By Emily Banks Wooten
An update on the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas was provided to the Livingston Rotary Club recently by Tribal Members Herb Johnson Jr. and Yolanda Poncho.
“We’ve been neighbors here in Polk County for many, many years. We migrated here from Alabama. We were here when Texas was a Republic. We were a big essential part of the Republic,” Johnson said.
“Although they were two separate tribes, the Alabamas and Coushattas have been closely associated throughout their history. Their cultures have some differences but for the most part are nearly identical,” Johnson said.
“General Sam Houston brokered a treaty with the tribes before the Texas War of Independence from Mexico. The agreement provided the title of land between the Neches and Sabine rivers for one community with both tribes in return for assurance the tribes would not side with Mexico. Tribal members served as guides for Houston’s army and provided provisions to feed Texas refugees fleeing from Santa Anna’s army. Today, Houston’s descendants still acknowledge that contribution to the Republic of Texas,” he said.
“Most of you know us for our fry bread, beadwork and pine needle baskets. But we’re known for other things too,” Johnson said. “There’s an old game reestablished by our young people called stickball. If you take lacrosse, soccer and football and put them all together, you have stick ball.
“We have one of the oldest Head Start programs in the U.S. It is in its 57th year. We have our own fire department and recently built Station No. 2. We have our own police department. We have the Chief Kina Clinic. We have own foresters to make sure everything is planted and maintained,” Johnson said.
“We have our own lake with the best fishing. The cabin rentals are a great opportunity to visit around the lake in the Big Thicket area. It’s very peaceful and you can even rent a teepee,” Johnson said.
Poncho, who serves as secretary on the Tribal Council, referred to the cultural exhibits at Naskila Gaming that detail the tribal history, saying that she is a big part of that.
She reviewed the timeline of HR 2208, the bill that would allow the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta tribes to conduct gaming activities on their land in Texas if certain conditions are met. Currently, the tribes are prohibited from conducting gaming activities on their land if those activities are prohibited by Texas law.
After five years of litigation, however, the United States District Court in Beaumont ruled recently that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas may legally operate its Naskila Gaming electronic bingo facility, saying that such gaming is permissible under the Tribe’s 1987 Restoration Act. The ruling was a major victory for the future tribe, the hundreds of people employed at Naskila and the economic stability of the East Texas region.
For years, the State of Texas has worked in court to close Naskila Gaming, even as tens of thousands of Texans, dozens of civic groups and elected leaders from both parties have expressed strong support for allowing the Tribe to operate the facility.
Naskila employs over 400 people from seven different counties and has put $170 million into the local economy, Johnson said, adding that Naskila offers full benefits – medical, vision, dental and a 401K.
“Healthcare is a major thing at the reservation. We’re thinking about our kids, our grandkids. Everyone thinks Indian people have it made – that we get free healthcare and we get free education – but no. We have to work for everything,” Poncho said.
“We’ve come a long way and we’re so happy to be here today. We are a proud people. We’re proud of our culture, our independence. But the message is prosperity. We want to be prosperous,” Poncho said, adding the tribe had recently presented a $50,000 check to a tribe in Louisiana that had suffered severe destruction from storms.
“We’re very fortunate and we’re very blessed. About 55% of the tribe live off the reservation but we’re about to build 53 homes. They can come home. We’re also going to have a grand opening for our new education center. It’s exciting times for us right now,” Poncho said.