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.

Alabama-Coushattas, for all their loyalty, have been shuttled back and forth between state and federal jurisdiction. In 1954, during a general purging by Congress of national responsibility to the Indians, the tribe agreed to be "terminated" as a federal tribe. That left the state of Texas as trustee of the tribe (until the state tried to get the tribe off its hands in 1983 by arguing that being Indian in Texas violated the state constitution). In 1957, the state appointed as superintendent an educator named Walter Broemer, who found dire conditions on the reservation. Broemer urged the Alabama-Coushattas to develop a tourist industry, even if it meant having to borrow the trappings from other tribes who'd managed to hang on to their traditions.

So far, the story of the Alabama-Coushattas has been one of getting along with the powers that be. But for the current leaders of the tribe, it's been a tale of a people too much at the mercy of outside forces. "Throughout our history, we've been a friendly people. Maybe too friendly," says Kevin Battise, chairman of the Tribal Council that governs most affairs of the tribe. Battise, 40, is sitting in his new office in the tribe's former pottery factory. There are still people on the reservation without phones, he says, but he's trying to bring free Internet access to every tribal member who wants it. "Being Indian doesn't mean you can't like high tech," he says with a smile.

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.

Battise, a tall man with short hair and an athletic bearing, has a quietness about him that is unmistakably Indian. A wry sense of humor, which seems to be an ingrained Alabama-Coushatta trait, occasionally pokes through his reserve. He looks as though he would be at ease in just about any setting. Few outsiders would know he grew up speaking his native tongue Albamu, with English as a second language. In Indian terms, he can "walk in both worlds." In fact, he was an employee of an electronics company, he says, before going on leave to work for the tribe. His mother, a registered nurse, had told him when he was growing up that he could do anything, he recalls. He joined the military right out of high school, to get out into the world. "I'm just now starting to think about my traditional heritage," he says.

His primary mission at the moment, however, is to bring economic development to the reservation. Unemployment is at around 46 percent, he says, if you include the part-time seasonal workers, including those who worked in the tourist concessions that have just been given the axe. The tourist business, he says, has been losing money for years. Some of the tribe's ventures into business have proved disappointing, including a motel and the tobacco shops on the reservation and on a small piece of tribal land near Humble. Their role models for success, says Battise, are the Mississippi Choctaws, who have attracted a variety of industries to their reservation in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which has become a kind of entrepreneurial center. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Choctaws have a booming casino business as well. "The Choctaws are where we want to be," says Battise.

The Alabama-Coushatta tribe, as a community, is not destitute. "We've done a lot with the resources we have," says Battise. While the per capita income for tribe members is only about $11,000, the tribe has been getting revenues from logging on tribal land and from the natural gas wells on the reservation. For decades, some tribal members, including Chief Clayton Sylestine, have worked in the logging business, both on and off the reservation. The chief still walks with a limp from a logging accident. But the real boon came when they found a way to tap into the deep natural gas deposits on tribal land in the 1980s. As Chief Sylestine puts it, "This land was given to us because it was good for nothing. What they didn't know was there was a pot of gold under here." But the tribe has had to wrestle with the bureaucracies of the state of Texas and the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) over the control for and income from their resources. It was only in 1997 that an oil and gas department was established for the tribe, so they could monitor production and royalty revenues.

Those royalty checks are reflected in the new buildings on the reservation, including more tribal offices and the new gym. (Each time concrete is poured on the reservation, jokes one tribe member, the rumors in Livingston start flying that it's going to be a casino.) Nevertheless, there are a lot of needs to be met on the reservation, says Battise, including housing. Currently there is a long waiting list for houses, and he himself is on it, he says. About 50 or 60 homes are needed right away, he says, and a lot of the older homes are falling apart. For years, it was next to impossible to get a loan to build a house on the reservation, since the lending institution would be barred from foreclosing on such property. Health care is also a strong need on the reservation, where people suffer from a disproportionately high rate of diabetes. They would like to build a nursing home on the reservation, so that their infirm elderly can remain close to their families.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets