Former Princess, Fierce Leader
The first woman to serve as the chair and CEO of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians — the only band of Alabama Creeks not forced off their land — is fierce about tribal self-government and economic self-sufficiency.
Under Bryan’s leadership, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians have opened three casinos that support tribal services, such as schools and elder care facilities. Bryan is pictured in front of a star quilt, made and donated by Eldnar McGhee to the Lavan Martin Assisted Living Facility.
Stephanie Bryan is proud of what she calls “humble beginnings.” Raised on an Indian reservation in Atmore, she remembers little girl days of the ’70s, playing stickball at the Pow Wow Grounds. Her childhood home is nearby. Her executive office is, too.
Today, Bryan is tribal chair and CEO of her people, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, 1,900 tribal members in five counties and two states with 1,100 additional tribal members living across the country and the world and business interests spanning the U.S.
For Chairwoman Bryan, humble beginnings are a badge of honor. It is her history, her strength and a source of her pride.
“I will never forget where we came from and never lose sight of where we need to go,” she says, gazing from an office window across reservation land. “We were, and are, Native Americans in this small community. Heritage makes me appreciate this role even more.”
She oversees Tribal Government, Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority (CIEDA) and PCI Gaming Authority (PCIGA). Poarch Creek Indians’ investment properties range across California, Nevada and Mississippi and throughout Alabama. Both she and the tribe have grown in their emerging roles, dramatically.
Tribal Chair is not Bryan’s first Creek title. In the 1970s, Bryan, as an elementary school girl, entered and won the local Poarch Creek Princess Pageant. “I was so shy. Mom had to make me go on stage to receive my crown,” she laughs in recollection.
But many other titles followed.
Bryan notes, “If someone had told me back in those days of my very shy childhood, one day I would be the tribal leader, my answer would have been, ‘Absolutely not!’” But, it was absolutely yes. Leadership was in her Native American blood.
Her great-great grandfather, Dave Presley, served on the first Tribal Council. Her uncle, John Arthur McGhee, nicknamed “Corn Man” because of his legendary expertise at grilling Indian corn, also served in local Indian government for years. Even as a teenager, Bryan helped, watched and learned from her relatives and other tribal leaders. She was barely out of her teen years when she started writing grant proposals.
She put herself through college, raising two children, and holding two jobs — waitressing and working as a Kmart employee. But her passion was and is her people.
“Working in social programs inspired me,” she says. “I knew at an early age, helping others was what I wanted to do.”
Her social work skills were enhanced with a professional career as an insurance broker, in which she bought a Liberty National franchise. Principles of running a business would one day be applicable to running a tribe. Opportunity knocked.
When her Uncle John “Corn Man” stepped down from office, Bryan stepped in. She ran for a seat on the Poarch Band’s nine-member Tribal Council and won, in the election of 2006. One of the group’s jobs was to choose a vice chairperson. Some suggested she consider it.
“I was shocked to be asked,” newly elected Bryan recalls. “I had no previous political experience, but I agreed to try out.” The committee’s vote was a tie between Bryan and another candidate. A coin toss decided the winner — Vice Chair Stephanie Bryan.
“I became vice chair of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians by the flip of a coin,” she smiles.
As vice chair, her duties included overseeing the fledgling Gaming Commission, not a big deal in 2006, as there were no Creek casinos. “At the time, the closest thing we had to gaming were a few metal buildings that housed bingo games,” she recalls. “My responsibility was to ramp up the regulatory vision for growth and promotion of resort-type gaming facilities. It made for very long days, running into many nights, but we got it done.”
Got it done? Yeah, you might say that.
During Bryan’s leadership to date, the tribe has opened Wind Creek Atmore, Wind Creek Wetumpka and Wind Creek Montgomery. In 2015, Creek Indian Enterprises Development Authority bought the proposed Blue Collar Country property in Foley. Other gaming and entertainment sites are in the works for Florida, Mississippi and more. In 2012, the tribe’s gambling and hospitality revenues’ annual report showed revenues of $600 million.
When Tribal Chair Buford Rolin did not seek re-election, Bryan decided to boldly go where no woman had gone before.
In 2014, she was chosen in the general election to become the first female political leader to move up to tribal chair and CEO of the Poarch Band of Creek
Indians. “But the groundwork was laid before me,” she adds. “Our ancestors, and the seeds they planted, are the reason we are here today. I give them praise and glory.”
There are no typical days for Bryan and her government team, whose hard work she credits for tribal success. Tribal projects, she maintains, are constantly attacked by outside interests, mainly private gaming and casino operators. “The difference is, our gaming/hospitality profits go to our people’s health care, college scholarships, community centers, utilities, Boys and Girls clubs and other needs,” says Bryan.
She says the Poarch Creek Indians fuel an economic engine, providing 3,957 Alabama jobs, with only 10 percent filled by tribal members. In addition to gaming and hotels, Creek assets include Muskogee Technology, Magnolia Branch Wildlife Reserve and the Muskogee Inn, all in Atmore.
“Some people have the misconception that the federal government has done all of this,” Bryan continues, referring to the tribe’s undertakings. “That is not true. We are a government, and what you see here is funded by our due diligence in becoming self-sufficient.”
Today, the tribe has a health care clinic, not visiting dentists who operate out of buses. Creek children are eligible for tribally sponsored college scholarships. A retirement assisted living center is onsite, as are a Boys and Girls Club and community centers. The tribe has its own emergency responders and fire department, which also assist Atmore when called upon.
Bryan is in year two of a three-year term. She plans to seek re-election. “Quality health care and education for our youth are my goals,” she says. “And if we continue to manage revenues wisely and invest in opportunities, the sky is the limit.”
Behind Bryan’s office desk is a plaque reading: “Never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.”
The tribal chair strongly believes those words. She is the wife of Keith Bryan, and mom of three children and three grandchildren. “When I am not working, I am with my family,” she says. “They are my passion.”
Her extended family is the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. “We trace our roots to the 1800s,” Bryan says. “We were the only Alabama branch of Creek Indians not forced to leave our land.”
And, she adds, “We didn’t have much — dirt roads, unemployment and small homes. But we had love, family and unity, and we still do.”
Bryan tells young people to search for their passion. “Do what you are passionate about and take advantage of resources,” she says. “College is not for everyone, but you may make a great nurse or welder. Whatever you do, give it all you’ve got and work hard.”
As for the Tribe’s efforts, she says, “We have much work ahead, but I think our ancestors are smiling down on us, seeing how far we have come.”
They are probably proud, too, of the Princess Pageant winner, the girl of the 1970s who rose to tribal chairwoman.
Emmett Burnett and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. He is based in Satsuma and she in Mobile.