Chief Bolton boosts pride in Zwolle's Native American culture

Journal News Editor

With his arms crossed over his chest, Chief Tommy Bolton sits in the dark room, with low ceilings adding to the gloom. Beside his desk, a drum, three feet in diameter is upended against the wall. Except for the electric lights and modern conveniences, one might imagine sitting in the teepee of his ancestors a century ago.

For the last eight years, Chief Tommy's focus had been to increase awareness of the Indian heritage of his "family", his tribe, in Western Louisiana, near Ebarb.

Bolton remembers early in the process of becoming a recognized tribe in 1978, the relief many of the older ones felt at finally accepting their identity as Native Americans.

"At one meeting, my aunt raised her hand," Bolton said. "She said, 'Does this mean I am an Indian?' I told her yes. She said 'I'm so glad to know who I am at last.'"

Zwolle/Ebarb, Louisiana boasts the second-largest Indian tribe recognized by the State of Louisiana. The Choctaw-Apache Community of Ebarb has nearly 1,500 members living within a 25 mile radius of Zwolle.

They trace their bloodlines back to the original Adaes tribe who lived in the region between the Red and Sabine rivers. Briefly, their history is as follows: The Spanish built Fort Los Adaes near their villages and brought with them Lipan Apache, primarily purchased in slave markets in New Orleans to be used as slaves for domestic work, as courtesans and for wives. The Spanish government forced the tribe out of the area in 1773, but they came back before the end of the 18th century.

In 1803, the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon, Emperor of France. Indian agent at that time, Dr. John Sibley relocated immigrant Choctaw families into the area. The Choctaw married into the Lipan Apache-Adaes families and are the direct forefathers of those living in Sabine Parish today.

As for the Indians in modern times, Bolton, whose title is Chairman and Principal Chief of the Choctaw-Apache Community of Ebarb, said they faced denial for many years before coming to a recognition of their tribe.

"When we would ask our parents about our Indian heritage, they would not talk about it," Bolton said. He believes this is because at one time, Indian descendants were not only looked down on in the country, they were denied many basic rights, like owning land or voting.

"When I asked my grandfather about our heritage, he would always say, 'That's on your grand mother's side'", Bolton remembers. "But one day my cousin asked me if I could remember our grandfather going outside after breakfast and holding his plate up to the sun after eating in the mornings." That was a typical Indian ritual of thanking the gods for their food, proof that grandfather also had Indian heritage but would not speak of it.

"When I was elected in 1994, I began looking for ways to get people involved in the tribe," said Chief Bolton.\par }{\plain For the first time, they held a tribal powwow. He calls that first event a baptism by fire.

"A thunder cloud came up, wind blew the tents all over the compound," Bolton remembered. "Since then, everything has gone well."

At these powwows, held the first weekend in May, Indians from the four corners of the nation gather with the Zwolle tribe to celebrate the old ways. They sing and dance the traditional dances of their people to the beat of drums. Bolton described a powwow as a time for Indian people together to join each other in the dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones. It's a time to renew thoughts of the old ways and to preserve their rich heritage. Such celebrations help young ones to learn about Native American traditions and to be proud of who they are.

\par }{\plain At each event, there is a ceremony to ask the drum for good songs to begin their powwow. After that, the grand entry begins. Indian dancers dance in following the U.S. flag and the flag of their nation.

Many songs are sung in what is described as vocables to accommodate the many different languages spoken by ancient tribes across the United States. Those songs have no words. But other songs are still sung in the native tongue as reminders of the legacy of their forefathers.

Dances performed include the War Dance, Snake Dance, Buffalo Dance, and the Rabbit Dance. While these once held religious significance, today they are performed as social dances. Once called the haylushka, the War dance was once only performed by warriors. It is a dignified dance rather than a violent one as is usually presumed. In the Snake Dance, dancers follow one another in a long line moving in and out in a snake-like manner as if the snake traveled up a mountain, through the forest, coils for a rest and then uncoils to cross a river.

The benefit to the Indian community around Zwolle has been for them to accept their true identity and to enjoy the splendid traditions that is part of their cultural ancestry.

"We knew we were not Spanish, but we weren't sure what we were," Bolton said. "The old ones denied that we were Indians. One very old woman remembered being told about the removal. She said she didn't want to be forced to move again."

Their community did not mix with the surrounding community, however.

"We called it crossing the creek if someone went over to the other side," Bolton said. When Bolton began to try to break the silence and halt the denial of his people, one older man explained to him. "You can't expect 200 years of denying who we are to be erased in a few moments of time."

The building of pride has reached out to many in the community who help preserve their ancient traditions.

Alene Wright, tribal member, spends several days a week at the Tribal headquarters showing others how to make quilts as her ancestors did.

"I've even taken a course in our language," Mrs. Wright said. Many others are following her example and opening up ways to explore their Indian heritage. Youngsters can go to drum workshops to learn how indian music is played.

"We want to remember the old ways," said Mrs. Wright. "We want to pass our traditions on to our children and our grand children as it was done in the old days."

The Choctaw-Apache people of Zwolle-Ebarb are making plans to do that even more so in the future as their pride in their heritage and their past grows.