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Earl Barbry, Sr.— The Longest Serving Chairman in Indian Country

Chairman Earl Barbry, Sr. of the Tunica- Biloxi Tribe was recently honored as a 2006 Louisiana Legend along with other outstanding Louisianians in Baton Rouge by the Louisiana Public Broadcasting corporation.  The event was held in late April, and was a standing room only affair.

This year’s honorees include former U.S. Senator John Breaux, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa James Joseph, jewelry designer Mignon Faget, Shreveport businesswoman and philanthropist Virginia Shehee and Tunica-Biloxi Chairman Earl Barbry, Sr.

Twenty-eight years have come and gone since Chairman Earl Barbry, Sr. first entered public service on behalf of the people of the Tunica-Bilox Tribe.

When asked what was the most important issue facing him as he became Chairman for this central Louisiana tribe, he is quick to reply “uniting the members and getting federal recognition.”

Trying to keep everybody working together and encouraging them to put aside petty differences proved challenging to the then 28 year old tribal leader.

Barbry was the youngest member to be elected to the top government position.  The tribe had yet to receive federal recognition, so no federal program monies were coming in at all.  It was strictly volunteer service of the purest kind.

The Tunica-Biloxi members had been meeting at the Cow Palace (located where the Paragon Casino now stands),  prior to Barbry’s foray into tribal politics.  Chairman Joe Pierite, Jr., and his sister, tribal elder, Rose Pierite, had successfully obtained a grant from HUD for $35,000 to build a meeting facility.  Unfortunately, a local developer intervened and made off with 40% of the grant funds.  That triggered a huge backlash from tribal members who were outraged by the developer’s activities.  Many regarded his behavior as outright theft.

The only thing the tribe had to show for the developer’s involvement was a temporary light pole on the reservation.  He had also kept the checkbook for the account funds at his home until he was forced to relinquish it.

HUD froze the account for the grant funds and tribal attorney Don Juneau helped the tribe sue for the return of the funds.  The tribe finally did get the monies back over a period of time. 

It was on the heels of this turmoil that Barbry first came to office.  Tribal officials took the remaining HUD monies and purchased the famous ‘double-wide’ trailer that many stories have been told of and the meetings that took place there.

After things settled down, the focus for Chairman Barbry quickly shifted to getting federal recognition.  That designation would enable the tribe to begin applying for program monies for everything from housing, elderly care, health care through Indian Health Services and general tribal government operations from the BIA.  Economic development for the tribe became a prime topic of discussion for many years to follow.

“No one was beating down our door back then to do business with us, “recalls Barbry.  On one particular occasion, Barbry remembers attending a meeting with former tribal finance officer, Bill Scott in Baton Rouge at a state agency office to see what kinds of economic development projects might be available to the tribe.  The gentleman they met with leaned back in his chair at the end of the meeting bluntly told the Chairman and Bill “ya’ll come back when you grow up.”  Barbry thought, “this guy will never see my face again.  We got exactly what I expected…….nothing!

Such was the treatment and attitude of mainstream citizens towards their tribal neighbors in the early 1980’s.

The path of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe did not cross the state of Louisiana’s until several years later when Fred Benton, the Assistant to the Attorney General for the State of Louisiana came to Earl’s house one evening.  Benton told about the discovery of the “Tunica Treasures”, which had been dug up by Leonard Charrier, a prison guard at Angola near St. Francisville, Louisiana.  Charrier had tried to negotiate a sale of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Once in possession of the very valuable find, Harvard did no want to part with the collection either.

Benton was now hoping that the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe would join the state of Louisiana to pursue the return of the collection that had been illegally removed from state lands.  Barbry agreed, but only agreed under the condition that if the artifacts came home, they would truly come home to the people of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe.  This case led to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is a federal law passed in 1990.  NAGPRA provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items—human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony—to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe had played a lead role in developing a very significant and important law that guaranteed the preservation and respect of historical tribal grounds and artifacts.

Breaking new ground was to become a unique characteristic of this Louisiana tribe under the leadership of Chairman Barbry.

In 1994 the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe held the opening of Louisiana’s first land based casino.

Eleven years later, this Louisiana tribe conducted the first high yield bond issue to be sponsored by a Native American tribe within this state.  And in 2007, the tribe will witness the grand opening of a $150 million expansion at Paragon casino, with a deluxe 8-story hotel, spa, movie theatres, new buffet, additional meeting rooms, convention space expansion, fitness center and new pool venue.

The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe has been breaking new ground since it was first recognized in 1981…. and new ventures are just down the road as the tribe looks to diversify its holdings and improve the quality of life for its members and neighboring communities.

Upcoming Meetings / Events
September 19,2009 -Marksville, LA

October 3,2009 -Marksville, LA

November 14,2009 -Marksville, LA

December 12,2009 -Marksville, LA

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