewed by the legislature. Tribal leaders then brought a second amendment to Hudson that urged the removal of “Southwestern” from the name to avoid the geographical limitations, separation from the Poarch Creek Tribal Council, and inclusion of representatives from the Star Clan of Muscogee Creeks, the MOWA Band of Choctaws, the Jackson County Creeks, and the Echota Cherokees. When the amendment again failed to gain the attention of the legislature, tribal leaders staged a rally at the state capital in April 1982, prompting Governor James to call for a review of the Mims Act. When the bill came up for a vote, Sen. Reo Kirkland substituted a different bill that essentially maintained the status quo of the original legislation and allowed the Poarch Creek to maintain control over the council. Responding to outrage by other tribal leaders, Governor James vetoed the bill and, frustrated with the infighting, defunded the commission until the groups could find common ground. The tribes responded by lobbying lawmakers to reinstitute the commission. Lawmakers instead created the AIAC in 1984 and provided an initial budget of $125,000. At that time, AIAC represented six tribes across Alabama: Poarch Band, MOWA Choctaw, Star Clan of Muscogee Creeks, Echota Creeks, Jackson County Cherokees, and Cherokees of Southeast Alabama. Over time, the commission expanded to include nine state-recognized tribes.
The AIAC is comprised of 13 members consisting of one representative from each of the nine Indian tribes served by the AIAC as well as a member of the Alabama Senate appointed by the lieutenant governor, a member of the Alabama House of Representatives appointed by the speaker, an at-large member appointed by the governor, and a member appointed by the commission who is a member of a federally recognized tribe not a member of any tribe represented on the commission. Commissioners serve four-year terms and are eligible for reappointment. The commission selects officers every two years and these include a chair, vice chair, parliamentarian, and executive director. The chair presides over all meetings and exercises general supervision of the commission. Meetings take place at the headquarters in Montgomery and are open to the public and posted on the AIAC website. AIAC operations are funded by the state government. The executive director, chair, and vice chair have fiscal responsibility for the funds. Members of the commission receive no compensation for their services, other than reimbursements for travel and expenses incurred while performing their duties as commissioner.
The commission’s primary purpose is to promote local, state, and federal government resources for Indian citizens in the state and actively seek government grants or funds available to eligible Native Americans. It has the authority to recognize Indian tribes as well as the authority to prescribe the rules for the recognition of Indian tribes, bands, groups, and associations, which is a complicated process. Its work also involves administrative and financial activities, particularly managing the agency and its finances, human resources, and facilities and providing information about legislation that affects Indians in Alabama.
One of the AIAC’s continuing accomplishments is its scholarship program. The AIAC offers annual scholarships to Native American residents of Alabama pursuing a college degree within the state. To qualify, students must be enrolled in the federal/state recognized tribe for a minimum of three years and meet his or her tribe’s internal qualifications. These scholarships give special considerations to students pursuing nursing, medical, veterinary, and pharmacy degrees. In addition to the scholarships, the AIAC sponsors the Ms. Indian Alabama Pageant, with the winner receiving a $5,000 scholarship.
Since its inception, the AIAC has sponsored economic development workshops and created the Alabama Indian Small Business Association; the commission maintains a list of Indian-operated businesses in the state. The Alabama Indian Community Loan Fund was created to help find organizations to invest in Indian businesses. (The casinos and hotels of the Poarch Band are perhaps the most visible projects undertaken in the state.) In addition, the commission has worked with historical organizations, including the Alabama Department of Archives and History for an ethnic studies program. The AIAC has raised warnings about the destruction of historic sites and collaborated with the Alabama Historical Commission on a statewide historic preservation plan.
- Bates, Denise E. The Other Movement: Indian Rights and Civil Rights in the Deep South. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 2012.