[Note from Christopher: The following article ran in the June 2000 issue of Texas Co-op Power Magazine, whose editors have graciously permitted me to re-publish it here. My good friend Randy Mallory of Tyler, Texas, a superb photographer, took these striking photos for the piece. I first visited the Alabama-Coushatta reservation in East Texas as a young boy. My Grandfather Kirkland, who grew up not far away, enjoyed visiting the reservation and often took me along. The place has changed a lot since those days. The homes are more comfortable and the new tribal buildings much larger. But the forested landscape with creeks and a lake is much the same. It’s still a beautiful place.]
East of Livingston, along the flanks of U.S. 190 in Polk County, the land rolls gently away to either side in pine forest and grazing pasture. On a spring afternoon, the blacktop weaves through a lush landscape of bucolic greens bathed in sunlight.
We have entered East Texas, the nearer edge of the Great Southern Forest that once stretched to the continent’s Atlantic shore. Formerly wilderness, practically jungle, once home to panther and bear. Big Thicket country.
And still in some ways remote, mysterious. Roll down the car windows, hear crows calling in treetops. Stop along the road shoulder, listen to the wind rustling leaves, the rat-tat-tat of a red-cockaded woodpecker in a distant creekbottom. Otherwise, the low hum of insects, and silence.
Then regain the road, move on eastward again. Cross Big Sandy Creek and Bear Creek and Mill Creek, then turn right into a narrow paved lane marked by large wooden signs and a small state monument. A hundred yards in, near a collection of buildings, a village center, pull into the Conoco station and convenience store, go inside.
The market is like any other such store, with shelved merchandise and racks of items ready to roll. You might be in Lubbock or Waco or Corpus Christi.
Behind the counter, a tall young man wearing jeans and boots and long black hair flowing over his shoulders is adjusting the radio dial. He settles on a country station, George Strait singing about Texas. Then he turns and nods. His eyes are dark brown, almost black, like his hair, his smooth bronze face set with high cheekbones and an aquiline nose.
It stops you.
Then you notice the newspapers for sale on the counter: Indian Country Today, with a front page photo of a woman performing a hoop dance; The Nations Native Journal, main story on President Clinton proposing new funds for American Indian schools and health care.
Another pause. And you know then, for certain, that you’ve entered a different kind of place. Another culture, really, maybe another time.
You’re on the tribal lands of the Alabama-Coushattas—except for a couple of tiny postage stamp pieces of turf along the Rio Grande, the only territory in Texas that still belongs to indigenous native Americans.
There are several versions of how the Alabamas and Coushattas came to own these 4,600 rural acres of timbered land in Polk County, land the residents, in casual conversation, call “the rez.” The version I learned as a child, when my grandfather first began bringing me here, was simple: White American settlers attempting to bring civilization to dangerous new territories were forced to fight off savage Indians. The conflict was brutal, but in the end the settlers won and gave these Indians land to live on.
That version was derived from Hollywood westerns and TV and a public school education. The version offered by historians is quite different. And the version known by the American Indians themselves is more different yet. It is close up and personal. Listen to Mikko Choba Oscola, also known as Clayton Marion Sylestine, the present chief of the Alabama-Coushattas in Texas:
“We are a unique people. We have been here in Texas all this time, since 1700 or 1800. We originally came from Alabama. We were crowded out. We had cabins and gardens but they came and destroyed them. Instead of fighting them, we just kept moving west.”
The chief pauses. He is 68 years old with thoughtful brown eyes, and soft spoken. Years ago, while working in the woods for a timber company, he broke his hip. Now he walks with a cane. In his younger days, when he was an ace fast-pitch softball pitcher, he earned his nickname, Smiley.
After a moment, he says, “Finally, we found a place where the grass grows, and the water flows,” and his eyes dance a little, his craggy face breaks into a cheerful smile. “This place that was given to us was fit for nothing, they thought. They didn’t think it would grow anything, just a lot of woods.”
And he laughs.His laughter causes me to recall something from childhood, from that time when my East Texas grandfather, entranced by these Native Americans who lived so nearby, brought me to meet them. In those days, the late 1950s, the reservation had only recently received electricity through the REA (now Sam Houston Electric Co-op) and water was still drawn by hand from communal wells. Yet even then, the people here seemed to laugh more often and more gently than those I lived among. They seemed to have what I later learned to call “the long view” of life. They noticed small oddities and ironies, and laughed about them. And in events where others might find only disappointment or self-pity, they also found humor, the mark of a mature person, or a mature culture.
The chief continues. “We have a history of being peaceful people. We have not been renegades. We are not savages. We have John Wayne movies where we live in teepees. We never lived in teepees. We lived in log cabins. Some of the children who live way over there,” and he waves one hand vaguely into the distance, beyond the treeline, “have come here and wanted to see teepees because they’ve seen television. And they wanted to see warpaint.”
He shrugs. “Sometimes they go back discouraged because they didn’t see it.” Again, he laughs.
The version of the story of the Alabamas and Coushattas as told by historians bear the chief out. Their history goes back to mythic times when Aba Mikko, the sky deity, ruled supreme. Much of that history, passed down orally through untold generations, accumulated over thousands of years, has been lost. More recent history, since Europeans arrived, is recorded in documents.
The two tribes, the Alabamas and Coushattas, were members of the Upper Creek Confederacy, members of the Muskogean Nation in the region that later became Alabama. They were, in fact, a civilized people, with complex laws and highly developed social norms. They were led by elected leaders. They lived in towns with a public square surrounded by rectangular log buildings, with a ball playing yard at one corner and a council house at another. They hunted and fished, pursued agriculture and engaged in trade. An evening meal might include venison, turkey, corn, squash and cornbread.
