Alabama-Coushatta tribe inaugurates 2 new chiefs in once-in-a-lifetime ceremony

LIVINGSTON, TX (KTRE) - The year 2014 marks the beginning of a new era for the Alabama-Coushatta American Indian tribe. A tribal chief inauguration occurred in Livingston Wednesday. It was an event that may not be witnessed but once in a lifetime.

Wednesday's guests learned the installation ceremony is sacred to the tribe. The symbolic steps of the ceremony are ancient.

The first honoree was Principal Chief Colabe. The American Indian name is given to Clem Sylestine by his family. They aren't strangers to previous tribal leaders.

"I have a grandfather who was a chief way back in the days," said Chief Mikko Coabe III (Clem Sylestine, the principal chief of the Alabama-Coushatta American Indians). "And my father was a chief from 1936-1969."

The second chief honored was Herbert Johnson, whose American Indian name won't be revealed until later. The two will work side by side leading the tribe which so honored them Wednesday.

Elder men and women shook gourds as they gather around a pine arbor. They represented clans with names like Bear, Beaver, Deer and Wind. They came from all over to keep the tradition alive. Yet, age has led to the disappearance of two clans.

"We have close to maybe 1,500 people," Johnson said. "Maybe half of them live here and half of them are off the reservation, so for something like this, we all get together."

The dance, chants and movement attracted visitors from outside the tribe. Everyone was free to watch the traditions of centuries past, except for one part. During the beginning of the ceremony, the chiefs were taken into a white tent. They met there alone with the elders of the clan and received advice.

During the wait, a spiritual leader prepared a blessing. Once the elders and chief elects returned, the spiritual ceremony resumed.

Water cleansed the chief, and a feather cleansed the mind. Strips of cloth with small bells were wrapped around the chief's legs to ward off danger.

Young tribal princesses learned more about their culture.

"The last inauguration we had was in 1994, so I wasn't even born then," said Kierra Williams, an Alabama-Coushatta tribal princess.

They learned a responsibility to their tribe.

"You have to honor your reservation and show your gracefulness and happiness for what you do," said Bianka Gardner, an 11-year-old junior tribal princess.

And they came to realize what's so special about the chief this child calls uncle.

"He's nice. He's loving," said Tynia Battise, the Alabama-Coushatta Children's Pow-Wow Princess. "And sometimes he's protective."

Those are all qualities a tribe asks for from a new chief.

"We don't have all the power, but yet we know the mighty God will give us the strength to carry on," Chief Colabe said.

The leaders remained solemn during the dances similar to ones observed by reservation tourists. They're preparing to serve the rest of their lives for the future of the Alabama-Coushatta Indian tribe.

Alabama-Coushatta leaders said their biggest concern is the economy. They want more places for tribal members and all East Texans to work. Wednesday's ceremony was attended by numerous elected and appointed Livingston and Polk County officials.

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