Elders and representatives of the Alabama-Coushatta Indian tribe of Texas hosted a living exhibit Tuesday, November 15 at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum and the Presidential Library of the Republic of Texas.
Chief Kanicu, Herbert Johnson Jr. and Nita Battise provided an educational experience about Native American heritage, including a demonstration of pine needle basket weaving by Tribal Elder Joyce Poncho.
“Today we’re here to educate the public,” said Johnson, public relations coordinator for community development at Livingston-based Naskila Gaming. “We are one of three tribes in Texas and the largest. We want the public to know that we’re still friends.” Her tribe has a long history with the area and was allied with Sam Houston before Texas became a state.
The Alabama and Coushatta tribes began migrating south into Spanish territory after the French lost the Seven Years’ War in 1763. By the end of the 19th century, some had settled in the Big Thicket in southeast Texas.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, more of her tribes were forced to migrate and joined her people in Texas.
By 1830 about 600 Coushattas settled near the Trinity River.
They lived in what is now San Jacinto and Polk counties. The Alabama occupied three communities in northwest Tyler County.
They developed a remarkable network of trails for hunting and fishing.
During the Runaway Scrape of 1836, Santa Anna and the Mexican Army pursued the Texas Army after the Alamo fell. It was the Alabama and Coushatta tribes that General Sam Houston encountered at the Trinity River as he began to retreat towards the Sabine River. According to Johnson, the tribes fed and provided for Houston, its troops, and other residents who fled to safety before helping them cross the river.
When Mirabeau Lamar became President of Texas, the Alabama and Coushatta were the only tribes spared from the expulsion. Today, the Alabama-Coushatta Indian tribe of Texas occupies a 4,593-acre reservation off Highway 190, 17 miles east of Livingston. Part of their business is the Naskila Gaming Casino, where Johnson is employed.
Johnson has been visiting Huntsville for 30 years to celebrate Texas Independence and General Sam Houston on March 2nd. Its mission is to bring tourism back to the region and seeks guidance and planning from the museum and its staff towards that goal. According to Johnson, there are 84 resolutions from civic, city and county organizations in Texas expressing their support as friends and neighbors.
“It’s our job to let people know there’s a lot of history here,” Johnson said. Some of the historical artifacts in the exhibition were worn by their chief.
The second chief, Kanicu Donnis B. Batisse, wore traditional tribal regalia. He wore a large bronze medallion with the motto “Peace Without Arms – Peace Without Treaties”. The first medallions of this type were presented to tribal chiefs at the Texas Centennial Celebration in 1936. They were commissioned by the Texas legislature to commemorate 100 years of peace between the Alabama Coushattas and the people of Texas.
Chiefs serve for life and receive a new hat when elected to denote their position as tribal ambassadors and advisors to the tribal council. The headdress is adorned with seven silver conchos around the band and crowned with a crown of eagle feathers. The conchos represent the seven members of the tribal council. The eagle feathers are a symbol of high honor.
“Because the eagle flies highest in the sky, it sends our prayers to our Creator,” Johnson said. His father, Mikko Skaalaba, Herbert G. Johnson Sr., became Second Chief in 2014 and was inducted as Principal Chief (Mikko Choba) in 2020. He went to Great Spirit in August 2021.
Chief Kanicu was elected Second Chief in 2020 and will be inaugurated as Mikko Choba in January 2023. At that point, Millie Thompson Wlliams will assume the position of Second Chief-Elect, becoming the first woman to serve as Chief in the history of the tribe.
Nita Battise is the Vice Chair of the Tribal Council. Her responsibilities include negotiating with federal, state, and local governments and consulting with the Secretary of the Interior in the White House on any activity that may affect the tribe.
The council administers tribal lands and timber. They employ lawyers to protect and promote the rights of the tribe and oversee all of the tribe’s economic affairs and ventures.
That responsibility runs deep in the family lineage of Batisse, who has held numerous positions supporting the tribe over the years.
Her great-uncle Mikko Kina, Robert Fulton Battise, served as chief for 58 years. Chief Kina was second chief from 1936 to 1970 and principal chief from 1970 until his death in 1994.
Part of preserving their history is keeping tribal traditions alive, which is the gift that tribal elder Joyce Poncho brought to the exhibit.
She brought several handmade baskets made from long-leaved pine needles from trees native to her country. The needles are about a foot long and are dried in the sun to achieve a tan color or in the shade to a greenish tint for natural color variations. Other colors are incorporated through the use of bark, roots and berries to achieve other colors.
Cooked Sequoia Bark is used to craft an actual Red Cube for the Fiber. Pine cone leaves are used to mimic feathers for those that look like owls and other birds.
The design comes from the internal inspiration of each manufacturer. Raffia is used as the thread that holds the fibers together and a form-fitting lid makes them unique. There are only a handful of people in the tribe who make these on a regular basis.
Poncho has been creating these traditional baskets since she was three years old.
As a tribal elder, she teaches tribal members this skill to continue their cultural legacy. Now in her eighties, Poncho has made thousands of baskets in her lifetime. They are more than just a physical container. Their baskets are usually claimed by their owners as they are crafted, which can take up to a week.
“These baskets bring the whole spirit out of me when I’m teaching. Love is what I feel when I share this with those who show interest. There is a prayer that is instilled throughout the process. When someone is sick, you put good healing energy into them. Every problem, loss or grief is closed inside to heal,” Poncho said.
“We are very honored to have them here today,” said Derrick Birdsall, museum director. “We want to continue the relationship Sam Houston had with the tribe and carry it through the 21st century.”