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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ALABAMA-COUSHATTA TRIBE OF TEXAS AND THE 1987 RESTORATION ACT

On August 18, 1987, President Ronald Regan took pen in hand and signed H.R. 318 into law, thereby restoring the trust relationship between the United States of America and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.  We are now celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Tribe’s Restoration Act and what the Act has and has not meant for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and its members.  What follows is an overview of the Tribe’s rich history in Texas and the events that gave rise to both the Tribe’s termination and its ultimate restoration as a Federally Recognized Indian Tribe.

THE TRIBES MIGRATE TO TEXAS

            Although they are both of the same Muskhogean language stock, the Alabama and Coushatta were originally separately organized Tribes that inhabited adjacent areas near present day Montgomery, Alabama.  As European settlers began to encroach on their lands, in 1763 the Tribes began to migrate westward, first to Louisiana and, then, to the Big Thicket area of Southeast Texas.  The Coushatta Tribe arrived first, settling on the Trinity River in 1807.  Soon thereafter, the Alabama Tribe made the move from Louisiana to Texas, settling on the Neches River.  At the time of the Tribes’ settlements in Texas, the area was known as the Spanish Province of Texas.

THE TRIBES AND THE REPUBLIC OF MEXICO

            Both the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes participated in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain.  A force of over 300 Alabama and Coushatta Indians fought with Samuel Kemper’s Republican Army at the battles of Salado and San Antonio.  In fact, it was 25 Coushatta Indians who led the charge up the hill toward the Spanish line, a charge that caused the line to break and led to Kemper’s capture of San Antonio on April 1, 1813.

            By 1831 the Supreme Government of Mexico offered to both the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes the opportunity to settle on fixed tracts of lands in East Texas.  Although never consummated, all correspondence, negotiations and official communications of the Mexican authorities referred to the Tribes as separate political entities.  Moreover, both Tribes appear on Stephen F. Austin’s 1829 map of Texas, with the “Pueblos de los Alabamas” shown on the Big Alabama Creek, a western tributary of the Neches River, and the “Cusatte Village” on the east side of the Trinity River.

THE TRIBES DURING THE TEXAS WAR FOR INDEPENDENCE

            Before the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836, the General Council of the Provisional Government of Texas asked Sam Houston to meet with Texas Indian Tribes to provide for lands for the Tribes and to ensure the Tribes did not side with Mexico in the ensuing struggle for Texas Independence.  The treaty provided that the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes, as well as other associated tribes, were to form one community in East Texas with title and possession of a large area between the Neches and Sabine rivers.  The treaty also had its desired effect regarding Mexico.  The Alabama Tribe agreed to remain neutral during the war and temporarily moved to Louisiana until the revolution was over.  The Coushatta Tribe remained in Texas, and its members rendered valuable service to Houston and the people of Texas during the Runaway Scrape.  In particular, they served as guides for Houston’s army on its way to victory at San Jacinto.  Other Tribal members slaughtered their cattle to feed starving women and children fleeing Santa Anna’s army and the Coushatta Chief Colita carried news of Houston’s victory at San Jacinto to Louisiana and brought the Texans back home.

THE TRIBES UNDER THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS

            In 1839, Mirabeau B. Lamar, the Second President of the Republic of Texas, stated the following during a November 12, 1839 address to the Fourth Congress of the Republic of Texas:

To the Coushattas and Alabamas, who seem to have some equitable claims upon the country for the protection of their property and persons, the hand of friendship has been extended, with a promise that they shall not be interrupted in the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions, so long as they continue the same amicable relations toward the Government which they hitherto preserved.

The Alabama and Coushatta Tribes were treated vastly different than the Cherokee and other Texas Indian Tribes by President Lamar and the Republic.  In June 1839, Lamar directed that the Cherokee and their associated tribes be ordered to leave Texas, “peacefully if they would; forcible if they must.”

            In 1840, the Fourth Congress of the Republic of Texas authorized President Lamar to set aside “two leagues” of land for each the Coushatta and Alabama Tribes “for the entire and exclusive use and benefit of said tribes of Indians until otherwise provided for by law.”  When surveyors came to survey the land, however, the Alabama tribe, thinking the grant was for white settlers, departed for other home sites, leaving their hogs, cattle and 200 acres of fenced land suitable for cultivation.  The Coushatta Tribe fared no better.  Although the land granted them was surveyed and field notes filed, white settlers had already claimed the land and the grants never became effective.

