LIVINGSTON — When Millie Thompson Williams and her cousin Myra Battise were growing up, they played token games under a pine canopy in Big Thicket National Preserve and pretended to be members of the tribal council.
It was a real fantasy for the two girls growing up in the 1960s when their tribe’s seven-strong governing body was all male.
“We’re going to say no to everything they say!” Williams told Battise, who laughed along and continued the charade.
Now, 60 years later, Williams fondly recalls those memories and realizes they are no longer just daydreams.
On New Year’s Day, 66-year-old Williams was inaugurated as the second chief of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe in Texas, becoming the first woman to be elected to the post in the tribe’s more than 200-year history.
The second chief, together with the main chief, acts as the ambassador of the tribe and advises the tribal council and the main tribal committees on cultural matters. Williams’ rise to power follows a series of family tragedies that left her a widow – but comes at an opportune time for the women of her tribe. Her leadership coincides with the first time the tribal council has been made up predominantly of women rather than men.
“To me, that’s not progress, it’s coming full circle,” said Nita Battise, vice chair of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council and a distant cousin of Williams. “We were once a matriarchal society. … It always comes full circle.”
Before being invaded by European settlers in the 18th century, both the Alabama and Coushatta tribes operated as matrilineal and matriarchal societies, much like other indigenous tribes. Women were highly regarded as key decision-makers, and children inherited their clan affiliation from their mothers – a tradition that continues. Nonetheless, the influx of Christianity and white European influences led to a shift towards a more male-dominated system of government. It wasn’t until 1980 that the tribe had its first female council member.
Now, as Williams makes history and power returns to women, she hopes to steer the tribe in a direction that balances economic prosperity with cultural traditions. As the oldest reservation in Texas and one of three state-recognized tribes in the state, the Alabama Coushatta have long fought for sovereignty and respect from state and federal leaders. For years politicians have at best ignored the tribe and at worst acted against their best interests. After all, the tribe is in a place of economic growth. Last year, the tribe secured the legal right to operate an electronic gaming establishment on its reservation. The operation, Naskila Gaming, has proven to be a boon to economic development, creating hundreds of jobs and generating millions of dollars in revenue.
Still, the tribe fights. The tug-of-war for politicians’ recognition continues, and the reservation faces the same challenges as other rural communities in Texas — aging infrastructure, limited access to health care, and low educational attainment. They also experience a baby boom that threatens the tribe’s connection to its past. Of the roughly 1,400 tribal members, 39% are under the age of 18, more than 1.5 times the rate in the United States as a whole. With fewer elders, tribal traditions, including the language, crafts, and folklore of Alabama, are in danger of disappearing. Williams wants to prevent that.
“I want to be there for my tribe, especially the young people who are coming,” said Williams, who has a slim build, round face and soft features. “I want them to be proud of who they are and where they come from.”
Williams was born and raised on a 10,200-acre reservation 17 miles east of Livingston. The entrance to the reservation appears as a wooden billboard between rows of pine trees on dual carriageway 190. Behind the sign is a cultural center that serves as a hub for tribal activities and as the seat of tribal council meetings. Across the street at Naskila Gaming, the slot machine lights are blinking.
Williams is one of approximately 1,400 enrolled members of the Alabama Coushatta Tribe, about half of whom live on the reservation. The heavily forested region is located in deep east Texas. Their ancestors immigrated to the region from what is now Alabama in the late 1800s after facing pressure from European settlers.
Though recognized as two separate tribes, the Alabamas and Coushattas are closely related, sharing a similar history of displacement and an ongoing struggle for state and federal recognition. After Texas gained independence from Mexico in 1836, many tribes were expelled from the state, but the Alabama and Coushattas had maintained friendly relations with their neighbors. They had even aided the Texans in their fight for independence by taking care of General Sam Houston’s troops when they retreated from the Mexican army. When Mirabeau Lamar became President of Texas, he approved an act to purchase land for the tribes.
Since then, the tribe has had to fight for its sovereignty.
