- By Levi Rickert
Ernest Sickey, the first executive director of the Office of Indian Affairs in Louisiana and a longtime chairman of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, passed away on Thursday.
A man of great passion to improve the lives of Native Americans, Sickey met with governors and presidents to seek funding for programs that support tribes and their members. He was instrumental in getting the re-acknowledgment for the Coushatta Tribe from the federal government in 1973. Sickey was 80.
The Sickey family announced the passing of former Chairman Sickey in a statement released last Thursday:
“Ernest Sickey, father, former Chairman of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and prominent Indian-affairs advocate, passed away peacefully on May 17, 2023, at the age of 80.”
Sickey was a visionary who desired to bring the Coushatta Tribe out of obscurity. His desire to see the tribe regain federal recognition began in 1965, when he got a small group of tribal members to organize the Coushatta Indians of Allen Parish. The group established a trading post to sell traditional pine needle baskets to raise money for human services programs.
In 1970, Sickey led a successful effort to get the Indian Health Service to provide medical services for the Coushatta people. By 1972, Sickey led an effort that helped the Coushatta earn state-recognition as a tribe in the Louisiana State legislature.
Once the U.S. Department of the Interior granted the tribe its re-acknowledgement as a federally recognized tribe in 1973, Sickey became the Coushatta’s first chairman. He served as tribal chairman in consecutive terms until 1985, and remained a respected leader of the tribe for more than three decades.
Sickey’s work in Indian Country extended far beyond the Coushatta Tribe. He advocated for tribes throughout Louisiana and the southeastern states.
Marshall Pierite, chairman of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, told Native News Online that Sickey will be remembered for being a truly great leader, trailblazer, and advocate for all of Indian Country.
“I have known Mr. Ernest Sickey for over 45 years. He was not only a very dear friend, but also a mentor to me and probably every tribal chairman/chief of the four federally recognized tribes in Louisiana over the last fifty years.” Pierite said.
Sickey was “instrumental” in the creation of the Gulf Coast Native American Chamber of Commerce, joining with Pierite and Adam Crepelle of the Houma Nation to help get the organization off the ground, Pierite said, adding, “I will always remember him as a dear friend and father figure to me and always being there for me morning, noon or night. He will be truly missed and my heart as well as my prayers will be with his family during this difficult time.”
Former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) sent a message to Sickey’s son, former Coushatta Tribe Chairman David Sickey: “He will be remembered fondly by tribal members and the broader Louisiana family for his visionary leadership and many contributions to our state and nation. I will treasure the lunch we shared together not long ago, recalling early years and our family connections.”
Jeanette Alcon (Ute/Taos Pueblo) recalled with Native News Online working for Sickey when he was named to the Louisiana Commission on Indian Affairs by the state’s Democratic Governor Edwin Edwards in 1975.
Alcon said they put in long hours to fulfill Sickey’s vision to make life better for Native Americans throughout the state of Louisiana. She recalled Sickey’s sense of always knowing what to do and his humor.
“He was a dreamer who was a great strategic thinker. He had the capacity to start from scratch with absolutely nothing and turn it into something because he had the capacity to engender support for tribes,” Alcon said.
“What was incredible from my point of view is he did these things with no road map or guide to do the things he did. He was gifted with a sense of just knowing what to do.” Alcon continued.
In an interview for the Koasati Documentation Project, a project to preserve the Koasati (Coushatta) language and history, Sickey recalled how the tribe’s health clinic did not have money to purchase toothbrushes or toothpaste to distribute to its clients.
“Why don’t you just write a letter to the Crest place?” Sickey recalled asking the staff. He decided to write the letter himself.
“Not long after, boxes started coming with toothpaste, toothbrushes, floss and then we gave them out,” Sickey said.
Alcon said his motto, which still graces Coushatta tribal literature remains "the struggle has made us stronger."
Fulfilling the wishes of Sickey, his remains were cremated. A memorial service is scheduled for June 27, 2023 on the day the Coushatta Tribe celebrates its 50th anniversary of its federal re-acknowledgement.
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