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.

It happened then and it happened this year with the sequestration. The budgets for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and for the Indian Health Service and other government programs are part of the non-defense discretionary section of the budget — meaning they've got nothing to do with the military and can be cut if necessary — and are among the first to be cut.

On the reservation, the cuts affected everything from the tribe's ability to repair roads to the provision of a full range of health services at the clinics. "These are promises that were made to tribes a long time ago, in the same way promises were made to elders and veterans, but the promises to the tribes aren't being honored," Ebarb, of the National Congress of American Indians, said.

In the case of the Alabama-Coushatta, the problem with proper funding is partly a numbers game. Their strict rules for joining the tribe have kept them from being overrun by outsiders with a little blood and no understanding of their culture, but the rules have also kept tribe numbers low.

The Alabama-Coushatta gave a performance for children from the reservation Head Start and local private school during Restoration Week, singing songs learned from other tribes because many of their own songs have been lost.
Dianna Wray
The Alabama-Coushatta gave a performance for children from the reservation Head Start and local private school during Restoration Week, singing songs learned from other tribes because many of their own songs have been lost.
Ronnie Thomas, chairman of the Tribal Council, says he knows there will likely be more federal budget cuts but he's hoping the tribe will be able to reopen their casino and be more self-sufficient.
Daniel Kramer
Ronnie Thomas, chairman of the Tribal Council, says he knows there will likely be more federal budget cuts but he's hoping the tribe will be able to reopen their casino and be more self-sufficient.

This makes a difference when all the tribes are trying for grants or extra funding. Tribes with larger numbers, such as the Cherokee and the Navajo, have a little more federal funding to work with, Celestine said. They're able to hire professional grant writers to sponsor programs to preserve languages or teach basket weaving or whatever the money is for. The Alabama-Coushatta have kept themselves small, and by extension relatively powerless in competition with the larger, flashier tribes.

The cuts hit every tribe, though the ones that had tribal reserves were somewhat cushioned against the blow. On the Alabama-Coushatta reservation, 5 percent cuts in May meant they had to eliminate a full-time position at the Head Start program, which serves children countywide because there aren't enough reservation children to fill the spots. They've lost other longtime employees, too, spooked by the uncertainty, the feeling that there will be more budget reductions before this is over.

Walking down the aisle of the grocery store or at tribal gatherings, Myra Sylestine, director of the Alabama-Coushatta Health Service, will catch sight of someone she knows they've had to deny services to. "It's not a good feeling," she said.

If the sequestration stays in place, if the budget is further reduced, Sylestine knows they'll have to limit their services even further, working at level one, where they treat only those in immediate need. The reservation clinic has already reduced its services to level two, meaning it sees only people who are immediately sick or who need emergency care. There is no preventive treatment right now — the facility simply can't afford it.

The Affordable Care Act has put an extra unexpected strain on the clinic, Sylestine said. Reservation clinics are required to provide services to all federally recognized card-carrying tribe members. Native Americans are exempt from being required to get health insurance, but the changes in the law are driving them to seek care at the Alabama-Coushatta clinic.

Sylestine said they've seen more than 50 off-reservation patients in the past few months, drawing on the clinic's already limited services. That doesn't seem like much, but they're used to serving the people in their tribe, about 500 on reservation and 1,150 total. The cuts were initially rumored to be at about 3 percent but were around 5 percent when they actually went into effect. This meant cutting $90,000 from her $1.8 million budget overnight. The facility didn't fill a position, going into a survival mode the way trees draw into themselves when there's a drought, simply trying to hold on until it passes. The clinic will be running at level two until its budget is restored, she said. "We're just holding our breath and hoping it doesn't happen again," Sylestine said.
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The Alabama-Coushatta have kept to themselves for generations, but there is a movement to make the tribe more open, with changes to the tribe's constitution slated to take effect this January. The new provisions will alter the rules for joining the tribe, a move that Thomas, Celestine, Battise and those of the younger generation approve of but that many of the tribal elders do not. But looser rules will mean more people, and more people in the tribe will mean more members. It's just common sense, Battise said.

The tribe will also be inaugurating a new chief — a lifetime appointee — to replace their previous chief, who died last spring. Celestine will be there, video camera in hand to record it all. Chiefs don't have the power they once did, but a different chief could signify the start of a new era.

Celestine has been working for years on the tribe's history, archiving collected bits and pieces and tracing the threads of language, song and tradition to see if he can glean what his tribe would have looked like before they lost touch with their history. The government will fund them, or not. The casino will re-open, or won't. But they're still hoping to find a way to make this life on the reservation continue, to give young people the chance to find the way and create lives here.

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5 comments
Puller58
Puller58

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.

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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