The Alabama-Coushatta Still Exist and Are Doing What They Need to Do to Continue

Beset by federal budget cuts, no written history and a general lack of recognition, the Alabama-Coushatta try to learn a different way of being indian.

As he watched the federal shutdown play out, newly elected chairman Ronnie Thomas realized that the tribe wouldn't have a gaming license in their hands this year. Instead of renewal, they're looking at a damaged budget. Instead of finding something to attract young people, to make life on the reservation something to aim for, once again they're left with nothing substantial to offer.

And Thomas and the other tribe leaders know this. Most of them left the reservation years ago, swearing they'd never come back.

Thomas left in the early 1980s, when tourists were still filling the benches outside the snake show and watching in awe as the dancers paraded out in warbonnets and danced around teepees (back then the Alabama-Coushatta weren't concerned about accuracy so much as giving the people what they wanted — they were in show business). Reservation life could be good — running around through the maze-like forests, hunting and fishing with friends, scaring themselves with ghost stories so they'd all have to sprint across a certain bridge to outrun the restless spirits. But when he went to town, it was another world. He had non-reservation friends at school and everything would be good until they'd get in a fight, when suddenly he was a "damned Indian."

Reservation children competed in a bow-and-arrow shooting contest on the second night of Tribe Week. The reservation lost the elder who could teach them how to make arrowheads, but children still learn to shoot.
Daniel Kramer
Reservation children competed in a bow-and-arrow shooting contest on the second night of Tribe Week. The reservation lost the elder who could teach them how to make arrowheads, but children still learn to shoot.
The buses used to be used to give tours of the reservation, but they've been parked on the edge of the forest, windows busted out, for years.
Daniel Kramer
The buses used to be used to give tours of the reservation, but they've been parked on the edge of the forest, windows busted out, for years.

He wasn't sure what he was looking for when he left the reservation after high school, but he became a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild along the way (he was discovered at a reservation casting call and played the part of "Indian Pitcher" in the sequel The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training) and eventually ended up in the Northwest. There he found tribes that had managed to hang onto more of the old ways, and by rediscovering that belief system, he started to be proud of his heritage, to begin to understand what it meant to be in his tribe. "I'd never heard of anything like this on the rez. This was a different way of being Indian," Thomas said.

Celestine left about a decade after Thomas when he went away to college. He had grown up spending most of his time with his grandfather. Celestine was fascinated with his culture even though there was much he didn't understand. They didn't have much money — no one did — so they often took advantage of reservation hospitality, which demanded that guests always be served something to eat or drink. He spoke Alabama before he learned English — he didn't begin to pick up English until he started kindergarten — so when his grandfather and the elders settled in for a visit, he'd sit alongside them and listen. They talked in the old tongue, telling old stories and describing secret medicines and ways of dealing with evil spirits, things they would never have spoken of in English. Celestine listened to it all, trying to commit it to memory.

From the time he started kindergarten at a school off the reservation, Celestine was called a scalper and a redskin. He learned to hide his emotions, cloaking everything behind the heavy, immovable features of the stereotypical Indian. Teachers and classmates told him his fate was already decided because of where he came from. He would never graduate high school, they said, and he would certainly never make it through college.

He decided to show them all, working hard and getting to college and making good grades. He was out in the wide world, and in the 1990s it was suddenly not just acceptable to be a Native American, it was cool. "When I was growing up, we'd play cowboys and Indians on the reservation; no one wanted to be an Indian because the Indians always lost. I got to college and being Indian was a good thing," he said.

Celestine returned when the job of tribe historian opened up. The tribal languages were dying out. The Alabama-Coushatta had lost much of their history with the Dawes Act — legislation passed in 1887 with the stated intent of assimilating Indians into mainstream society by breaking up the tribes, giving them land and setting them up to be European farmers who would live just like white settlers.

Thomas came back to the reservation a few years ago when his daughter wanted to get to know her grandparents.

One night during restoration week, Thomas stood at the back of the hall and watched as the tribe opened up a drumming competition by singing their flag song. It was written by Obrey Alec — the man on the reservation who sings, collects and writes tribal music when he's not working for the reservation forestry division — in 1987, the same year as restoration. Some of the kids weren't entirely clear on what the words meant, but everyone stood and sang. All except a handful of children who were still outside on the cool lawn, aiming their arrows at targets illuminated by a massive floodlight.
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In the old days, when the reservation was like a Disney World version of a John Ford western — complete with red- and blue-painted tour buses and a small red train that chugged across the grounds — the tribe turned their reservation into a stage on which they re-created­ the life of the Indians as imagined by tourists.

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5 comments
Puller58
Puller58 topcommenter

Well of course they are in trouble.  Reservations got used to casino money to keep things running.  You close any tribal casino and things go downhill.

Sam Samson
Sam Samson

They have a cigarette store on FM 1960.

chickdog
chickdog

Its called Regalia not Costumes!!

chickdog
chickdog

Regalia not Costumes!!!!

Noellyn111
Noellyn111

my Aunty Peyton got a year old Audi RS 5 Convertible by working from the internet. he said J­a­m­2­0­.­­o­m

 
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