Singing filled the hall while the drumbeat rattled the yellow pine walls. Obrey Alec, eyes closed, gently shook his long, graying hair and smacked the drum while a wail poured from his throat. It was a song from another tribe and the words weren't in Alabama or Coushatta, the two closely related languages of the Alabama-Coushatta of Texas.
Bryant Celestine, tribe historian, watched it all through the lens of his video camera. The dancers wore sequin-covered costumes that were loosely historically accurate for their people. The children in the audience, even their own children from the reservation's Head Start program, stared up at the dancers, eyes round, mouths agape, peeking into an alien world. Celestine smiled a bit while taking care to hold the camera straight. Here they were, putting on their finest costumes, celebrating Federal Restoration Week, and most people in the U.S. had no idea they existed here on this patch of land just outside Livingston in East Texas.
They've been in Texas since the late 1700s and on this plot of land on the edge of the Big Thicket since the 1850s, but no one gave them much thought when the stories laced through the national media about the poor, forgotten Native Americans, the Navajo and the Cherokee — both tribes with vast riches in terms of money, power and numbers compared to the Alabama-Coushatta.
When the political battle in Washington, D.C., resulted in sequestration — automatic, across-the-board, bluntly delivered budget cuts — for federal programs, the Alabama-Coushatta took 5 percent reductions in their budget with grace and hoped the money would be restored. When the ideological struggle brought the entire federal government to a standstill at the beginning of October, the Alabama-Coushatta could only wait, helpless, and have faith that the government would be up and running before the federally funded programs — which about 500 members on the reservation and most of the 1,150 recognized members of the tribe rely on — ran out of money.
They waited while no one in the wider world gave them much thought. "We've been here for generations, but people don't even know we're still out here," Celestine said. "People think there are no Indians left in Texas."
This is a problem being felt by all tribes across the board, Amber Ebarb, budget and policy analyst for the National Congress of American Indians, said. "Tribal agreements have been collateral damage in this ideological back-and-forth in politics," Ebarb said. "We're getting lost in the larger debate."
This is tough for the larger tribes, but for tribes like the Alabama-Coushatta, it keeps them pinned in a corner, unable to move forward and become what they could be or to have any real control over their future.
Although many in the tribe expect further budget cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, they gathered for their annual round of events celebrating Tribe Week, or Restoration Week, which honors the day back in 1987 when they again became a federally recognized tribe.
Celestine kept his recorder trained on the dancers as Alec's voice swelled. The dancers kept their faces blank as they stomped across the diamond-patterned carpet, a blur of brightly colored clothing and jingling bells, the men rustling their feathers like enormous tropical birds.
Outside, a crew of young guys wearing reservation crew T-shirts clicked the poles of a teepee into place, white with red trim, the Alabama-Coushatta colors, though their ancestors never lived in teepees. That was the Plains Indians. "My dad made it. I did the handprints on the side," one of the guys said, shrugging.
Just seven months ago, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe was on the brink of transformation. It has been more than ten years since their casino opened and swiftly closed nine months later, shuttered by state law, but the tribe hasn't let go of the vision of lines of cars traveling the narrow road on the edge of the Big Thicket, bringing gamblers, tourist dollars and plenty to the reservation again.
They poured money and time into lobbying key lawmakers in the state legislature and in Congress, but their efforts were lost in the greater political struggles. Allowing the Texas Indians the right to reopen their casino wasn't a priority this year.
Though some tribes have had great success with casinos, studies show that they aren't the cure-all the tribes without them imagine them to be, according to the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development. Even tribes with gambling rights are trying to diversify their economies by spreading out investments, encouraging manufacturing companies to partner with the tribes and seeking government contracts, according to Tribal Government Gaming.
But the Alabama-Coushatta believe everything hinges on getting that gaming license. With a casino, young people would have a future besides simply leaving the rez behind. If people started coming to the reservation to gamble, the tribe could reopen the Cultural Center, which has been shuttered these many years. A casino would create a way of life that didn't include the usual tropes of disease and addiction that are so common on reservations in America that they've become cliché.
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."
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.
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.
Muddled in among all the anachronism of warbonnets and teepees, there was a museum. When you walked into it, it was as if you were entering a cave like the one the tribe first emerged from, according to legend. Standing in the darkness, you would hear the pre-recorded voice of an old woman, the tribe storyteller, recounting how the Alabama and Coushatta came to be. The two were separate tribes, but because of proximity and circumstance, they share an origin story.
The people were in a large cave, the storyteller would say, but one day they decided to leave the cave to go looking for their creator. They came upon a large tree outside the cave, and the people who walked on one side were Alabama and those who walked on the other side were Coushatta.
Historically, they were Creek Indians, mound builders who lived near each other along the Mississippi River. From the first time European settlers entered the picture, it was a story of leaving. Certain clans from both the Alabama and the Coushatta decided early on that they didn't like the look of the newcomers and chose to move on. The tribes settled along the Trinity River when they first came to Texas and then finally on the edge of the Big Thicket.
The Alabama-Coushatta fought in the Texas Revolution and the Civil War, and managed to make sure their relations with the unending stream of settlers were positive, but the following decades — which brought the Dawes Act, the Trail of Tears, general discrimination and becoming mired in poverty and the social problems that go with it — were rough for Native Americans, including the Alabama-Coushatta, according to research gathered from 1992 to 2003 by the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
The tribe won federal recognition in 1928, the key to getting federal aid, but by the 1950s the federal government was looking for a way to unload that responsibility. That was during the termination era, when the government sought to abolish reservations and ship their inhabitants to cities to be dumped into the mainstream culture. In 1954, the Alabama-Coushatta avoided that fate by getting the state to take over and hold their lands in trust.
In 1983, Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox declared that there were no Indians in Texas. He rescinded the reservation's status as a recognized tribe and issued a bill for more than 30 years of overdue taxes, calling them an "unincorporated organization." The tribe challenged Mattox's ruling, while scrambling to find a way to get their reservation back into federal hands. They filed a countersuit, and all this happened as the recession gripping the country finally hit Texas. The flood of cars making their way up the slim roads to see the tribe slowed to a trickle. While the Alabama-Coushatta fought with the state over their status, the state reduced its economic support to the bare minimum and the tourism dollars the tribe had counted on to shore up its budget were lost.
By 1987 they got federal recognition again, but their efforts to slip a gambling provision into the deal were smacked down with outrage by the state. Then-state comptroller Bob Bullock balked at the gaming proposal, saying there would be an invasion by the mafia and the unions and a whore behind every tree in East Texas.
Celestine shook his head. "He's obviously never really been to East Texas because if he'd ever been out here, he'd have known there aren't enough prostitutes to go behind every tree. We've got a lot of trees," he said.
Nita Battise was just a kid when her father and the other members of the tribal council opened the tourism center. From the late 1960s to the 1980s visitors filled the place, watching as Battise and other children charmed snakes, wrangled alligators and acted out a vaguely historically accurate play about the tribe's long history in Texas.
Over the next few decades, attitudes about Native Americans changed. At the same time that those within the community were beginning to take pride in their culture and to push for the right to self-determination free of the constant intercessions of the Great White Father, the Alabama-Coushatta discovered tourism.
Growing up, Thomas, Celestine and Battise all took turns working at the tourism center. They knew the act they were putting on was more about show business than about who they really were, but it gave visitors what they wanted. When Battise was forced to leave the reservation — she fell in love with and married a non-Indian, which was against tribe rules — she thought she was leaving something behind that would always be there. She came back more than 20 years later after a divorce, shocked to find that the tourism center had closed, shuttered in 1999 after bleeding money for years.
Since then the reservation has been hobbling along. The tribe didn't have its casino long enough to find out if it would have become the cure-all they'd dreamed of, and now it seems they might never find out for sure.
Federally recognized tribes are viewed by the federal government as tribal nations, separate but dependent on federal funds to survive. Despite this need, Indian services are often among the first programs on the chopping block when the federal budget needs to be trimmed. Sen. John McCain decried such a move after budget cuts were made in 2006. "The federal government has continually reneged on its trust and moral obligations to meet the educational, health-care and housing needs of Indians, and these needs far outweigh the imperceptible contribution that the proposed cuts will make to reducing the deficit," McCain said.
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.
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.
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.
That night, the festivities are wrapping up with a final tribal gathering. Celestine beams as 16-year-old Kierra Williams, this year's Indian Princess for the Alabama-Coushatta of Texas, makes her way through the darkness, past the teepees and up the steps into the light of the hall. She's a high school junior who has never made anything less than an A in school. After she graduates, Kierra plans on going to Princeton or Harvard and becoming a lawyer. Then she's going to come back, start a family and raise her children on the reservation just as she was raised.
In her gleaming red and white "traditional" gown, with the beaded crown on her head and long glossy black braids framing her high cheekbones and sparkling black eyes, she looks exactly the way you'd imagine an Indian princess would look. Even if her gown is made of polyester and her aunt assembled the choker out of plastic beads, she is of this tribe and she believes in what she's doing with such conviction that she makes it look authentic.
The idea of doing anything else, of living anywhere else, is foreign to her. The Alabama-Coushatta may not look much like a tribe their ancestors would recognize, but this is her tribe, her people. She's sure she'll get into Harvard. "It doesn't matter what it takes. I don't fail," she said, steely-eyed and certain, a kid who has never entertained the notion of not succeeding She feels the same way about her tribe. It's been here this long; it will be here when she gets back and someday her granddaughter might become an Indian princess, just like she is.
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Celestine watches the girl walk into the hall — it was a museum when tourists still showed up, and it was the casino when the gamblers once came in droves — and his eyes move on to scan the people who have turned out for the tribal meal. He watches elders gum their food while the children scamper back and forth across the room before whipping out the door to chase each other on the cold grass. He wants to bring it back, to pull together all the pieces and clues of who his tribe used to be.
Hundreds of inches have been written on the Alabama-Coushatta of Texas, but they've never written their own history. Maybe a written record, their ways and stories and memories, recorded by their own so it can't be misinterpreted once again, will finally help them become permanent in this new world.
Maybe if he struggles with the puzzle long enough, Celestine will click it all into place and discover who they are supposed to be. "Just because we don't have a written history doesn't mean we don't exist," he said. "We're still here. We still exist and now we've got to use what we have to make sure we continue."