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.

Fulton Broemer, 36, has fond memories of the tribe, including the time a hundred or so Indians crowded in the Broemers' living room to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. He also has memories of being on the other end of prejudice, as the white kid who was the boss's son. "I learned how to dodge rocks," he says. He sensed their ambivalence about white people much more strongly than his father did, a feeling that has increased over the years, since he became a lawyer and did some legal work for the tribe.

"In the past, when they've dealt on their own with people or situations off the reservation, they've struggled," he says. They resented the tourist business, he felt, since it made them feel like "performing monkeys." Ironically, however, it was the tourist business that got tribe members interested in Indian heritage again. Jack Battise, for example, who is the only member of the tribe who knows the tribe's old songs and dances, became so interested in reviving tribal traditions that he's begun to practice some of the old purification rituals that predated the conversion of the tribe to Christianity. "We were already a spiritual people when the missionaries came here," he says. "They looked at us like we didn't know anything, but we weren't living in darkness. We were already worshiping the Great Creator, with our songs and our dances. They took away our customs, calling us pagan," he says. Some of the tribe's young people now want to participate in powwows that connect them with other tribes.

In reality, what the Alabama-Coushattas initially didn't like about the tourist business was its dependence on outsiders. "They want to be fiercely independent," says Fulton Broemer, "but they're not equipped yet to deal on their own with corporate America," he says. "They want and need help from outsiders, but there is an underlying frustration that they have to have help. It drives them crazy to depend on outsiders. They're only just now building the foundation for dealing with things on their own."

For Kevin Battise and other tribal leaders, the real goal for the Alabama-Coushattas is self-reliance -- financial, political and psychological. "We've had our supporters," says Battise, "but we've been at the mercy of the state and federal government. What we want is less reliance on them and more reliance on our own capabilities to do the things that it's our right to do." He speaks mildly, but there is a steeliness in his words. "In my younger days I could have dwelled on the injustices and got mad," he says. "But I can't go back and change things. As a people, we don't dwell on it. We don't complain. We work within the system, and we'll try to use it to our advantage. We need to decide for ourselves what's best for us -- not some entity in Austin or Washington."

For most Alabama-Coushattas, it seems, being a real Indian these days is more about independence than dancing. Gilman Abbey, for one, is giving up dancing for tourists and moving to Louisiana to get a job in the Grand Casino Coushatta. He needs the income, he explains. Kevin Battise recently spoke to an Indian cultural group in Dallas, he says, and he told them he was there to talk about casinos, not culture. But then he reconsidered, saying that with 200 out of 500 tribes in the country now running casinos, there might be a kind of culture in that. Some tribes have begun buying land with their proceeds and building museums to display -- and maybe reinvent -- their heritage. When asked about what will happen to the Alabama-Coushatta traditions during this time of change, Battise replies, "Maybe a little bit will be lost. But deep down, we know we're a tribe. We have to live together and work together. We're Alabama-Coushatta."

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