“Who would have thought that I would become a leader?”

LIVINGSTON. When Millie Thompson Williams and her cousin Myra Battis were growing up, they played pretend under the pine canopies in the Great Thicket National Forest, pretending to be members of the tribal council.

It was a real fantasy for two girls who grew up in the 1960s when their tribe’s seven-member governing body consisted entirely of men.

“We’ll say no to everything they say!” Williams told Battis, who laughed and continued the farce.

Now, 60 years later, Williams looks back fondly on those memories and realizes they are no longer a dream. for a post in more than 200 years of tribal history.

The second chief, along with the main chief, acts as a tribal ambassador and provides cultural advice to the tribal council and key tribal committees. Williams’s rise to power follows a series of family tragedies that left her widowed, but comes at an opportune moment for the women of her tribe. Her leadership coincides with the first time that the tribal council is predominantly female rather than male.

“It’s not a step forward for me, it’s a full circle,” said Nita Battis, vice chairman of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council and a distant relative of Williams. “We were once a matriarchal society. … Everything is always in full swing.”

Before facing intrusion by European settlers in the 18th century, the Alabama and Coushatta tribes operated as matrilineal and matriarchal societies like other First Nations tribes. Women were highly regarded as key decision makers, and children inherited clan membership from their mothers, a tradition that continues. However, the influx of Christianity and white European influence led to a shift towards a male-dominated system of government. It wasn’t until 1980 that the tribe had its first female council member.

Now that Williams is making history and the power is returning to women, she hopes to guide the tribe in a direction that balances economic prosperity with cultural traditions. As the oldest reservation in Texas and one of only three federally recognized tribes in the state, the Alabama-Cushatta have long fought for sovereignty and respect from state and federal leaders. For years, politicians have, at best, ignored the tribe, and at worst, run counter to their interests. Finally, the tribe is in a place of economic growth. Last year, the tribe received the legal right to operate an electronic gaming establishment on their reservation. The Naskila Gaming operation has proven to be a boon to economic development, creating hundreds of jobs and generating millions of dollars in revenue.

However, the tribe is fighting. The battle for political recognition continues, and the reservation faces the same challenges as other rural Texas communities – aging infrastructure, limited access to health care, and low levels of education. They are also experiencing a baby boom that threatens the tribe’s connection to their past. Of the approximately 1,400 members of the tribe, 39% are under the age of 18, more than 1.5 times that of the United States as a whole. With fewer elders, tribal traditions including the Alabama language, crafts, and folklore are in danger of disappearing. Williams intends to prevent this.

“I want to be close to my tribe, especially with the rising youth,” said Williams, who has a slim build, round face and soft features. “I want them to be proud of who they are and where they come from.”

Fight for sovereignty

Williams was born and raised on a 10,200-acre reservation located 17 miles east of Livingston. The entrance to the reservation looks like a wooden billboard between rows of pines on two-lane Highway 190. Behind the sign is a cultural center that serves as a center for tribal activity and a meeting place for the tribal council. Across the street at Naskila Gaming, the lights of the slot machines are flashing.

Williams is one of approximately 1,400 registered members of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, about half of whom live on the reservation. The area with dense forests is located in deep east Texas. Her ancestors first migrated to the region from present-day Alabama in the late 18th century, facing pressure from European settlers.

Although recognized as two separate tribes, the Alabamas and the Coushattas were closely related and share a similar history of displacement and an ongoing struggle for state and federal recognition. After Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836, many tribes were expelled from the state, but the Alabama and Cushattas maintained friendly relations with their neighbors. They even helped the Texans in their fight for independence, taking care of General Sam Houston’s troops as they retreated from the Mexican army. When Mirabeau Lamar became president of Texas, he authorized the purchase of land for the tribes.

Since then, the tribe had to fight for sovereignty.

In a 1918 report, the U.S. Department of the Interior examined the tribe’s status and found that what the tribe needed most was more land and vocational education. Congress appropriated the land to the tribe in 1928 and authorized recognition of land ownership, effectively establishing an intergovernmental relationship with them. But in 1954, as part of a series of laws designed to assimilate Native Americans into Western culture, Congress terminated relations with the tribe. The reservation became an unincorporated association subject to the same state laws as other private associations. Over the following decades, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council campaigned for recognition, traveling to Washington, D.C. to address Congress and appealing to local leaders for support.

Finally, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed the Recovery Act into law. Through this federal recognition, the Alabama-Coushattas gained the right to self-govern and enforce their own laws on their reservation. They were no longer subject to certain state laws and became eligible for certain federal benefits, services, and protections, including federal protection for their reservation. Last summer, the tribe won a major US Supreme Court case that upheld their autonomy to regulate hunting on their lands. This decision ended the battle with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over Naskila Gaming.

The business has created more than 700 jobs and is the second largest employer in the county, according to the tribe. But further progress is difficult to achieve. The tribal leaders are hoping to see the passage of a federal law that would make them subject to the Indian Gambling Regulation Act. The legislation will prevent the government from shutting down Naskila Gaming and allow them to operate the casino, a potential additional source of income for members of the tribe, about 20% of whom live below the poverty line, according to the US Census Bureau. . The bill passed the US House of Representatives several times but stalled in the Senate.

Moreover, the tribe is looking for respect from state leaders.

“The Governor received an open invitation to visit the reservation,” said Nita Battis. “All Texas governors have come to the reservation before Rick Perry, and now before Greg Abbott. We want him to be here and see what’s going on.”

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