Cypress Bayou hosts media day; tribe's long road to success told
Cypress Bayou Casino-Hotel hosted some 75 media professionals Thursday for a presentation on the gaming facility’s history and a look at recent renovations and changes.
Acting General Manager Jack Darden addressed newspaper, radio and television representatives from across Louisiana in The Bamboo Room in the newer section of the casino.
Darden, a 20-year employee of the casino, left the oil field and took a position with Cypress Bayou to “help our tribe as a business, and look at it from a different form, how we do economic diversification.”
A former tribal school board member who worked his way up through the business, Darden used his own life story to illustrate the path of the Chitimacha Tribe to its current status. “I watched my family reap modest rewards for their labor working a farm and growing gardens,” he said. “I grew up in a home that my great-grandfather lived in, that in 1932 one of the bedrooms was a schoolroom for tribal people to get an education.”
His father still lives in that home, but in 1934 the state gave the tribe a one-room wooden building that had been condemned. Tribal members repaired and renovated it and it served as a school until the late 1970s.
The Chitimacha sued the federal government in 1846 for “confirmation of title to tribal lands that then recognized about 1,093 acres. Taxation and continued litigation reduced this to 263 acres.”
Sarah McIlhenny, a member of the Tabasco sauce family, had been buying Chitimacha baskets, aware that those baskets were renowned across the world. McIlhenny paid the taxes as the last of the land was being sold on the courthouse steps. She then worked with the federal government to put the last of the acreage into federal trust. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law assuring the tribe’s ownership of the land.
“We’re the only tribe in Louisiana still occupying a portion of its original land,” Darden said. “We’re aboriginal, we’ve been here for over 6,000 years now.”
The right to gaming was actually created 120 years ago through Congress, federal legislation and treaties, verified in 1984 by the US Supreme Court. The tribe opened Bayouland Bingo in 1988, which was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In 1993 the renovated hall was opened with slots; it was expanded in 1995 by 85,000 square feet, and 1998 another expansion took place.
“What does this mean to us as a people?” Darden said. “It’s allowed us to buy back some original homeland and begin to diversify our efforts by pursing economic opportunities like Raintree Market.” Also the Trading Post near the casino, and Keta Group, a company engaged in federal government contracting.
The tribe’s economic efforts have allowed it to operate a school system and board, housing and election boards, a police department and fire department, senior living facilities, scholarship programs, tribal courts, school child care, a medical facility, museum and housing and public works.
“Like the communities you live in, we as a tribe have the same things,” Darden said. “We’re a community within the community.”
Cypress Bayou employs some 750 people, down from 1,100. “As you know, there have been some economically challenging times,” he said. “Where we once were the first land-based casino, we had the market to ourselves for a long time, and through expansion it changes operations, makes it much more challenging…we have a $25 million annual payroll, and those taxes go back to state and federal government.”
Construction of the hotel used 70 percent local or state contractors, he said.
“We’re thankful for those who have helped us further our cause,” Darden said. “Like the small story I shared of my own, that’s only representative of the many tribal people we have here, who each have stories of what something may have meant to them.”
The tribe’s mission statement priorities are its people, players and employees.
Though more competition and a faltering economy have had their effect, Darden said the casino still offers multiple venues, experiences in dining, entertainment and much more.