Native American dancers perform at JSU

Nov. 17—JACKSONVILLE — "Real education," says Dr. Charlcie Vann, "is not always in a classroom. It's in life."

For this reason, the director of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion at Jacksonville State University says, she invited the Sylestine Legacy, descendants of the Alabama-Coushatta tribe, to speak and perform at the Merrill Hall on Thursday.

Several colorfully clad dancers filed across the room while others from the clan's group ranged in age from toddler to elder, the latter represented by the Sylestine grandmother, Wanda Sylestine.

Wanda's daughter, Reta Sylestine Rich, said the group travels across Alabama and nearby areas teaching the Sylestine culture at schools, programs and festivals, and has done so for many years. Rich said they do this so that the culture isn't lost.

According to Rich, many of Alabama's city, county, and other geographical names come from the Coushatta language of Muskogean. For example, Sylacauga, Attalla, Etowah, Coosa, and even Alabama itself originate from that language, according to the Sylestines.

Jason Sylestine told the group that the word Alabama comes from the native word 'Alibamo' which means "here we will rest." The Coushatta name comes from the native word Koasati. Jason said they were called this because they camped all up and down the Coosa River and Koasati translates to "water people."

Jason said the word from which the city of Attalla is derived from means "I'm staying."

"Why when you say it, it sounds beautifu?" Vann asked Jason.

"It's the original language," Jason Sylestine said.

In addition to teaching several words from their language, the family demonstrated traditional Native American dances in several different styles. Vibrant colored shawls and headdresses moved fluidly across the space as the dancers rhythmically bounced to the drums beat.

Some of the clothing had rolled copper- or gold-colored bells strung all over them, which were called "jingle dresses." The dresses rang out making loud jingling sounds as the wearer moved. Rich said the dresses dated back to the 1950s and were said to have healing properties for the wearer.

Another style demonstrated was called "grass dancers," Rich said. These were performed by smaller children who stomped the ground, flattening the grass making a stage a larger place for the others to dance.

The youngest grass dancer of the group was two years old. When an audience member asked the group how young they started teaching these dances, Cheyenne Martin — granddaughter of Wanda Sylestine — said "in the womb" as she placed a hand over her very pregnant belly.

"They hear it. They hear the music," Martin said.

"That one is my son. He's two and as soon as he hears the drum, he's tuned in," she said, pointing to the child.

Vann said she recently has been researching her family history, and has some native and some south Alabamian in her bloodline. Because of this, when thanking the group for coming out, Vann got emotional and began to cry. She said as someone who's great-great-grandfather was a slave to invite a group of people whose ancestors were told they had to leave and move westward, was a touching event that showed strides towards a changing culture.

"For us to commune back in this situation at this time, to me was touching," Vann said.

"We have come a long way. I just felt very emotional. Sometimes we say that things are so bad but we've come. We're making some steps," Vann said.

Vann said this type of program is extremely important because it allows a different level of learning that gets lost with just books and classrooms alone. To hear accounts from the past from its actual people is a wealth of knowledge that Vann said she thinks "is wonderful."

"You get great information. Real education is not always in a classroom. It's in life," Vann said.

Vann said she hopes to provide more of a stage for other tribe clans as well.

"That's what we're all about, educating. November is the Native American month. So that's what we try to do — bring awareness to the Native American people," Jason Sylestine said.

"But it's an everyday thing for us. It's not just November. It's every day," Rich said.

Staff Writer Ashley Morrison: 256-236-1551. On Twitter: @AshMorrison1105.