Growing up in Shreveport, Robert Caldwell wasn’t much interested in his Native American heritage.
After Hurricane Katrina, however, his attitude began to change. Now the University of Texas at Arlington doctoral candidate is running to be vice chairman of the Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb in Louisiana.
It may not sound like much more than politics as usual, but UTA spokeswoman Bridget Lewis called it a “pretty big deal.”
“If Robert wins, he’ll become the highest-educated leader ever of his tribal nation … and he will be in a position to influence public policy for his community,” she wrote in an email letting the Star-Telegram know about the story.
Caldwell grew up near Barksdale Air Force Base, a couple of hours from the land that has been owned by the Choctaw-Apache tribe for hundreds of years in Sabine Parish. Every summer he would visit his great-grandparents there.
“I was not so involved as a child,” he said. “I didn’t strongly identify with the tribe.”
But after earning college degrees in Louisiana, he was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit. He moved to Natchitoches, La., where he began to get involved in the tribal politics.
Still, it wasn’t until he moved north to attend the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to get his master’s degree in labor studies that his desire for his tribal heritage peaked.
“I yearned not only for my family but for the tribal community,” Caldwell said. “I lived for the tribal newsletter and began to feel that was an important thing in my life.”
The 40-year-old has now been a tribal council member for three years. He was asked by the tribal elders to run for vice chair. Ballots are expected to be counted today and the winner announced afterward.
Caldwell said the most important issue for him to tackle if he is elected is to get the tribe recognized by the federal government.
“The tribe will have its own government and a relationship with the government of the U.S.,” he said. “Federal acknowledgment means that we would have more latitude to make our own decisions and guide the future of our community.”
He said his next most important task would be to get more of the young tribe members involved in tribe politics.
He said few jobs are available to tribe members who live in the rural community, meaning they have to commute to work.
“They spend so much time outside of the community working and commuting, they have less time to participate in tribe activity,” he said. “Also, the elected tribe officials are not paid.”
He said “skill-building” is the answer. For example, he has written and received grants to train tribe members in geographic information systems, a computer system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present all types of geographical data.
Experts come to the tribe and train members to do work in the community rather than hiring outside companies to perform it. Then the members have transferable skills to get jobs outside the community.
Caldwell said he also wants to help preserve the tribe’s history, including its interactions with other nations and where it’s headed in the future.
“Popular history consigns our tribe to the past, but we still live here,” he said.
Caldwell is planning on writing a detailed history of the tribe for his doctoral dissertation.
He is expected to complete his doctorate in trans-Atlantic history in 2017.