They did not, however, claim to rule the natural world, or to possess the earth, and were pushed westward by militant Anglo settlers who did, backed by government soldiers. They moved into Spanish (later French) Louisiana, where some remain even now near Kinder. Others moved on into East Texas and settled along the Angelina and Neches rivers. By 1809, peoples from the two tribes living near Nacogdoches numbered 1,650.
Over time, the Alabamas and Coushattas were given lands and had it taken away, a betrayal that would become an ongoing pattern. The history of how American Indians were treated by Anglos—the stories of genocide and racism and greed—are widely known now. In Texas, all the original native tribes were killed or driven out a hundred years ago.
Yet the Alabamas and Coushattas, through either genius or luck, managed to survive in East Texas. Except for one brief period, the state, not the federal government, claimed controlling authority over them, and the people were “managed” by the Board for Texas State Hospitals. The story is long and complex—with bureaucratic neglect, the tribal peoples surviving poverty—but in the end they gained these 4,600 acres of Polk County land. By then the two tribes had intermarried and merged, and now more than 500 tribal members live here.
In 1987, frustrated with the continuing neglect of state government, the Alabama-Coushattas applied for and received tribal status from the federal government. That qualified them for federal loans and funding to improve physical infrastructure. With those financial resources, along with some oil lease and production income, they now are putting in a sewer system and wastewater treatment plant. A fiber optics system will soon connect all the homes to state-of-the-art telecommunications.
Federal recognition also meant better educational opportunities for children. When he was a child, Chief Sylestine recalls, when many reservation children went year round without shoes, there was a small schoolhouse on the reservation. The State of Texas closed it in 1946, refusing to fund it any longer, and the students were transferred to off-reservation schools. Nowadays, students attend school in either Woodville or Big Sandy, though a few go to Livingston. Back then, the chief attended the nearby country school at Big Sandy.
For a while, so did Perry Williams, 55, a tribal council member and Vietnam veteran. (Alabama-Coushatta men served in the army in both World War II and Vietnam.) Williams, however, lived away from the reservation for many years. He attended high school at an Indian boarding school in Kansas, later lived in Phoenix and worked in Chicago, then returned to the reservation in 1971. Even then, like most tribal members, he worked a job off the reservation and commuted.
“I had applied for a scholarship but we did not have money for that under the state,” Williams says. Since federal recognition, he adds, the tribe participates in an educational program. “Kids now have a great opportunity to go to any college and the tribe will support them as long as they keep their grades up. When they graduate, hopefully we will have positions for them to come back to.”
For young people to remain living within the tribal community receives high value on the rez. Extended families are strong, and scheduled activities for young people are ongoing and numerous. Especially athletics. “Like tonight we have a volleyball tournament,” Williams observes. “Tomorrow, it will be softball. Last weekend, a lot of the tribal members, whole families, went to Louisiana for a basketball tournament.”
Williams, a heavyset man who appears younger than his years, glances away, thinking. “The one thing that we are looking at as a tribe is how to make some jobs available here on the reservation. Hopefully, we can support our young people.”
The task, he admits, is not always easy. The world has become smaller, more accessible and homogeneous. “With changes in communications and transportation, we are like anyone else. Somebody can just up and go to Houston and eat and take in a movie, then come back. That’s nothing to us anymore.”
Such changes gnaw away at tribal traditions. Though tribal council meetings are carried out in the Alabama language, much of the proceedings now are translated for those who don’t understand. Williams says his own children do not speak the native language. He rubs his jaw, a troubled look comes over his face. “They speak English.”
For most of us, perhaps, religion reflects our fundamental beliefs and values more than any other aspect of community and personal life. The religion of the Alabama-Coushattas in the pre-missionary era included belief in a supreme creator, in other supernatural beings (such as angels and demons), in the necessity of prayer and supplication, in forgiveness (purification), in divine intervention, in an afterlife, and in communal worship.
That changed, at least in formal expression. Chief Sylestine tells the story this way: “God traveled through here at one time. There was no Christianity yet, but the Indians had their own beliefs. Then there was a guy in Crockett who was going to Beaumont. He got sick and lost. Several of the men found him lying on a bank. We brought him to our houses and nursed him back to health.
“Before that, a little Indian girl had a relationship with a white man and a little boy was born. He lived with white folks and learned to talk English. Later on, he came back with the Indians. So he was prepared for that guy to get lost. The little boy was the interpreter.
“Later, when that guy got strong enough, some Indian people walked with him close to Beaumont. After that, he talked with those people at the Presbyterian church and told them there is a good Indian in the woods at Polk County. They sent a missionary, and that’s how Christianity got started.”
A Presbyterian church was established on the reservation in 1880, three years later a log cabin school. Some of the Anglo neighbors disapproved and burned the church-school down in 1886. The missionaries persevered. Nowadays, tribal members have three churches: the Presbyterian church in the village center, the nearby Indian Village Assembly of God, and First Texas Indian Baptist just up the road.
Chief Sylestine suggests that tolerance for denominational differences, as with most differences, is high in the tribal culture. “We’re worshiping the same God,” he says, “there’s one baptism.” He casually observes that some prefer full submersion while others sprinkle, then smiles mischievously. “And some like to get baptized both ways.”
Yet it’s the Presbyterian mother church, located as it is in the village center, that still serves as a gathering point on urgent occasions. The Alabama-Coushattas will tell you they are like any other people and any other community, and in most ways they are. But if there is a death in the tribe, the Presbyterian church bell is rung, and the peal of it travels through these East Texas woods like an audible beacon. Down paths and wooded roads come then the tribal members. They gather at the church to hear the news of the passing, and together prepare for this latest change.
There aren’t many people, or many places, who enjoy that sort of close-knit community anymore.