On a late July day in East Texas, young Gilman Abbey sits at a big deerskin drum and beats out a slow, familiar rhythm. BOOM-boom-boom-boom. Abbey, descended from a legendary tribal chief, wears a T-shirt and shorts. His shoulder-length hair, streaked with premature gray, is gathered in a ponytail. His eyes are closed; his strong profile could grace a collector's coin. Not someone to trifle with. HEH-yah-yah-yah. He chants the ancient syllables of a traditional war song, conjuring up old battles and fallen warriors, picking up the pace, while two other young Indians, heads bobbing and feathers rustling, dance faster and faster. They circle a turtle shell placed atop two crossed logs, their moccasins scuffing the dirt floor of the small tribal hall. Affixed to posts holding up the hall's cone-shaped roof are the shields of the twelve clans of Gilman's tribe.
Tourists huddled on the bleachers watch raptly, as though their $6 tickets have bought them a seat in a time warp. For them, this reservation is as much a theme park as a refuge. Some clutch the plastic tomahawks and spears and visors they've bought for half price at the tribal gift shop. For now, these whirling performers are the untamed avatars of the Wild West. Lost in the moment, the tourists are not aware that these Indians may be dancing as fast as they can, but they cannot keep pace with the future. Big changes are in store, changes that could transform the lives of the people here and could reshape this small plot of earth and woods forever. The real battleground for these Indians, as it is for so many Native Americans, lies in courtrooms and tribal offices and lawyers' chambers far from the dance floor. And it also lies in the hearts and minds of the Native Americans who must choose between past and future.
This is the turning point, the drums might say, where the path forks, and everyone must choose a direction.
What the tourists are viewing is partly an illusion, of course. Not all is what it seems here on the oldest, largest Indian reservation in Texas. These are Alabama-Coushattas, not Comanches or Apaches or Kiowas. These are woodland Indians, known as the cautious diplomats of the Indian world, not warriors. They'll be the first to admit that these dances done for 30 years now to entertain tourists are actually borrowed from the flashier tribes of the plains and Southwest. So are the chants and the costumes.
Battle of the Piney Woods: SFA vs. SHSU
TicketsSat., Oct. 1, 3:00pm
University of Houston Cougars Football vs. Tulsa Golden Hurricane Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 11:00am
Rice University Owls Football vs. UTSA Roadrunners Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 15, 6:00pm
Rice University Owls Football vs. Prairie View A&M University Football
TicketsSat., Oct. 22, 2:30pm
A closer look shows that the turtle perched on the logs in the tribal hut is a ceramic creature, and it is slightly cracked. The clan symbols, however, are not just adornment. They've been passed down through the Alabama-Coushatta maternal line for generations. A glance at the shields reveals the tribe's traditional clans are not those of a warlike people. There is a bear, a rabbit, a beaver. One of the clans is a daddy longlegs, one a turkey, one the wind, and another is salt. These people, you might say, are the kinfolk of the woods and the salt of the earth, and you'd be close to the truth. But they're an adaptable people, as one of their elders says, and they adjust to their environment.
The reservation is still mostly hidden away from U.S. 190 and the traffic zooming between Livingston and Woodville by tall loblolly pines and dense stands of hickory and sweetgum. But it feels more like a small town than the common images of reservations. The heart of it is a mixture of old and new, with the new beginning to overshadow the old. The tribal center looks cozy and welcoming, with its clapboard Presbyterian church. Built over their traditional dance ground more than half a century ago, the church shows they've hewed to the hymnal instead of native religions. Near the church is a tiny historic schoolhouse, bright new gymnasium, and cheery new cultural center where the Tribal Council meets. Across the highway and about a mile west is the other public center, with the Chief Kina Health Clinic and the baseball fields. Five hundred people live nearby in brick and clapboard houses scattered along the roads and in the woods, and the other 500 on the tribal rolls live away from the reservation.
Weekday visitors can walk the reservation campgrounds and be profoundly lulled by the serenity, with ducks leaving small wakes on spring-fed Tombigbee lake and pesky cockaded woodpeckers pounding away on the loblollies. By nightfall, the sounds of crickets and other insects can be a deafening reminder that this is a very old and mysterious place, that there is a lot here to lose.
For years now, the busiest part of the reservation has been the big pine-log lodge housing the gift shop. As July winds down, there is a last-minute rush on going-out-of-business bargains -- beaded moccasins and tribal T-shirts and assorted generic Indian souvenirs that are likely to be made in Taiwan. The lodge will get a lot busier, if tribal leaders have their way. And it won't be the pounding of drums or the hammering of woodpeckers that will be echoing through the woods, but rather the kaching-kaching of video eight-line slot machines and the barking of bingo announcers. The lodge is about to shut down for renovations. It will be transformed it into a temporary gaming parlor, expected to open some time this fall. No more borrowed songs and dances, no more bus tours into the Big Thicket. The new visitors will be looking to get lucky, not dipped in Indian lore.
For now, the last wave of tourists on this reservation is the closest they've ever been to Indians, and they're not quite sure what to do, other than take snapshots. After the last Indian dance on a recent day, a middle-aged female visitor hesitantly approaches performer Rochellda Sylestine and asks if she can touch the dancer. "Yes, I'm real," Sylestine tells her. The 20-year-old dancer will return in a few days to college in Kansas.
The meaning of being a "real Indian" can be clouded these days. The Alabama-Coushattas, with two clans now extinct and their native language threatened, have had to reinvent themselves for the benefit of tourists. Now they're looking again for a way and an identity to help them continue as a tribe into the new century. This time, though, just surviving isn't enough. They want more. They want a piece of the future, and this time they aren't going to settle for 4,600 acres in the woods of Polk County.
Already, they've taken on the U.S. Department of Justice over their claims to a huge chunk of land in East Texas and finally won a decisive battle last year in a long, sporadic legal war. Now, they're about to challenge the state of Texas over the right to gamble on their grounds. And they know quite well that they're taking an enormous gamble that they can keep it all together as a people as they keep pushing further from their roots, further beyond the safe but confining boundaries of the reservation. Some, even among their own people, question the cost of that progress.
The Alabama-Coushattas have a saying, says tribal spokeswoman Sharon Miller, that goes like this: "We were here before you got here. We're still here. And we'll be here after you're gone." Although a measure of bravado might be read into it, the motto is a reminder that all of Texas was once Indian country. Nowadays, for those looking for Indian country in this state, the Alabama-Coushatta reservation is pretty much it, except for the postage-stamp holdings of the Tiguas and Kickapoos on the Rio Grande. The rest of the 70,000 Indians are scattered around the state, most living in or near the cities, with a large concentration from various tribes in Dallas and Houston.
In 1836, during the Texas Revolution, few bettors would have wagered that the Alabama-Coushattas would survive intact as a tribe into the 21st century. Unlike the mounted warriors from the plains, the Alabamas and the Coushattas were hunters, planters and gatherers originally from Alabama. They were known for retreating from rather than fighting the white settlers who had continually pushed them west.
Once prosperous allies of the Creek confederacy of tribes in the southeast, and later of the French, they had retreated through the woods, across rivers and valleys, until they finally found a place in East Texas that nobody else wanted: the Big Thicket. They started trickling in during the 1780s. Back then the Big Thicket stretched west into present-day Navasota, and the villages, hunting camps and traces (trails) of the Alabama and Coushatta tribes (who were then separate) were laced throughout the region from the Sabine River on the east, Nacogdoches on the north, the San Jacinto on the west, and Galveston Bay on the south. It was an area roughly twice the size of the state of Massachusetts. Though they were relative latecomers, they wove themselves inextricably into the fabric of the land and of Texas history.
The Alabamas and Coushattas got along with each other and with the Spanish, who controlled the area at the time and wanted them there as a buffer against the French on the east. They got along with the Mexicans, too, after they took over the region. But during the Texas Revolution, they had the good sense to send the right signals to Sam Houston. Although they never actually fought on the side of the Texans, they indicated that they were ready to do so. After Texas became a state, Houston tried to enforce a policy of friendship with the Indians, particularly with the Alabamas and Coushattas.
Houston's successor, Mirabeau Lamar, began carrying out a policy of extermination and removal -- except for the Alabamas and Coushattas, to whom he granted two leagues of land. White settlers took over that land, where the Indians had already established villages. It wasn't until 1854 that a reservation was established for the Alabamas in its current location. Although money had also been appropriated to purchase land for the Coushattas, nothing came of it, and the Coushattas settled on the land of their close kin, the Alabamas.
During the Civil War, 20 tribal members signed up to fight for the Confederates, duty which consisted mainly of operating supply boats from the upper Trinity down to Southern forces along the Gulf. More volunteered for service in World War I, though they were turned down by the U.S. government. Indians didn't become full-fledged American citizens until 1924. Among the World War II veterans was tribal elder Daniel Battise, one of the last surviving members of the legendary Devil's Brigade, a precursor to the Green Berets.
Alabama-Coushattas, for all their loyalty, have been shuttled back and forth between state and federal jurisdiction. In 1954, during a general purging by Congress of national responsibility to the Indians, the tribe agreed to be "terminated" as a federal tribe. That left the state of Texas as trustee of the tribe (until the state tried to get the tribe off its hands in 1983 by arguing that being Indian in Texas violated the state constitution). In 1957, the state appointed as superintendent an educator named Walter Broemer, who found dire conditions on the reservation. Broemer urged the Alabama-Coushattas to develop a tourist industry, even if it meant having to borrow the trappings from other tribes who'd managed to hang on to their traditions.
So far, the story of the Alabama-Coushattas has been one of getting along with the powers that be. But for the current leaders of the tribe, it's been a tale of a people too much at the mercy of outside forces. "Throughout our history, we've been a friendly people. Maybe too friendly," says Kevin Battise, chairman of the Tribal Council that governs most affairs of the tribe. Battise, 40, is sitting in his new office in the tribe's former pottery factory. There are still people on the reservation without phones, he says, but he's trying to bring free Internet access to every tribal member who wants it. "Being Indian doesn't mean you can't like high tech," he says with a smile.
Battise, a tall man with short hair and an athletic bearing, has a quietness about him that is unmistakably Indian. A wry sense of humor, which seems to be an ingrained Alabama-Coushatta trait, occasionally pokes through his reserve. He looks as though he would be at ease in just about any setting. Few outsiders would know he grew up speaking his native tongue Albamu, with English as a second language. In Indian terms, he can "walk in both worlds." In fact, he was an employee of an electronics company, he says, before going on leave to work for the tribe. His mother, a registered nurse, had told him when he was growing up that he could do anything, he recalls. He joined the military right out of high school, to get out into the world. "I'm just now starting to think about my traditional heritage," he says.
His primary mission at the moment, however, is to bring economic development to the reservation. Unemployment is at around 46 percent, he says, if you include the part-time seasonal workers, including those who worked in the tourist concessions that have just been given the axe. The tourist business, he says, has been losing money for years. Some of the tribe's ventures into business have proved disappointing, including a motel and the tobacco shops on the reservation and on a small piece of tribal land near Humble. Their role models for success, says Battise, are the Mississippi Choctaws, who have attracted a variety of industries to their reservation in Philadelphia, Mississippi, which has become a kind of entrepreneurial center. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Choctaws have a booming casino business as well. "The Choctaws are where we want to be," says Battise.
The Alabama-Coushatta tribe, as a community, is not destitute. "We've done a lot with the resources we have," says Battise. While the per capita income for tribe members is only about $11,000, the tribe has been getting revenues from logging on tribal land and from the natural gas wells on the reservation. For decades, some tribal members, including Chief Clayton Sylestine, have worked in the logging business, both on and off the reservation. The chief still walks with a limp from a logging accident. But the real boon came when they found a way to tap into the deep natural gas deposits on tribal land in the 1980s. As Chief Sylestine puts it, "This land was given to us because it was good for nothing. What they didn't know was there was a pot of gold under here." But the tribe has had to wrestle with the bureaucracies of the state of Texas and the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) over the control for and income from their resources. It was only in 1997 that an oil and gas department was established for the tribe, so they could monitor production and royalty revenues.
Those royalty checks are reflected in the new buildings on the reservation, including more tribal offices and the new gym. (Each time concrete is poured on the reservation, jokes one tribe member, the rumors in Livingston start flying that it's going to be a casino.) Nevertheless, there are a lot of needs to be met on the reservation, says Battise, including housing. Currently there is a long waiting list for houses, and he himself is on it, he says. About 50 or 60 homes are needed right away, he says, and a lot of the older homes are falling apart. For years, it was next to impossible to get a loan to build a house on the reservation, since the lending institution would be barred from foreclosing on such property. Health care is also a strong need on the reservation, where people suffer from a disproportionately high rate of diabetes. They would like to build a nursing home on the reservation, so that their infirm elderly can remain close to their families.
Priorities for the tribe, he explains, are set largely by the Tribal Council, whose seven members are up for election every three years. The tribe has two chiefs, a first and second, whose main roles are ceremonial. The first chief is 69-year-old Sylestine, in the seventhyear of his reign. He's known for his mischievous humor, and he seldom disappoints. He says that becoming chief did not really change him. "I woke up the same old rascal," he says. "I didn't get big-headed," he says, his eyes twinkling.
The most crucial matters are decided by votes of the tribal members as a whole. The Alabama-Coushattas, like most Indians, are a very political people, and their tribal system of government is far older than America's democracy. One of the most contentious issues has been tribal membership, which is automatic for those who are born of full-blood parents. It becomes a matter of tribal adoption, to be voted on by the whole tribe, for those who are half-blood. "How would you feel if you had to win a popularity contest to be considered an American citizen?" asks one angry outsider whose daughter married into the tribe, and whose grandchild was put on a "waiting list" to be adopted by the tribe. Matters of blood run deep, particularly for a small tribe whose members are usually related to each other in complex ways.
In 1992, the Tribal Council got one of its first big tests in taking on the outside world when three young tribal members refused to cut their hair, as ordered by their public school in the nearby town of Big Sandy. The school would not let the students attend regular classes and isolated them in a separate room, as though they had a contagious disease. One of those young men was Gilman Abbey, the drummer, who was already taking part in performances for tourists. For him, it was not only a matter of economics, with his job at stake, but of pride. "We have the right to wear ourhair long because of our religious background," he says. "I can still remember when they wouldn't let us talk our language or do anything Indian," he says of Big Sandy. The Tribal Council sued on behalf of the students and won.
It was the casino issue, however, that turned up the political heat for the tribe to an unprecedented degree. It was back in the early '90s when folks in the tribe first began talking about getting a casino, or a bingo parlor, as so many other tribes had done. The first vote to explore the possibility of gambling was taken in 1994. Seventy percent of the tribe voted against it, with the skeptical elders voicing the strongest opposition. But in a 1999 vote, 70 percent supported the gambling efforts.
The young had spoken, and the elders had muted their opposition. There was still resistance from some members of the Presbyterian church on the reservation, although their main objection was more to do with proximity than principle: gambling would be so close to the church. Young people traveled in from all parts of the country to vote to make sure the issue passed. Others among the young, however, like Rochellda Sylestine, remain ambivalent. She criticizes the tribe's decision to end the dance performances for the public, which she believes educate members and the public about Indian traditions. "It breaks my heart," she says.
Kevin Battise says the change in the election outcomes resulted from the undeniable success of their cousins, the Coushattas of Louisiana, who started a casino operation in 1994, just when the Alabama-Coushattas of Texas had vetoed the idea. Until they decided to go for a casino, the Coushattas of Louisiana were among the poorest tribes in the country. They lived much like their neighbors, the blacks and Cajuns who had also settled in the bayous, making a living from hunting, fishing and trapping. In order to open a casino, they needed to buy land in a good location and have it approved as Indian land by the Department of the Interior. And they needed the approval of Edwin Edwards, then governor of Louisiana, for the land transfer and construction of a casino. The Louisiana Coushattas, however, had learned to get things done the "Louisiana way," as one of Edwards's colleagues put it when the governor and a coterie of cronies went on trial last year for multiple counts of racketeering. According to trial testimony, the Louisiana Coushattas paid between $200,000 and $300,000 to one of Edwards's associates to help pave the way for the casino. Although government prosecutors defined the payments as extortion, the associate who pocketed the money from the Coushattas was found not guilty on that charge. In a sense, the Coushattas had gotten themselves a bargain. Their new casino, the Grand Coushatta, is the largest land casino in Louisiana and one of the largest Indian casinos in the country. The casino employs three thousand people, and each tribal member receives a monthly stipend in addition to the millions of dollars that have poured into tribal coffers.
It was frustrating to the Alabama-Coushattas, says Battise, to watch the traffic zipping by the reservation on U.S. 190 on the way toward the casino in Louisiana. "Before they had the casino, they had nothing," says tribe member Lawrine Battise, who was against the casino at first. Though she and her husband Jack are strong on preserving tribal traditions, they acknowledge that the casino could bring much needed economic opportunities to the tribe. Even Chief Sylestine went over to visit the casino in Louisiana, he says, though he was none the richer for the experience. "I went in broke and came out broker," he says. "They have some big homes over there now."
The Alabama-Coushattas also had an example in West Texas to follow: the Tiguas of El Paso, who experienced a similar rags-to-riches transformation practically overnight on their Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Before the tribe opened their Speaking Rock Casino in 1993, the children of the tribe often went without shoes, and their chief had to pick cotton for a living. The casino is now raking in about $60 million a year, and the Tiguas have begun buying up land, including a 68,000-acre ranch in Culberson County, and contending with the city of El Paso over water rights. The Tiguas, however, have faced a different kind of state government and considerably more moral opposition around Texas than the Coushattas did in Louisiana.
