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Alabama-Coushatta tribe has its first female chief as women gain a greater role in governing

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Regina Thompson
Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas
Millie Thompson Williams during her inaugutaion ceremony as Second Chief, the first woman elected to the position in the tribe's history.

As the newly-inaugurated Second Chief, Millie Thompson Williams will work with the principal chief and tribal council on maintaining culture and traditions. But Williams told KERA’s Sam Baker she wants to focus on the tribal language.

About the language

I would love to work with the young people and teach them how to speak it fluently so our language won't die out. Some of them want to learn to speak it. They were brought up with the English language. Once they’re in the public school, they learn to talk English and all that. So that's a barrier that we have to learn to work with.

Is it difficult to interest the kids?

Well, some of them want to learn, and it's kind of hard for them because they did talk fluidly at the house.

It starts at the house. They have to talk it every day in order to really talk it. I made sure my children talk both languages. Alabama-Coushatta and the English language.

My husband made them talk it when they went to school. I had four children. When they went to school, he would tell them It's okay. Once you get on the bus, you can talk English all you want, but once you get off that bus in our home, you will talk in our language. So that's how it was. They know how to talk it fluently, even though they know what the English language is. When they came home, we had to follow their dad his way.

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Regina Thompson
Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas
Millie Thompson Williams, Second Chief, Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas

You were the first woman to serve in such a leadership position in the history of the tribe, that being Second Chief. Why do you suppose that is happening now? Why has a woman never been elected to that job before?

So it was always men. The men in the tribe was the leaders. And that's how it was until now.

But weren’t the women in the Alabama and the Coushatta tribes, up until or through the 18th century, seen as key decision makers?

Among the village, they used to be the one whenever the guys were enacting battle, you know that the ladies were in charge of the village.

All my life I've heard, I've just seen, the guys. The men take charge all the time. And I've heard the elders say, it’s supposed to be the men.

So when did you start to notice a change with that?

Probably like in the 70s, I noticed the ladies started going in. They were voted in and they start serving. When the first lady got nominated. I felt like there was a change that needed to be done.

That’s when I was a young girl. So, I thought that was awesome because, hey, there's a lady that got nominated and we can start believing in the other ladies. So right now we have four, four ladies serving in the tribal council.

What kind of changes have you seen since women have been a part of the Tribal council? 

I've seen a lot of encouragement towards the young ladies that they can do anything they want to if they put their minds to it.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.