The Creek Indians were Alabama’s first residents, originally occupying most of present-day Alabama and Georgia. With many waterways in the area, the Tribe’s lands were a prime location for the burgeoning trade industry. As a result, they played an important role in facilitating trade, serving as guides, translators, and ferry operators.
After the Creek Wars in the early 1800s, the majority of the Creek Nation was forcibly removed by the Trail of Tears. The descendants of those that managed to remain make up the Poarch Band today.
Growing up, Bryan says that her mother took charge and made sure she understood the Tribe’s history and were proud of her Creek Heritage.
“My mom was a guiding light in my life,” Bryan tells Native Business Magazine. “She grew up in a time of real poverty when money and sometimes food was scarce,” she says. “In [my mom’s] generation, the Indian school at Poarch only went up to the 6th grade and the county school bus wouldn’t come pick up the Poarch kids, so she always valued education and wanted her kids to have better opportunities.”
This education included the opportunities to learn about the Poarch culture.
“Growing up, I remember attending our summer youth programs here at our reservation,” she says. “We had an instructor that came and taught us Muskogee Creek language, culture, stickball and dance. Those are really special memories for me.”
Anyone who talks to her now would likely find it hard to believe that she was a shy child. Her mother encouraged her to enter the Princess contest, and when she won, she was apprehensive about receiving the crown. But, Bryan says, “along the way, the love and support I got from the Poarch gave me the courage to try new things and the work ethic I learned growing up helped me immensely as I started my career.”
After getting a degree in business, Bryan worked as the director at a telecommunications company and in the insurance business. Both of those jobs, she says, provided important services that improved the quality of life for people — providing foundational lessons for what was later to come.
“Everything that I have done in my business career is about improving quality of life,” she says. “I had a lot of jobs that gave me exposure to a lot of what our Tribe needed; I wrote a lot of grants, I worked on job training programs, housing, USDA programs, childcare development block grants, and housing.”
“We needed so much,” she continues. “My memory of those times is still really fresh, and I keep that close to me.”
Things started to turn when the Tribe finally gained federal recognition. As a child, Bryan says she remembers standing by the washpots on the Pow Wow grounds, where community members were cooking chicken to raise money to send then Chief Calvin McGee to Washington, D.C.
“He was our champion in gaining federal recognition and nothing that we have today would have been possible without that,” she says. “I remember an event on the Pow Wow grounds when it was announced that we were a federally recognized Tribe and we would be receiving grant money. When some of that first money came in, [my mother] told us that it wasn’t for us, but for the Tribe, and we put that money together to help Poarch become what it is today.”
In 2006, Bryan began serving as Vice-Chair of the Poarch Tribal Council, and in 2014, she became the first female political leader elected to the position of Tribal Chair and CEO. In that role, she is involved with the Tribe’s legislative operations as well as overseeing all Tribal governmental and business operations, including Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority (CEIDA) and PCI Gaming Authority (PCIGA).
“Our economy has grown over 1,000 percent since I first won a seat in Tribal government,” she says. “It’s never too far from my mind about those times when there just wasn’t enough, and I think that has really shaped how we have grown our businesses and how we have decided to invest our resources.”
To illustrate this, she highlights how time spent with her uncle showed her how investments could pay off and make an impact on peoples’ lives.
“My Uncle Otha had a big garden, and I used to love to be out there with him taking care of the garden, and then we’d get to pick all those good fresh vegetables,” she says. “Uncle Otha shared what he grew and I would go with him when he would deliver those vegetables to folks at the Tribe who really needed the food.”
“They wouldn’t have anything else to eat but maybe cornbread,” she continues. “But what Otha grew sustained them. That lesson guides my work as the Tribal Chairwoman and CEO.”
Now, just a few decades later, the Tribe’s economic development initiative — which she calls the family business — include gaming enterprises, PCI Aviation (which does business in the Defense and Aerospace sector), Media Fusion (a nationally recognized support services company that provides program management and office administration, strategic communications, user experience design, and every aspect of digital content and multimedia production), metal working, hospitality, farming, and several others.