In 1999, then-Governor George Bush granted Attorney General John Cornyn $1.5 million to go after illegal gambling in Texas, and the Tiguas were the prime target. Cornyn sued to shut them down. The Tiguas, claims Cornyn, have broken a promise they made back in 1986 not to pursue gambling on their reservation. The trial has been tentatively set for late this month.
The Alabama-Coushattas, like the Tiguas, are not governed by the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act that affects other tribes in the country. The two tribes are bound by separate federal laws that restored them from state to federal tribe status. Those laws stipulate that the tribes cannot engage in gambling or other activities forbidden by state laws.
During this past legislative session, some lawmakers signed on to two bills designed to help the Tiguas keep their casino open -- and that would have opened the door to gambling for the Alabama-Coushattas. Senate Bill 253 and House Bill 514 would have modified the Texas penal code in accord with the 1988 federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. It calls for agreements between tribes and state governments concerning casinos.
At first, there appeared to be a flurry of opposition to the bills in the Piney Woods towns surrounding the Alabama-Coushatta reservation. For Dan Ellis, the district's state representative, the prospect of a casino had become something of a hot potato. His Republican challenger in 1999 had tried to sew up the conservative vote by railing against the casino. Ellis had had to hem and haw on the issue, pointing out the traffic and law enforcement problems a casino would cause. Two years later, however, Livingston merchants were talking about the economic benefits of a casino, and the indignant opposition was left to Livingston's ultraconservative Church of Christ.
The church pastor and a group of church members sponsored lurid full-page ads in the Polk County Register predicting the casino would bring an invasion of the town by Satan and his minions. The bills stirred remarkably little legislative debate, with the House handily passing its bill, despite the negative vote of Dan Ellis.
Indian gambling met a big roadblock in the senate, in the form of Bill Ratliff, acting lieutenant governor. He simply sent the bill back to committee, the graveyard of dead bills, declaring that he was "adamantly opposed to casino gambling anywhere in the state of Texas." The Alabama-Coushattas had gotten a lesson in state politics that they won't soon forget.
From the tribe's point of view, the lottery and video slot machines that dispense gift certificates mean that gambling is already legal in Texas. So it should be legal for them as well. The tribe is forging ahead with plans for their temporary casino. If Cornyn loses his suit against the Tiguas, they'll build a permanent casino, probably right off Highway 190. If the attorney general wins, they may move forward anyway, setting up a legal showdown with Cornyn.
For a tribe that was totally bypassed by the militancy of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, the Alabama-Coushattas have their own kind of quiet feistiness. In a way, the casino is just small change if the Alabama-Coushattas reap the benefits of another continuing legal battle they've been waging. This one has to do with land. That is, the huge expanse of land that they once owned, in the way that Indians used to own land -- land where they hunted and planted and made their homes, but which they could possess no more than they could possess the air. This issue is like the big bear in the room that no one talks about. The Alabama-Coushatta land claim is so big that it's almost too much to fathom.
In the mid-1960s, then-young lawyers Alan Minter of Austin and Tom Diamond of El Paso had looked into land claims for the Alabama-Coushattas and the Tiguas. They intervened in another tribe's suit to pursue Alabama-Coushattas' land claims that covered pretty much the original expanse of the Big Thicket -- an area spread over a dozen counties in East Texas and totaling about 9 million acres. They were eventually thrown out of that suit, but they did lay essential groundwork for establishing aboriginal title, thanks to a white man named Howard Martin.
Martin grew up near Livingston and went to school with students from the reservation. He was an amateur historian, and in his youth he began collecting material relating to the Alabama-Coushattas. He continued collecting, even after he had moved to Houston to work for the city's Chamber of Commerce, using his vacations to visit various repositories of materials relating to the Alabama-Coushattas. Martin, who was named official tribal historian by the Alabama-Coushattas, wound up with a double garage full of files that included diary entries from Spanish soldiers who had recorded in detail their encounters with the tribes. The result was a well-documented picture of where the Alabamas and Coushattas had lived. Martin made an effective witness, says Minter, as did then-Chief Fulton Battise, otherwise known as Chief Kina, who "looked every part the Indian chief," he says.
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.
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.
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 uslikewe 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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.