Courtesy Colin Poncho/Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas
Herbert G. Johnson Sr., second chief of the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas.

Second Chief Herbert G. Johnson Sr.: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh
1/10/14

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Mikko Atokla Skalaaba—Second Chief Herbert G. Johnson Sr.—of the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe of Texas. I am also a member of the Beaver Clan.

Where is your community located?

The Alabama-Coushatta Indian Reservation is located in Polk County near Livingston, Texas.

Where are the Alabama–Coushatta originally from?

Although they are both of the same Muskhogean language stock, the Alabama and Coushatta were originally separately organized tribes that inhabited adjacent areas near present-day Montgomery, Alabama. As European settlers began to encroach on their lands, in 1763 the tribes began to migrate westward, first to Louisiana and then to the Big Thicket area of southeast Texas where we live today.

What responsibilities do you have as second chief?

Part of my responsibility as second chief is to represent the Alabama–Coushatta Tribe on cultural, spiritual, and historical matters whenever possible. The principal chief and second chief also work together as advisory members to the Tribal Council.

How did your life’s experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

Serving on the board for one of the local schools for 43 years, as well as on the Tribal Council for two terms, and serving as a deacon and elder at the Indian Presbyterian Church helped prepare me. These leadership roles have enabled me to be a productive citizen in our community by listening and not casting any judgment until all sides are heard.

When I was growing up on the reservation, my family taught me to be respectful of any and all people no matter their circumstances. I have lived with that philosophy for all of my life.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My family believed in me and gave me a good foundation. I eventually went to junior college. It was at Jacksonville Baptist College (JBC) in Jacksonville, Texas, that I met the most important and influential person in my life outside my family, Coach Vernon Harton. As a basketball coach, he taught me many things, on and off the court, but one thing was perseverance. Even though I struggled with certain aspects of school and the game, he made me see the bigger picture. I went on to become an All-American while at JBC. His teachings and influence have inspired me in so many ways even to this day.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader?

No.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

In 1854, land was given to the Alabama–Coushatta by the State of Texas through General Sam Houston. The Alabama–Coushatta Reservation is one of three Indian reservations in Texas. Also, the Alabama–Coushatta Reservation is the largest Indian reservation in Texas.

How is your tribal government set up?

Throughout history, the tribe has been ruled by both a principal chief (mikko choba) and a second chief (mikko atolka) who are elected by the people to serve lifetime terms. The Tribal Council was established in 1957 and is now recognized as the main governing body. Seven tribal members serve on the council, and they are elected by popular vote.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Members of the tribal council serve three-year, rotating terms. As mentioned above, the two chiefs are elected to lifetime terms.

How often does your council meet?

The Tribal Council meets twice a month. Special meetings are held when needed.

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

There are approximately 1,150 enrolled tribal members. About half live on the reservation.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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