In a 1918 report, the U.S. Department of the Interior examined the tribe’s status and found that the tribe’s greatest needs were more land and professional training. Congress confiscated land from the tribe in 1928 and authorized the assumption of property rights over the land, effectively establishing a government and government relationship with them. But in 1954, as part of a series of laws aimed at assimilating Native Americans to Western culture, Congress ended its relationship with the tribe. The reservation became an unincorporated association subject to the same state laws as other private associations. In the decades that followed, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council campaigned for recognition, traveling to Washington, DC to speak before Congress and appealing to local leaders for support.
Finally, in 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed the Restoration Act. With this federal recognition, the Alabama Coushatta were given the power to govern themselves and maintain their own laws within their reservation. They were no longer subject to certain state laws and were entitled to certain federal benefits, services and protections, including federal protection through their reservation. Last summer, the tribe won a critical case in the US Supreme Court, which affirmed its autonomy to regulate unlawful gambling on its land. The ruling ended a battle with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over Naskila Gaming.
The facility has created over 700 jobs and is the second largest employer in the county, according to the tribe. But further progress is difficult to achieve. Tribal leaders are hoping for federal legislation to be passed that would place them under the Indian Gaming Regulation Act. This legislation would prevent the state from shutting down Naskila Gaming and allow them to operate casinos, a potential additional source of income for tribal members, about 20% of whom live below the poverty line, according to the US Census Bureau. The bill has passed the US House of Representatives multiple times but has stalled in the Senate.
Basically, the tribe seeks respect from the heads of state.
“There is an open invitation to the governor to visit the reservation,” said Nita Battise. “All Texas governors have made it their goal to visit the reservation, up until Rick Perry and now Greg Abbott. We want him to be here and see what happens.”
In the midst of personal heartbreak, a chance to make history
Williams was struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on her reservation’s Head Start program, with which she had worked for 37 years when her husband died of heart disease. It was the first of a series of losses she faced as the new decade began.
Williams lost a son in 2021. And another in 2022.
She felt like half of her physical body was gone.
Amid her grief, William’s cousin Battise called her one day and said she planned to nominate her for the position of second chief, a lifetime appointment.
“It was time for a change,” Battise said. “It was time for a woman to serve.”
Williams graciously accepted the nomination but chose not to promote the role.
As a woman of faith, she would leave the results to God instead.
“If he wants me to be a second chief, he’ll find a way,” Williams recalled. “If he says no, then I would understand.”
A few days after the election, Williams sat in the front row of her church, a modest brick building where Williams attends weekly services and teaches adult Sunday school classes in her tribal language.
From the pulpit, a parishioner announced the results of the election: Williams won by a narrow margin. She was shocked.
“Who would have ever thought I’d be chief?” said Williams. “I grew up in a single parent household and have been at the foot of the totem pole my entire life. I never thought I would be here.”
As one of the few tribal elders on the reservation, Williams wants to use her position to instill cultural traditions and values in young people.
She is primarily focused on teaching young people Alabama, a tribal language that was passed down orally from generation to generation.
“It’s important that we can speak in Alabama because God gave us that language to speak,” Williams said. As co-director, she plans to make regular visits to the youth center, a building where the children on the reservation gather for after-school and weekend activities. She will use her skills as an educator to teach language to young children. And she will recruit other elders to teach what they know, including how to weave baskets from longleaf pine needles, cook traditional foods like fried bread and corn soup, and make jewelry from beads.
“I want them to want to learn,” Williams said. “I love my people and I want us to survive.”
On the day of Williams’ inauguration, four empty chairs lined the front row of the pavilion, where parishioners gathered for a sacred ceremony. Williams had requested the chairs so she could honor her late husband and children.
In the weeks leading up to the inauguration, as committees of tribal members prepared for the big day, Williams had vivid dreams. In it, her deceased family members visited her to bring her words of encouragement. In a dream, Williams thought she was in heaven with her husband. But he told her that she still had a lot to do on Earth. Williams found his presence reassuring.
“He said we’ll be fine,” Williams said. “And you’ll join us when you’re done.”