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.

Minter and Diamond felt that the Indians' best claim was showing that the federal government was negligent in allowing white settlers to take over Indian land. In the early 1980s, they were joined by attorney Don Miller of the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), based in Boulder, Colorado, which was breaking ground in Indian law in the field of land claims.

Before the team could sue the government, however, they had to get permission from the government -- which meant Congressional action. It took six sessions of Congress and a dozen years to get lawmakers to send the case to a hearing officer in the Federal Claims Court. An elderly judge named Mastin White from East Texas was in ill health and apparently wanted to get the matter settled quickly. He ruled against the tribe in 1986, shortly before he died, and before briefings for the case had even been filed. The tribe appealed to a Review Panel, which sent the case back to a second judge who simply reiterated White's decision. After another appeal by the tribe, the Review Panel in 1996 ruled that the United States was liable to the tribe for trespass damages from 1845 to 1954 -- the time that the tribe was under federal jurisdiction.

What the verdict meant, says Minter, was that the Indians "owned the land then -- and they still own it." Attorneys for the government appealed. In June 2000, the panel decided in the Indians' favor, although rulings had reduced the size of the claims down to some 2.8 million acres for which damages would have to be decided.

Jack Battise, with wife Lawrine, is the last Alabama-Coushatta who knows the old tribal songs and dances.
Jack Battise, with wife Lawrine, is the last Alabama-Coushatta who knows the old tribal songs and dances.

Attorneys for the U.S. and the Indians are trying to work out a settlement figure to be sent to Congress. No one directly involved in the case will mention even a ballpark estimate of the amount of money, although one source suggested it will run well into the billions. Minter cautions that the government would have to put an "artificial ceiling" on any payout. No one believes that the Indians will get anything close to the actual value of losing the use of that much land, replete with valuable timber and mineral resources, over a period of 109 years.

The decision and any proposed settlement could conceivably languish in Congressional committee forever. Tom Diamond says leaving the matter up in the air means that the Indians still hold title, at least theoretically, to a big chunk of East Texas, and all they'd have to do is start sending out eviction notices, as the Catawbas and other Eastern tribes did, in order to get things moving.

So far, there has been remarkably little exultation among either the lawyers or the Indians. Attorneys, who have spent decades of their lives and a small fortune of their own money on this case, are a bit battle weary. "I started out this case as a young lawyer," cracks Tom Diamond, "and now I'm an old lawyer."

"Everybody has a major cause in their lives, and this has evolved to be my cause," Minter says. "This thing has gone on so long it's become part of the tribe's oral history."

If the Alabama-Coushattas win a fraction of the settlement, it would represent one of the great turnarounds in American history. This is a small, almost invisible tribe that was down to fewer than 200 people by 1880 and which still had multi-generation families crowded into small, rundown houses without running water or electricity well into the 1960s. But a lot of people inside and outside the tribe have wondered what price they may have to pay for their victories. So far, the Alabama-Coushattas have prevailed, says Don Miller, "because of a quiet and nonaggressive persistence." Alan Minter attributes their survival as a people to their deep bonds to each other. "I don't know how they could have stayed together otherwise," he says. "To survive the way they have, against such great odds, you have to have a higher sense than yourself. The majority of that tribe has made a conscious decision that the sum is greater than the parts. They put aside individualism for community. Historically, any attempt to break up that community has failed because they haven't let it happen."

But so far, they've also survived because of white men like Minter and Howard Martin and others who have adopted the tribe's cause as their own -- to an almost fanatical degree. During the 1960s and '70s, tribal superintendent Walter Broemer made it his life's mission to improve tribal living conditions, which also meant dealing with harsh prejudice in the surrounding towns.

Broemer, who still lives with his wife Frances in Livingston, used to spend every Thanksgiving with Chief Fulton Battise, he says, and he named his son Fulton. Broemer recalls a time when a white man from Livingston told him indignantly, "The Indians have never done anything, and they never will." Not long ago, says Broemer, that same man shook his hand, saying, "Well, I was wrong." In fact, the situation has flipped so much that some people in Livingston complain now that the Indians are so reserved and keep to themselves so much.

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