by Gregg Peak
INDIAN VILLAGE – In a ceremony steeped in tradition, history and spiritualism, two new chiefs for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas were inaugurated on New Year's Day.
Colabe III Clem Fain Sylestine, who had served as the second chief since Jan. 1, 1995, was elevated to the role of principal chief, while Herbert Johnson, Sr., was installed as the new second chief.
Because those elected by the tribe to wear the chief's headdress serve for life, last week's ceremony was an historic event for the tribe.
Chief Colabe, 86, replaces Principal Chief Oscala Clayton Marion Sylestine, who died on Jan. 31, 2013.
Alabama-Coushatta tradition dictates that after a period of mourning, the new chiefs are elected by the tribe and installed on Jan. 1 in conjunction with the start of a new year.
"We're beginning a new chapter," Chief Colabe said after the ceremony. "We can't really know what's going to happen but my goal is to work to make sure that we move forward. I don't know what form the progress will take, but I want to help guide us forward so we can come to the same conclusion."
Johnson noted that, as second chief, he will be learning from Chief Colabe about his new role.
"I've got a ways to go but I'm going to do the best that I can to work for our people," he added.
Earlier during the ceremony, Johnson also thanked all those who came to take part in the event. While most of the remarks to the audience by Chief Colabe and Johnson were in their native language, Johnson did tell them in English how much their presence meant to him.
"North, east, south and west, you all came here today. I appreciate you for being here. Bless you all and have a happy new year," he said.
State Rep. James White also was on hand to present special proclamations on behalf of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, which granted formal recognition of each of their positions with the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe.
In presenting the proclamations, White also praised the tribe and its members for their dedication to preserving liberty.
"Whenever liberty has been threatened, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas has been there to keep the light of freedom burning," White said.
He noted that as far back as the Texas Revolution, members of the tribe have been there to assist in times of need. From the Runaway Scrape during the revolution, to World War II, to Iraq, tribal members stood with their fellow Texans.
"On behalf of the State of Texas, I want to thank you for your service," White added.
During the ceremony, the new chiefs met privately with the elders from the tribe's 10 surviving clans (two clans are now considered extinct), before returning to publicly undergo the formal inaugural ceremony.
As part of the process, the chiefs were cleansed by Spiritual Leader Walter Celestine, using purified water and an eagle feather. The legs of the chiefs were then wrapped to symbolically protect them from the snakes – or the evils of the world -- as they journey through the swamps in search of the Great Spirit Abbo Mikko.
During the ceremony, the spiritual leader also briefly presented each chief with a staff adorned with eagle feathers representing their leadership role; with a tomahawk representing their authority and the protection they each must provide to the tribe; with a bow and arrow representing the need to provide food for the tribe; and with a peace pipe.
One of the final steps in the inauguration process is the crowning of the chiefs with their eagle-feathered headdresses, a process which is assisted by two military veterans from the tribe.
After the formal installation ceremony, a peace pipe ceremony was held as a gesture of friendship with visiting chiefs, including Loveland Poncho, who is chairman of the Coushatta Tribe in Lousiana.
Chief Colabe was born Nov. 4, 1927 on the Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation in Polk County as a member of the Granddaddy Long Legs Clan. He is the son of the late Bronson Cooper Sylestine, who served as principal chief from 1936-1969, and the late Mozanna Thompson Sylestine.
He also is a direct descendant of Sub-Chief Colabe, who served as second chief along with Principal Chief Antone around 1806.
His late wife, Leona Abby Sylestine, who a widely known artisan in traditional and contemporary beadwork.
Chief Colabe holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Austin College in Sherman and served as an educator and coach in the Southmayd, Holland, Shepherd, Woodville and Goodrich school districts. He retired in 1988.
He served the tribe on the tribal council and as tribal council chairman before being elected as second chief on Oct. 19, 1994.
Johnson, a member of the Beaver Clan, retired in 2012 as the tribal security director following 21 years of service. During his security work, he earned certifications from Kilgore College and the Angelina Criminal Justice Center. He also attended Jacksonville Baptist College on a basketball scholarship and in 1963 was honored as an All-American.
He has served two terms on the tribal touncil and has been a volunteer on the tribe's fire department and served for a number of years as Tribal Softball and Basketball League manager.
The new second chief also continues to serve on the Big Sandy Independent School District's board of trustees, a position he has held for 43 years.