FORT BENNING, Ga. — Members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas traveled to Fort Benning this week to harvest longleaf pine needles. The harvest is part of a cultural partnership with Fort Benning.
“The tribes have an interest here because of the burial sites and historic properties,” said forrester James Parker, chief of the Directorate of Public Works’ Land Management Branch. “We try to work with them and if there’s something they need that Fort Benning has and we can actually let them have it — like pine needles — we try to coordinate that with them.”
The installation encompasses the ancestral homelands for numerous tribes and is home to nearly 4,000 cultural sites, including artifacts and buildings. Eleven federally recognized Indian tribes, including the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, are currently in government-to-government consultation with Fort Benning in matters concerning tribal cultural resources on the installation. Tribal consultations, which began at the post in 1994, give both parties the opportunity to discuss issues directly affecting Native American sites.
A consultation with the tribes in October led to a request by tribal council member, Walter Celestine, of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, to collect longleaf pine needles as part of a project to teach tribal children the heritage of basket making.
The request was approved and Parker located an area suitable for the group to harvest in.
Parker chose an area on Fort Benning’s southernmost border off of Riverbend Road. The area was gained through a land swap with the city of Columbus several years ago, he said, and was perfect for what the group needed.
Celestine, the vice chairman of the tribe’s cultural committee, along with interim chairwoman Nita Battise and public relations director Sharon Miller, made the 730-mile journey from the reservation based in Livingston, Texas, 90 miles north of Houston, and arrived here Monday.
The three expressed gratitude for the opportunity to collect the materials they need to teach the children the ancient tribal art of basket making, whose style is unique to the tribe, Miller said.
The baskets are made from longleaf pine needles, which are not abundant near the tribe’s location. The tribe faced a challenge in collecting the pine needles near the reservation because most longleaf pine trees in the area are located on private lands, she said.
“We are trying to keep the tradition alive so that it doesn’t die with us,” she said.
The tribe is one of the smallest in the U.S, with just over 1,000 members, Miller said.
Half live on a 4,600-acre reservation and the rest are spread out across the country attending universities, serving in the military, married into other tribes or moved to seek employment.
The basket-making project is one of several the tribe has launched this year as part of a federal grant project they were awarded in March.
“A lot of the tribes have lost their languages, their traditions. We are trying to keep ours going,” said Miller, a member of the tribe’s cultural committee. “It’s an honor to go back to where our ancestors lived, and here we are picking pine needles to preserve the future for our young people.”
Celestine, who was born on the reservation and now serves as the director of the tribe’s employment and training program, said he can still recall the tribe’s oral history passed down to him from the elders.
He said the tribe originally relocated from the area around Fort Benning to follow the French traders west to Texas in the early 1790s.
“We moved before the Creeks were removed from this area to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears,” he said. “It’s good to return here and see our homelands our ancestors are buried here.”
Battise said the 20th anniversary last month of the creation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has given her time to reflect on the changes in society’s perception of Native Americans.
“I remember a time when archeologists wouldn’t give you the time of day because they didn’t consider talking to native people about their relation to what was being discovered at the time – burial sites, artifacts, landmarks, earth mounds,” said Battise, who worked as a park ranger in Ohio at the time. “As a Native American, to have (NAGPRA) happen within my lifetime has been amazing.”
Battis said when she told her grandmother she would be traveling to Fort Benning for the harvesting trip, her grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, recalled a story passed down from her ancestors.
“She shared with me stories from her mother and mother’s mother of when their ancestors were moving from this area. She said the women would touch the trees and cry because they were leaving their family but they would take a sapling so they could always have a part of their home with them. They would plant it in their new home. It was touching to have that memory brought up despite her condition,” said Battise, who notes her mother is considered a tribal treasure for the historical information she knows. The group collected a few boxfuls of needles and were given several bagfuls of pine cones to bring back to Livingston.
Miller said the children will hang the needles up in a dark place for three months until they darken to a deep green and become soft enough to be shaped. The children will then use them to begin creating their own baskets, which they learned how to make over the summer. The baskets will either be housed in the tribe’s collection or given by the children as gifts.
Other federally recognized Indian tribes with ties to Fort Benning:
Alabama/Quassarte Tribal Town
Kialegee Tribal Town
Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians
Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma
Poarch Band of Creek Indians
Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma
Seminole Tribe of Florida
Thlophthlocco Tribal Town
United Keetoowah Band of the Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma