First Posted: 12/15/2008 12:06:03 PM | Last Updated: 12/15/2008 12:06:03 PM
EBARB — The Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb can trace its beginnings to 13 families that in the early 1700s settled on the east side of the Sabine River. Their descendants are still there, and their numbers have grown significantly
"Tribal activities had died down somewhat so we're trying to regroup and start all over again," said Chief John Procell, who on Aug. 21 succeeded longtime Chief Tommy Bolton.
Four of the six Tribal Council members are newcomers, too. The council includes Ione P. Durr, Susan Lee, Pat Ebarb, Chris Rivers, Joan Sepeda and Joy Stewart.
Membership in the state-recognized tribe had been stagnant for years. But Procell's vision and the new council members' energy are getting credit for a 30 percent to 40 percent increase in membership in recent months.
Approximately 2,300 living in the Ebarb community and surrounding 15-square-mile area are enrolled. Another 700 or so living in other parts of Louisiana claim Choctaw-Apache membership. But members also hail from Alaska and Florida and parts in between.
"Now, not a day goes by that somebody doesn't stop by or call," said Amelia Bison, rehabilitation counselor for the Central Louisiana Intertribal Vocational Rehabilitation program based in Zwolle. "I've worked with the tribe about five years, and I've never seen so much excitement and enthusiasm as now."
A common goal shared by the reinvigorated tribe is renewal of a federal recognition request. Louisiana lawmakers in 1977 gave the Choctaw-Apache Tribe state recognition, but efforts to get the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to do the same have been unsuccessful.
Former tribal leaders years ago submitted a petition that was answered with recommendations to correct deficiencies in the application. The BIA has seven mandatory criteria, including verification of historical and continuous American Indian identity in a distinct community. Anthropological, historical and genealogical research and documentation also are required.
"We've got most of it done," Procell said of the research.
Assisting the tribe is John Moore, a doctor of anthropology based at the University of Florida.
"We're roughly a year to a year and a half from a decision, I think," said tribe member Jason Rivers.
Gaining federal recognition would open the doors to federal dollars that would fund items such as outpatient health clinics, housing and business grants. "And it would help our younger people with their culture and the older ones with housing or help with their medical problems," Procell said.
The tribe receives some state and federal grants, one of which — totaling $300,000-$400,000 — funds the program that Bison oversees and provides aid and assistance to tribal members with disabilities. Job services and training are offered to qualifying clients in a 13-parish area.
"It's one of our flagship programs that really helps a lot of people," Rivers said.
Federal recognition also could open the door to the tribe purchasing additional land so it can establish permanent facilities. The tribal office occupies a small modular building, in addition to another portable building, at the corner of Lonnie Road and state Highway 482.
Procell envisions a larger site where public events such as the powwow can be held without having to borrow other facilities. The impounding of the Toledo Bend Reservoir took most of the Choctaw-Apache's original land. "It's time for us to have something of our own again; something to build on for the future," Procell said.
'Who we are'
But on another level, federal recognition should restore pride to the Choctaw-Apaches, especially for the elderly, Rivers said. Historically, small American Indian tribes have suffered because of a stigma passed through the generations.
Census records from the mid-1800s to the 1940s do not accurately reflect the American Indian numbers because it was "politically incorrect at the time to tell anyone you were Native American. They told (census takers) whatever they wanted to so that they could stay on their homeland and not go to a reservation," Rivers said.
Procell even recalls as a young child having to get a weekly haircut and his parents discouraging him and his siblings from playing in the afternoon sun so that their skin wouldn't darken any more. "They didn't want us to look like a damn Indian and have to go to a reservation."
It's time, Rivers said, "to tell people who we are."
Rivers, 37, even admits he did not embrace his Choctaw-Apache heritage until he attended a powwow last year at the urging of his 13-year-old son. "It did something to me."
Rivers, a Sabine sheriff's deputy, said Procell's leadership further pulled him into the tribal activities, and he actively participates in powwows and educational trips to Sabine Parish schools.
"For the past four months I've had my nose in his filing cabinets," Rivers said with a nod to Procell's extensive documentation of the Choctaw-Apache history. "I've been reading it all and learning all that I can."
His lateness to learn won't be passed onto his son, Jacob Rivers, who is already getting involved and will have the honor of being the "little boy dancer" at the annual Choctaw-Apache Powwow in May.
Tribal members on Nov. 14 conducted a Culture Education Day at Ebarb School, where 90 percent or more of the student population is Native American. "We had 150 or more kids dancing all over the gym," Procell said.
Procell and Rivers want to expand those programs into the parish's other schools so that the American Indian heritage is not an oddity only portrayed on television. Eventual plans are to branch out and even hold Native American Day events in schools in neighboring parishes.
"We have members all over, even in Shreveport and Bossier City, so we want to go there, too," Rivers said.
The tribe often partners with other American Indian tribes in culture or powwow events in other states. Procell, 61, a Vietnam War veteran, has served many times as "head gourd dancer," an invitation reserved for war veterans wounded in combat.
"It is an honor to serve," said Procell, who is a member of the Louisiana Gourd Society.
The Choctaw-Apache is a friendly tribe that encourages the public to learn about it and participate in the community activities it holds throughout the year. "We've got a lot of good people here and we want others to know that," Procell said.
It's time for all Native Americans to "stand together the help this nation be strong again. We've always been here and we'll always be here," he added.
Did you know?
The Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb is the third largest of nine recognized American Indian groups in Louisiana. The original 13 families have been together since the early 1700s. The families were a part of the Adais Indian people who ranged between the Sabine and Red rivers until the late 1700s. They were joined by the four families of Lipan Apache slaves.
Choctaw immigrants began moving east at the turn of the 19th century and many became part of the original families in Nacogdoches, Texas. Additionally, Louisiana Purchase Indian Agent John Sibley moved Choctaw families to the Ebarb area in the early 1820s. Their descendants' oral histories tell of having originated in Mississippi. By the 1870 census, the 21 Choctaw-Apache families were accounted for and were living on the eastern bank of the Sabine River, now Toledo Bend Reservoir, where they remain today.
The Choctaw-Apache Tribe has three programs for children: Project Venture Junior Staffers for 16- to 17-year-olds; Project Venture for ages 12 to 15; and Rising Sun Youth Group for ages 4 to 11.
As late as the 1960s, nearly 100 percent of the tribe belonged to the Roman Catholic faith. Since then, some have become Protestants, but the Catholic presence is at least 90 percent.
Tribal members were initially misidentified as Mexican because of their physical appearance, surnames and language that was heavy with Spanish.
The Hogg Wild Motorcycle Riders last month donated $4,000 to assist the tribe in creating a veterans' memorial monument and flag poles on the tribal office grounds. The granite wall will list any Choctaw-Apache members who died in World War I, World War II and the Korean, Vietnam, Iran and Afghanistan wars.
by Vickie Welborn/Shreveport Times