War Dance

Alabama-Coushatta Indians are shedding their passive ways in big bets on land claims and casinos. But some fear they could be gambling away their great tribal heritage.

On a late July day in East Texas, young Gilman Abbey sits at a big deerskin drum and beats out a slow, familiar rhythm. BOOM-boom-boom-boom. Abbey, descended from a legendary tribal chief, wears a T-shirt and shorts. His shoulder-length hair, streaked with premature gray, is gathered in a ponytail. His eyes are closed; his strong profile could grace a collector's coin. Not someone to trifle with. HEH-yah-yah-yah. He chants the ancient syllables of a traditional war song, conjuring up old battles and fallen warriors, picking up the pace, while two other young Indians, heads bobbing and feathers rustling, dance faster and faster. They circle a turtle shell placed atop two crossed logs, their moccasins scuffing the dirt floor of the small tribal hall. Affixed to posts holding up the hall's cone-shaped roof are the shields of the twelve clans of Gilman's tribe.

Tourists huddled on the bleachers watch raptly, as though their $6 tickets have bought them a seat in a time warp. For them, this reservation is as much a theme park as a refuge. Some clutch the plastic tomahawks and spears and visors they've bought for half price at the tribal gift shop. For now, these whirling performers are the untamed avatars of the Wild West. Lost in the moment, the tourists are not aware that these Indians may be dancing as fast as they can, but they cannot keep pace with the future. Big changes are in store, changes that could transform the lives of the people here and could reshape this small plot of earth and woods forever. The real battleground for these Indians, as it is for so many Native Americans, lies in courtrooms and tribal offices and lawyers' chambers far from the dance floor. And it also lies in the hearts and minds of the Native Americans who must choose between past and future.

This is the turning point, the drums might say, where the path forks, and everyone must choose a direction.

Slot machines soon may take over the tribal village.
Deron Neblett
Slot machines soon may take over the tribal village.

What the tourists are viewing is partly an illusion, of course. Not all is what it seems here on the oldest, largest Indian reservation in Texas. These are Alabama-Coushattas, not Comanches or Apaches or Kiowas. These are woodland Indians, known as the cautious diplomats of the Indian world, not warriors. They'll be the first to admit that these dances done for 30 years now to entertain tourists are actually borrowed from the flashier tribes of the plains and Southwest. So are the chants and the costumes.

A closer look shows that the turtle perched on the logs in the tribal hut is a ceramic creature, and it is slightly cracked. The clan symbols, however, are not just adornment. They've been passed down through the Alabama-Coushatta maternal line for generations. A glance at the shields reveals the tribe's traditional clans are not those of a warlike people. There is a bear, a rabbit, a beaver. One of the clans is a daddy longlegs, one a turkey, one the wind, and another is salt. These people, you might say, are the kinfolk of the woods and the salt of the earth, and you'd be close to the truth. But they're an adaptable people, as one of their elders says, and they adjust to their environment.

The reservation is still mostly hidden away from U.S. 190 and the traffic zooming between Livingston and Woodville by tall loblolly pines and dense stands of hickory and sweetgum. But it feels more like a small town than the common images of reservations. The heart of it is a mixture of old and new, with the new beginning to overshadow the old. The tribal center looks cozy and welcoming, with its clapboard Presbyterian church. Built over their traditional dance ground more than half a century ago, the church shows they've hewed to the hymnal instead of native religions. Near the church is a tiny historic schoolhouse, bright new gymnasium, and cheery new cultural center where the Tribal Council meets. Across the highway and about a mile west is the other public center, with the Chief Kina Health Clinic and the baseball fields. Five hundred people live nearby in brick and clapboard houses scattered along the roads and in the woods, and the other 500 on the tribal rolls live away from the reservation.

Weekday visitors can walk the reservation campgrounds and be profoundly lulled by the serenity, with ducks leaving small wakes on spring-fed Tombigbee lake and pesky cockaded woodpeckers pounding away on the loblollies. By nightfall, the sounds of crickets and other insects can be a deafening reminder that this is a very old and mysterious place, that there is a lot here to lose.

For years now, the busiest part of the reservation has been the big pine-log lodge housing the gift shop. As July winds down, there is a last-minute rush on going-out-of-business bargains -- beaded moccasins and tribal T-shirts and assorted generic Indian souvenirs that are likely to be made in Taiwan. The lodge will get a lot busier, if tribal leaders have their way. And it won't be the pounding of drums or the hammering of woodpeckers that will be echoing through the woods, but rather the kaching-kaching of video eight-line slot machines and the barking of bingo announcers. The lodge is about to shut down for renovations. It will be transformed it into a temporary gaming parlor, expected to open some time this fall. No more borrowed songs and dances, no more bus tours into the Big Thicket. The new visitors will be looking to get lucky, not dipped in Indian lore.

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