THE ALABAMA TRIBE FINALLY GETS ITS RESERVATION

            On March 1, 1845, Texas joined the United States as the 28th state.  Having left the land provided for them by the Republic in 1840, at the time of Texas statehood both the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes were wandering across East Texas.  At the suggestion of Sam Houston, the Alabama Chiefs held a meeting with neighbors and friends at the home of Samuel Rowe in Polk County on October 29, 1853.  At this meeting, the Chiefs expressed their desire to settle on land on Big Sandy creek near the Big Thicket.  Following the meeting, the Alabama Tribe, with the support of forty-two citizens of Polk County, petitioned the Texas State Legislature for a grant of 1,280 acres, or as much as the state was willing to give the Tribe, in compensation for the loss of the two leagues of land they were granted by the 1840 Act. 

            On February 3, 1854, the Texas Legislature passed the “Act for relief of the Alabama Indians.”  The Act authorized the state to either grant or purchase “1280 acres of un-appropriated land, situated in either Polk or Tyler Counties, or both” to be set apart “for the sole use and benefit of, and as a home for the said tribe of Indians.”  The Act permitted the State to pay up to $2.00 per acre for the land.  Thereafter, the State purchased 1,110 acres about 17 miles south of Livingston, Texas.  On August 15, 1854, another 590 acres were conveyed to the Tribe by M.A. Hardin.  Then on January 30, 1855, Samuel Rowe conveyed 320 acres to the Tribe.  The remainder of the Tribe’s Reservation was made up of 263 acres of vacant land awarded to the Tribe in the 1854 Act.

COUSATTA TRIBE MOVES ONTO THE ALABAMA RESERVATION

            On August 30, 1856, the Texas Legislature passed the “Act for relief of the Coushatta Indians.  Like the Act authorizing Texas to purchase land for the Alabama Indians, this Act authorized the state to purchase 640 acres in Liberty, Polk or Tyler Counties “for the benefit of, and as a home for the said tribe of Indians.”  However, land was never located, and in 1859 the Alabama Tribe agreed to allow members of the Coushatta Tribe to live on the 1,289 acres purchased and awarded to the Alabama Tribe under the 1854 Act.

THE TRIBES ARE FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED

            In 1918, the Department of Interior investigated the living conditions of both the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes, and in each case the Department concluded that the Tribes’ greatest needs were for more land and vocational education.  The Secretary of the Interior recommended an appropriation of $100,000 for the purchased of land and an additional appropriation of $25,000 for the purchase of livestock and agricultural equipment.

            Ten years later, on May 29, 1928, the United States authorized the Secretary of the Interior to purchase land for the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes in Polk County.  It was this Act that created initial federal recognition of the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes.  Moreover, because the deed was issued to both the Alabama and Coushatta Tribes, the name “Alabama and Coushatta Tribes of Texas” was used to describe the Tribes.  Thereafter, the Secretary purchased 3,071 acres of land in Polk County adjoining the 1,289 acres purchased and awarded in the 1854 Act.  The purchase price was $29,000 and the land purchased was “taken in the name of the United States in trust for such Indians.”

THE TERMINATION OF THE TRIBE’S FEDERAL RECOGNITION

            On August 1, 1953, the United States House of Representatives passed House Resolution 108, which stated that it was “the policy of Congress, as possible,” to terminate trust relationships with the “Indians within the territorial limits of the United States” and to make said Indians “subject to the same laws and entitled to the same privileges and responsibilities as are applicable to other citizens of the United States,” thus “ending their status as wards of the United States.”  The Resolution provided further that “all Indian tribes and individual members thereof located within the States of California, Florida, New York and Texas” should be freed from Federal supervision and control and from all disabilities and limitations specifically applicable to Indians.”  Finally, the Resolution asserted that all offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in those states should be abolished.

            In anticipation of the termination of the trust relationship between the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe and the United States, the Texas State legislature adopted Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 31, authorizing the Governor to accept on behalf of the State of Texas the transfer of the trust lands from the United States, provided that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe indicated its consent by appropriate resolution.  On June 1, 1953, the General Council of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe by a vote of 59 for and 0 against passed a Resolution requesting that the Secretary of the Interior “recommend to the Congress of the United States the enactment of necessary legislation in order to accomplish a complete transfer of the trust responsibilities and authorities from the Federal Government to the State of Texas.  On June 16, 1953, Texas Governor Allan Shivers wrote to the Assistant Secretary of the Interior stating that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas wanted trust responsibility for their land transferred to the State of Texas.

