Meet Native America: Herbert G. Johnson, Sr., Second Chief of the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Mikko Atokla Skalaaba—Second Chief Herbert G. Johnson, Sr.—of the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas. I am also a member of the Beaver Clan.
Where is your community located?
The Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation is located in Polk County near Livingston, Texas.
Where are the Alabama–Coushatta originally from?
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 where we live today.
What responsibilities do you have as second chief?
Part of my responsibility as second chief is to represent the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe on cultural, spiritual, and historical matters whenever possible. The principal chief and second chief also work together as advisory members to the Tribal Council.
How did your life’s experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
Serving on the board for one of the local schools for 43 years, as well as on the Tribal Council for two terms, and serving as a deacon and elder at the Indian Presbyterian Church helped prepare me. These leadership roles have enabled me to be a productive citizen in our community by listening and not casting any judgment until all sides are heard.
When I was growing up on the reservation, my family taught me to be respectful of any and all people no matter their circumstances. I have lived with that philosophy for all of my life.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My family believed in me and gave me a good foundation. I eventually went to junior college. It was at Jacksonville Baptist College (JBC) in Jacksonville, Texas, that I met the most important and influential person in my life outside my family, Coach Vernon Harton. As a basketball coach, he taught me many things, on and off the court, but one thing was perseverance. Even though I struggled with certain aspects of school and the game, he made me see the bigger picture. I went on to become an All-American while at JBC. His teachings and influence have inspired me in so many ways even to this day.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
In 1854, land was given to the Alabama–Coushatta by the State of Texas through General Sam Houston. The Alabama–Coushatta Reservation is one of three Indian reservations in Texas. Also, the Alabama–Coushatta Reservation is the largest Indian reservation in Texas.
Chiefs and clan elders of the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas at the inauguration of new principal and second chiefs. Veterans Pavilion of the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation, January 1, 2014. Standing from left to right: Billy Alex (no clan), Minnie Celestine Cameron (Panther), Haskell Sylestine (Deer), Maxine Silva (Wind), Christine Poncho (Daddy Longlegs), Arlene Williams (Salt), C. B. Celestine (Beaver), and Lawrine Battise (Bear). Seated from left to right: Jack Battise, Sr. (Turkey), Mikko Atokla Skalaaba Herbert G. Johnson, Sr., Mikko Choba Colabe III Clem Sylestine, and Thelma Flores (WIldcat). Photo by Heather Johnson Battiste (Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas).
How is your tribal government set up?
Throughout history, the tribe has been ruled by both a principal chief (mikko choba) and a second chief (mikko atolka) who are elected by the people to serve lifetime terms. The Tribal Council was established in 1957 and is now recognized as the main governing body. Seven tribal members serve on the council, and they are elected by popular vote.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
Members of the tribal council serve three-year, rotating terms. As mentioned above, the two chiefs are elected to lifetime terms.
How often does your council meet?
The Tribal Council meets twice a month. Special meetings are held when needed.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
There are approximately 1,150 enrolled tribal members. About half live on the reservation.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
To become a member of the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe, a person must be at least one-quarter degree of Alabama and or Coushatta blood and show direct lineal descent from an ancestor whose name appears on any of the designated official census rolls of the Alabama and Coushatta tribes.
Are your languages still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your tribe would you estimate are fluent speakers?
The Alabama and Coushatta languages are still spoken. About 40 percent of the tribe are fluent speakers.
What economic enterprises does the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas own?
The tribe operates the A/C One Stop Ischoopa, a convenience store on the reservation. The tribe also operates three tobacco shops—one on the reservation, one nearby in the same county, and another in the Houston area.
What annual events does your community sponsor?
We have the Children’s Pow wow held the last Saturday of January. During the first weekend in June, we have an annual pow wow, which is our biggest event. We also have the Alabama–Coushatta Indian Week, which is held during October.
What attractions are available to visitors on your land?
In addition to the abovementioned events, we have camping and fishing at Lake Tombigbee, a Fourth of July music festival, a Labor Day softball tournament, and various other events.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Our tribe has always been a peaceful tribe. We try to maintain this as we seek more opportunities for our people. We do the best we can.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
Our future lies with you. Choose a good path, follow it, and fulfill your dreams. Keep your traditions alive. Make good choices. Always stay positive and make a difference.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
As the newly elected second chief of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, I’m honored to serve in this new role for my family and my people. I’m looking forward to the days ahead to lead the Alabama–Coushatta to be more self-sufficient and to maintain our ways of life.
Alíilamolo! Thank you!
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.