Millie Thompson Williams, first woman elected to help lead Texas’ Alabama-Coushatta, dies

Millie Thompson Williams, the first woman elected to serve in a leadership position in the Alabama-Coushatta tribe stands inside the Indian Village Assembly of God Church on Dec. 22, 2022. Thompson died Aug. 25. (Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune, Annie Mulligan For The Texas Tribune)

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Millie Thompson Williams, the first woman elected to serve as second chief of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, died Friday at a hospital in Lufkin. She was 67.

Her death was confirmed by the tribe in a Monday news release.

Williams was inaugurated as second chief to the over 200-year-old tribe in January. The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe is one of three federally recognized tribes in Texas, with about 1,400 enrolled members. About half of those members reside on a 10,200 acre reservation that sits east of Livingston in a heavily forested part of Polk County.

Williams was born and raised on the reservation. She worked most of her life as a teacher at the tribe’s Head Start Program, including as the program’s health and mental health manager. Williams’ cousin nominated her for the role of second chief, an advisory position responsible for acting as ambassador for the tribe and offering cultural advice to the tribal council.

Without campaigning, Williams won the election. She focused on preserving tribal history, including teaching young people Alabama, a tribal language that has been passed down orally. As one of a shrinking number of elders, Williams was passionate about instilling cultural traditions and values in young people.

[“Who ever thought I would be chief?” Texas’ Alabama-Coushatta tribe elects first female chief]

“It's important that we know how to talk in Alabama because God gave us this language to talk,” Williams told The Tribune in January.

Williams was looking forward to the opening of a new education center on the reservation in 2024, according to Melanie Battise, tribal council secretary and a relative of Williams. The center will house the Head Start program along with a library and a youth program.

“She liked seeing what the possibilities were for us,” Battise said. “She couldn’t wait for the new facilities to open and she had said she wouldn’t retire from Head Start until it opened.”

Tribal members described Battise as a woman of faith who prayed for the wellbeing of others and who cared deeply about the tribe’s longevity.

The Alabama-Coushatta tribe have for years fought with the state for recognition and for economic security. Last year, the tribe secured the legal right to operate Naskila Gaming, an electronic bingo facility, which has injected more than $200 million into the Polk County economy and created 825 jobs, according to the tribe.

Williams said that she had largely stayed out of the debate about the casino but that she advocated for the tribe’s economic success.

When Williams was inaugurated, she was given an Indian name, Poliika Istaaya, which means prayer carrier.

“She was truly our prayer carrier,” said Nita Battise, tribal council vice chair. “She would share uplifting messages. She pretty much sustained me.”

The tribe is now in a period of mourning, which lasts up to a year, said Debrina Dirden, the tribe’s communication director. After that period is over, the tribe will have a meeting to nominate candidates to fill the vacant position. Candidates have to live on the reservation, be an enrolled member of the tribe and be able to speak the Alabama language.

Williams is survived by a son and daughter. Tribal members said Williams had struggled with a brief illness, but didn’t release further details.

A wake will be held 6 p.m. Monday at Cochran Funeral Home in Livingston. And services will be held at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday at the multi-purpose center on the Alabama-Coushatta reservation.

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