Ernest Sickey, Coushatta Tribe
Published April 23, 2020
"Renewing indigenous economies is relationships, tradition and trade."
Ernest Sickey, Coushatta Tribe
Former chairman, Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana
As a leader of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana for nearly three decades and tribal chairman from 1973 to 1985, Ernest Sickey is a trailblazer in the evolution of Indian affairs in the southeastern United States. He is best known for leading his own tribal community from legal obscurity to becoming the first tribe recognized by the state of Louisiana in 1972. Sickey also played an instrumental role in securing government-to-government status for the Coushatta tribe, laying the foundation for multiple economic ventures that have since placed the Coushatta among Louisiana’s top employers.
Sickey continues to serve as an advisor to the Coushatta Tribal Council and to other tribal governments in addressing economic and social development. Sickey lobbied the Louisiana legislature to create an Office of Indian Affairs, for which he served as its first executive director, and was among the founders of the Louisiana Inter-Tribal Council and Institute for Indian Development.
The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is descended from a large, powerful sovereign nation of Koasati people who lived prosperously and peaceably in the southeastern United States for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans. The principal Koasati villages were located on islands in the Tennessee River, in what is now south-central Tennessee, where the Tribe was living when they first encountered European explorer Hernando DeSoto in 1540.
Koasati oral tradition holds that we were the most northerly of the Muskogean-speaking peoples. Tribal elders believe the name comes from “Kowi iisa-fa aati-ha” which is literally translated as “the people from [the lands] where the big cats live.” Period maps support these oral traditions, identifying islands in the Tennessee River as “Cosauda.”
Throughout our long history, the Coushatta people have never been “under colonialism.” We consider ourselves one of the most independent Native nations in the United States, because we have never been conquered. Our leadership always maintained diplomatic relations with foreign and colonial governments, so we were never defined as enemy combatants, never forcibly removed from our lands, forced into boarding schools, nor were we forced into signing treaties or ceding our lands. Our leaders often chose to leave our traditional homelands to avoid major conflicts. For example, in 1797, the great Coushatta Chief Red Shoes had a devastating vision of the coming Creek Wars and encouraged half of our people to migrate westward. Other groups followed. By the time of the Creek removals, the Coushatta people had relocated to Spanish territories in Louisiana and Texas. By careful diplomacy, we avoided some of the harsher U.S. policies towards Tribes and remained culturally, linguistically and politically autonomous.
We have faced many challenges dealing with the different rules and regulations of each foreign government. Our traditions do not include the concept of land “ownership” – our Koasati language does not even have a word for this concept. Consequently, we believed that simply leaving our lands did not negate our claim to them. When the Creek and Coushatta chiefs negotiated their boundary lines with the United States in 1814, they stated that their northernmost boundary should stretch to “Cosauda Island in the Tennessee River.” This is a clear indication that the Koasati people considered these lands in what is now Tennessee as their homelands, never renounced them, and that this claim was widely known and accepted by all of the tribes.
Despite maintaining autonomy and diplomatic relations, in 1953 our Tribe was “terminated” without legislation. It took 20 years to overturn this unjust policy, but we maintained our community, our government and our language throughout this time. In 1973 the “rules” changed yet again, and we were told we had to have a “reservation” land base in order to officially re-establish our government-to-government relationship.
Since obtaining re-recognition in 1973, the economy of the Coushatta has steadily grown stronger. As always, we have farmed, cut timber, and woven and sold our traditional baskets to fuel our economy. From an initial reservation base of fifteen acres, the Tribe now has fifteen hundred acres of trust land and 5,600 acres of fee simple land.
We now operate over twenty departments to provide services to members, including health, education, social services, and more. The Tribe owns and operates Coushatta Casino Resort and employs over three thousand people, making it the third largest employer in the state.
From our proud history to our current status as an economic, social and cultural leader, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana has played an important role in local, state and national communities. The Tribe looks forward to its continued growth and positive impact for many generations to come.