The Poarch Band’s Wind Creek Hospitality brand currently counts 10 properties in its portfolio, including four casino resorts in Alabama and Pennsylvania, a Greyhound racing facility in Alabama, two parimutuel tracks and poker rooms in the Florida panhandle, the Wa She Shu Casino and Travel Plaza in Nevada, and the Renaissance Aruba and Renaissance Curacao Resorts and Casinos in the Caribbean.
Another turning point she cites was the Tribe’s decision to build and manage Wind Creek Atmore themselves — and one of her greatest achievements as a Tribal business leader was being able to pay back the money they borrowed to build the facility.
“A lot of Indian gaming operations had management contracts with some of the well-known names in the business, but we decided against letting Harrah’s manage Wind Creek and decided to manage it ourselves,” she says. “It was a chance at self-sufficiency and we took it.”
“When we decided to build it, we had no debt and we were worried about taking out loans,” she continues. “But we committed to making Wind Creek a success. We worked hard, we were careful with our money, and we were able to pay off the seven-year loan in about two years. That allowed us to establish a reputation for being good businesspeople, and it also gave us the funding we needed to improve the lives of our people, including building a state-of-the-art health clinic.”
In and of itself, this health clinic was a major accomplishment. Bryan says that she remembers being a child and having her teeth cleaned on an Airstream bus with a portable dentist office on it. Today, as a result of the Tribe’s economic development initiatives, any enrolled member of a federally recognized Tribe can visit the the Buford L. Rolin Health Clinic to obtain primary care; diagnostic lab tests; prescriptions; diagnostic x-ray and ultrasound exams; counseling for mental health, drug, and alcohol abuse; physical therapy; eye care; health education; mammography and other annual women’s health screening services; dental services; and diabetic programs; among others.
Other benefits that the Tribe’s economic development provide include higher education, eldercare and high-quality preschool education.
On the horizon, Bryan says that the Poarch Band wants to continue to find investment opportunities that will have a good rate of return and expand its footprint, even in what can sometimes be difficult periods in the economy. That’s why, after being elected in 2014, she says that the Tribe created a diversified Economic Development Plan built on sustainable principles.
“We believe it is a road map that will continue to provide jobs and economic stability for our Tribe and our neighbors throughout the State,” she says. “Gaming gave us the opportunity to become self-sufficient, but we are focused on building a portfolio of businesses that can weather economic downturns, grow, and provide stable incomes for people across Alabama.”
“We know what it’s like not to have enough and we believe that to be truly successful, we have to make sure families are stable and secure,” she continues.
Bryan says that even though every Tribe is different, they share many of the same challenges. That means that as a Tribal business leader herself, she is continually learning from other Tribal leaders and she would like to think they might recognize some of the Poarch Band’s successful practices as well.
That includes taking the necessary and sometimes hard steps to develop the whole community into a stronger place to live and work, and to be good neighbors, with philanthropy as a cornerstone of a Tribe’s footprint.
“We are committed to building safe and strong communities, but we understand that all of the communities around us need to be strong, too,” she says. “Every family needs to have enough income to put food on the table, have a way to get their kids to the doctor, and get the education they need to compete in today’s labor market.”
“I had lunch with President Obama and I remember he said that more fortunate Tribes should try to help others,” she says. “He was right. We are already trying to help a small Tribe in California.”
For the next generation, Bryan says it is vitally important that they inherit the current generation’s hard-fought values and work ethic. So she wants to do everything she can to help Poarch children learn to work hard, be careful stewards of opportunities, and be committed to the future of the family business and the Tribe.
“For me, there is no better feeling than to improve the quality of life for others,” she says. “I also work each and every day to honor those who came before me, and the best way I know how to do that is to work on every problem and every opportunity with integrity. Do the right thing, even when no one is looking.”
“We want to make sure that our next generation inherits that sense of history as well as a responsibility and understanding of the importance of being self-sustaining and being a good neighbor,” she says. “While I want our Tribe to continually move forward, may we never forget where we came from.”