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.

For now, the last wave of tourists on this reservation is the closest they've ever been to Indians, and they're not quite sure what to do, other than take snapshots. After the last Indian dance on a recent day, a middle-aged female visitor hesitantly approaches performer Rochellda Sylestine and asks if she can touch the dancer. "Yes, I'm real," Sylestine tells her. The 20-year-old dancer will return in a few days to college in Kansas.

The meaning of being a "real Indian" can be clouded these days. The Alabama-Coushattas, with two clans now extinct and their native language threatened, have had to reinvent themselves for the benefit of tourists. Now they're looking again for a way and an identity to help them continue as a tribe into the new century. This time, though, just surviving isn't enough. They want more. They want a piece of the future, and this time they aren't going to settle for 4,600 acres in the woods of Polk County.

Already, they've taken on the U.S. Department of Justice over their claims to a huge chunk of land in East Texas and finally won a decisive battle last year in a long, sporadic legal war. Now, they're about to challenge the state of Texas over the right to gamble on their grounds. And they know quite well that they're taking an enormous gamble that they can keep it all together as a people as they keep pushing further from their roots, further beyond the safe but confining boundaries of the reservation. Some, even among their own people, question the cost of that progress.

Legal rulings have reduced the tribe's land claims from nine million acres to 2.8 million -- still an enormous area.
Legal rulings have reduced the tribe's land claims from nine million acres to 2.8 million -- still an enormous area.
Legal rulings have reduced the tribe's land claims from nine million acres to 2.8 million -- still an enormous area.
Legal rulings have reduced the tribe's land claims from nine million acres to 2.8 million -- still an enormous area.

The Alabama-Coushattas have a saying, says tribal spokeswoman Sharon Miller, that goes like this: "We were here before you got here. We're still here. And we'll be here after you're gone." Although a measure of bravado might be read into it, the motto is a reminder that all of Texas was once Indian country. Nowadays, for those looking for Indian country in this state, the Alabama-Coushatta reservation is pretty much it, except for the postage-stamp holdings of the Tiguas and Kickapoos on the Rio Grande. The rest of the 70,000 Indians are scattered around the state, most living in or near the cities, with a large concentration from various tribes in Dallas and Houston.

In 1836, during the Texas Revolution, few bettors would have wagered that the Alabama-Coushattas would survive intact as a tribe into the 21st century. Unlike the mounted warriors from the plains, the Alabamas and the Coushattas were hunters, planters and gatherers originally from Alabama. They were known for retreating from rather than fighting the white settlers who had continually pushed them west.

Once prosperous allies of the Creek confederacy of tribes in the southeast, and later of the French, they had retreated through the woods, across rivers and valleys, until they finally found a place in East Texas that nobody else wanted: the Big Thicket. They started trickling in during the 1780s. Back then the Big Thicket stretched west into present-day Navasota, and the villages, hunting camps and traces (trails) of the Alabama and Coushatta tribes (who were then separate) were laced throughout the region from the Sabine River on the east, Nacogdoches on the north, the San Jacinto on the west, and Galveston Bay on the south. It was an area roughly twice the size of the state of Massachusetts. Though they were relative latecomers, they wove themselves inextricably into the fabric of the land and of Texas history.

The Alabamas and Coushattas got along with each other and with the Spanish, who controlled the area at the time and wanted them there as a buffer against the French on the east. They got along with the Mexicans, too, after they took over the region. But during the Texas Revolution, they had the good sense to send the right signals to Sam Houston. Although they never actually fought on the side of the Texans, they indicated that they were ready to do so. After Texas became a state, Houston tried to enforce a policy of friendship with the Indians, particularly with the Alabamas and Coushattas.

Houston's successor, Mirabeau Lamar, began carrying out a policy of extermination and removal -- except for the Alabamas and Coushattas, to whom he granted two leagues of land. White settlers took over that land, where the Indians had already established villages. It wasn't until 1854 that a reservation was established for the Alabamas in its current location. Although money had also been appropriated to purchase land for the Coushattas, nothing came of it, and the Coushattas settled on the land of their close kin, the Alabamas.

During the Civil War, 20 tribal members signed up to fight for the Confederates, duty which consisted mainly of operating supply boats from the upper Trinity down to Southern forces along the Gulf. More volunteered for service in World War I, though they were turned down by the U.S. government. Indians didn't become full-fledged American citizens until 1924. Among the World War II veterans was tribal elder Daniel Battise, one of the last surviving members of the legendary Devil's Brigade, a precursor to the Green Berets.

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