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A Lifetime Journey: Alabama-Coushatta Name New Chiefs

For the first time in nearly two decades, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas is welcoming a new principal and second chief.
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For the first time in nearly two decades, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas is welcoming a new principal and second chief.

The 1,200-member tribe, located on 4,500 acres of land north of Houston, elects its chiefs to life terms. An inauguration ceremony held January 1 was the first such event since 1995. The ceremony is revered because it may be witnessed only once in a lifetime, tribal spokesman Carlos Bullock said.

“The installation of a new chief is as sacred to the Alabama-Coushatta Indians as the ceremony is time-honored,” Bullock said. “Every dance, chant and movement has a purpose imbedded in traditions of centuries past.”

According to legend, the first chief’s legs were wrapped in bark to protect him from snakes as he journeyed through the swamps looking for the Great Spirit. Once he found the spirit, he acquired knowledge and the first corn seeds to take back to his people. During modern inauguration ceremonies, chiefs’ legs are still wrapped to protect them from snakes, which represent the evils of the world.

Courtesy Alabama-Coushatta Tribe

Mikko Colabe III Clem Fain Sylestine, Alabama-Coushatta Tribe principal chief

Although the election is held in October, chiefs take office January 1 so the new leadership starts fresh with the new year. The tribe’s new principal chief is Mikko Colabe III Clem Fain Sylestine and the second chief is Mikko Skalaaba Herbert Johnson Sr.

Sylestine, 86, was second chief since 1995. He served with Mikko Oscola Clayton Sylestine, who was principal chief until his death on January 31, 2013.

When either of the positions is vacated because of death, the tribe nominates and elects a replacement, Bullock said. Sylestine is only the fourth man in 80 years to serve as principal chief. Elections for the top leadership position were held in 1935, 1969 and1994.

In the event of the first chief’s death, the second chief often is elected to his place and the people nominate individuals for the position of second chief. Johnson, 71, was one of seven people nominated for the position in October.

Courtesy Alabama-Coushatta Tribe

Mikko Skalaaba Herbert Johnson Sr., Alabama-Coushatta Tribe second chief

The two chiefs, who represent more than 150 years of life experience, are not lawmakers, Bullock said. They serve as advisers to the tribal council, which comprises seven members serving three-year terms.

“The tribal council is really the governing body,” Bullock said. “The chiefs act more as advisers. They sit in on meetings and give input.”

Chiefs do not have voting power, nor do they take active roles in politics, Bullock said.

“They are more ceremonial,” he said. “We look to them for advice. They also serve as ambassadors and act as the face of our tribe.”

Sylestine, who served as second chief for 19 years, said he wants to see continued progress in the tribe.

“I want education for the kids to continue, and also for our history to continue – to preserve our history and our traditional way of life,” he said. “My thoughts are that I want to do anything I can to help the progression of our tribe.”

Sylestine previously served on the tribal council. He also is active in the Indian Village Presbyterian Church. Prior to his retirement in 1988, he was employed by Sam Houston Electric Cooperative. He lost his wife of 50 years in October.

Johnson, who also served on the tribal council and with the Presbyterian Church, was employed as the tribe’s director of security. He retired in 2012 after 21 years on the job.

“My whole career has been on the reservation,” said Johnson, who also served for 43 years on a local school board. He ran for the office of second chief to continue serving his tribe.

“I know all the people,” he said. “I’ve worked with them for my whole life. My only goal right now is just to try to do the best I can for everyone.”

Johnson’s goals as second chief include improving education and building an arts and crafts building. He has been married for 52 years and all five of his children work for the tribe.

Sylestine, who already has served as a chief for almost two decades, said he’s not slowing down.

“I look at it this way,” he said. “God gave me life. I’m made to live as long as I’m able to, so I’ll take that and serve to the best of my ability for the tribe. Whatever needs to be done, I’m going to support it, so long as it’s good for the tribe.”

Courtesy Alabama-Coushatta Tribe

Tribal Princess Singing The Lord’s Prayer.