The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Galveston District officially observed National American Indian Heritage Month (NAIHM) with a virtual presentation hosted by the district’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) office, November 18.
The Department of Defense’s official theme for NAIHM this year is “Grounded in Tradition, Resilient in Spirit.”
Dr. Rose Caballero, USACE Galveston’s EEO manager who coordinated and co-hosted the event, introduced guest speaker, Bryant J. Celestine, of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas’ Oofatta (Beaver) Clan. Celestine serves as the tribe’s historic preservation officer and sits on several committees for the tribe and consulting entities in Texas and throughout the Southeastern United States.
Celestine began by stressing the importance and conservation of water resources; a mission he believes the Alabama-Coushatta share with the Corps of Engineers.
“Water is life,” Celestine said, noting the words as a commonly shared motto amongst the many Native American communities currently engaged in natural conservation efforts across the country. “Natural resources are life resources.”
Celestine presented a brief history of how the tribe came from their ancestral lands to modern day Texas. The Alabama-Coushatta tribe descended from members of the Muscogee—or Creek—tribes in the southeast. They became known as ‘the Creeks’ to the Europeans because of their tendency to live near rivers, streams, and creeks, Celestine said.
The Alabama and Coushatta tribes—both part of the Creek confederacy—migrated across the Sabine River into Spanish Texas in the 1780s. Most of the rest of the Creek tribes were forced out of their homelands in Alabama and western Georgia in the 1830s during the Trail of Tears, as part of the Indian Removal Act.
Even though they were two distinct tribes, the Alabamas and the Coushattas have been closely associated throughout their history, Celestine said.
The Alabama and Coushattas came to prominence in the state of Texas during the Mexican war of independence from Spain. They fought alongside the Mexican revolutionaries and contributed 300 warriors who were instrumental in capturing San Antonio in 1813. The tribes even helped Sam Houston during Texas’s war for independence from Mexico.
It was in Texas where the Alabama-Coushattas found themselves—once again—living near rivers and other major water sources.
“Our way of life has been—and always was—dependent on water,” Celestine noted.
As a result, the Alabama-Coushattas developed the practice of harvesting shellfish, including mussels and clams; a practice that continues to this day, he said. “Living near water sources allowed our people access to food, proving—once again—that water is life.”
Celestine also stressed the importance of passing on this reverence and respect for water and all other natural resources to the next generation.
“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors,” Celestine said, citing an old Native American proverb. “We borrow it from our children.”
Celestine and other Alabama-Coushatta elders pass on this knowledge and cultural awareness through a yearly summer cultural camp for children ages 5 and up. Camp curriculum includes teaching basic words and phrases in the Alabama-Coushatta language, cultural craftwork, beadwork, and environmental stewardship.
The Alabama-Coushatta of Texas have the oldest reservation in the state located on approximately 10,200 acres in the Big Thicket area of eastern Texas. The tribe is a fully functioning sovereign government with health and human services, including law enforcement and emergency services. There are more than 1,300 members; half of whom live on the reservation.
“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not only believes in being good environmental stewards, it is
written into our mission,” said. Maj. Ian O’Sullivan, USACE Galveston’s deputy district commander. “As the nation’s environmental engineers, we manage one of the largest federal environmental missions. Here in south Texas, a major part of that is regulating waterways and managing various natural resources vital to local ecosystems.”