            On August 23, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Public Law 627, therein terminating the trust relationship between the Tribe and the United States and transferred all trust responsibility for the Tribe to Texas.  The Termination Act called for the transfer to Texas the land purchased for the Tribe by the Federal Government in 1928.  That transfer was accomplished on July 1, 1955, when Secretary of Interior Douglas McKay executed a quitclaim deed conveying the land to be held in trust for the Tribe by Texas.  Regarding the land purchased by Texas in 1854, Congress permitted the Tribe to decide if it wished to transfer that land to Texas to be held in trust.

TEXAS ATTORNEY GENERAL OPINION NO. 17

            1981, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game warden was driving on the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation and observed a tribal member, Lyndon Alec, field-dressing two deer in his front yard.  The warden asked to see Alec’s hunting license.  Because the Tribe had its own wildlife regulations, tribal members did not believe it was necessary to purchase a state hunting license to hunt on their own land.  Because Alec did not have a state hunting license, the warden cited Alec for hunting out of season and confiscated the deer.

            In explaining to the warden that he did not need a permit to hunt on tribal lands, Alec mentioned that Clayton Sylestine had also shot a deer and was cleaning the deer at that very moment.  After citing Alec, the warden drove to Sylestine’s home and asked to see his hunting license.  When Sylestine failed to produce one, the warden cited Sylestine and confiscated the deer.

            Alec and Sylestine fought their citations, and the matter was heard before Justice of the Peace Doris Armstrong in Polk County.  After hearing testimony regarding lack of prior state enforcement and the history of hunting on tribal lands, Judge Armstrong dismissed the case.  The Judge’s dismissal caused Walter Broemer, the Texas Indian Commission’s Superintendent of the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation, to contact Parks and Wildlife to protest the confiscations and citations.  Thereafter, the Executive Director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Charles D. Travis, asked Attorney General Jim Mattox for an opinion regarding the authority of the Department to enforce its code within the confines of the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation.

            The narrow question before the Attorney General was whether Texas fish and game laws could be enforced on the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation.  The Attorney General took this narrow question and he used it as an opportunity to issue a broad and sweeping opinion, in which he concluded, among other things, that there was no valid claim that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe’s land was an “Indian Reservation,” and that there could be no trust relationship between Texas and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe.  Moreover, the Attorney General found the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe was “merely an unincorporated association under Texas law, with the same legal status as other private associations.”  In short, the Attorney General’s Opinion found that after the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe’s federal tribal status was terminated in 1954, the Tribe ceased to exist as a political body.

THE RESTORATION ACT

            In response to the Texas Attorney General’s Opinion, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe turned to Congress to secure federal recognition for the Tribe.  The first version of the Restoration Act was introduced on October 3, 1984, by Texas Congressmen Ronald Coleman and Charlie Wilson.  The Attorney General’s Opinion also affected the Tigua Tribe in El Paso, Texas, so the Restoration Act provided for the federal recognition for both Tribes.  Because there was only nine days left in the 98th Congressional Session, there was no time to take any action on the bill before the end of that Congress. 

On February 26, 1985, Congressmen Coleman and Wilson reintroduced the Restoration Act.  Although the Act was passed by both the House and Senate, on September 25, 1986, Texas Senator Phil Gramm, through an unusual administrative procedure, asked Senator President Robert Dole to vitiate or cancel the passage of the Restoration Act.  Senator Gramm claimed that his request was driven by the need to understand the potential cost of the bill.  Senator Dole granted Senator Gramm’s request.

            On January 3, 1987, Congressmen Coleman and Wilson again introduced a Restoration Act for the federal recognition of the Tigua and Alabama-Coushatta Tribes.  Again, the Restoration Act was passed by both Houses of Congress.  Having received his answer from the Government Accounting Office regarding the cost of the legislation, Senator Gramm dropped his opposition to the Act.  On August 18, 1987, President Ronald Regan signed the Restoration Act into law, thereby restoring federal recognition to the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.