Monday, February 18, 2013

Saying Goodbye to the Chief

Chief -

Jeremy's grandfather, who he calls Ahwo, passed away on Thursday, January 31, 2013. He was the Principle Chief of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas. His nickname was Smiley because he was always full of joy and smiled at everyone. He was almost 81 years old and lived a long and wonderful life. Jeremy was asked to give the eulogy at the funeral and he did an amazing job. I felt so honored to be a part of the Sylestine family that day, and I was glad to learn more about the life of a humble, kind and generous man.

The funeral service was at the gym on the reservation since it could hold so many people. There was a a drum circle at the front that "drummed" in the family at the beginning and then "drummed" out the Chief at the end. There were tons of flowers from family, friends, state representatives, city governments and officials and more. Smiley was part of the Presbyterian church on the reservation and the pastor of the church led the service. Two other people spoke and the choir from the church sang some of Smiley's favorite hymns with the congregation joining in.

My writing can't really do justice to Smiley's life or the celebration of his life so here are a few things that will give you the full experience. I hope Quinn and any future children we might have will know what an amazing heritage they have.

Chief Oscola -

Jeremy's Eulogy 

Clayton Marion Sylestine. Chief. Mikko. Oscola. Brother. Ahwo. Dad. Smiley. “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” – Abraham Lincoln For those of you lucky enough to have known him, you know just how well that applied to my Ahwo. It’s one of my greatest honors to be up here speaking on behalf of our family. I hope that I can give you all even just a hint of how special Ahwo was to all of us. If I do my job right today, most of you will leave with peace in your soul and a smile on your face as you recall your fondest Smiley memories. 

 Before that, however, I want to say some quick words of thanks. Mainly because putting together something like this isn’t easy, and it’s important to recognize those efforts. And also because I know he would do the same. Tribal council/leadership 2nd Chief Clem Sylestine.  All the speakers and performers today.  Danielle – for being such an excellent family secretary during these difficult days.  Each of you – because in our socially networked world (Ahwo wouldn’t necessarily understand this), the beautiful and kind things we’ve been reading bring us comfort and provide evidence that his was a life well lived. Ahwo wasn’t one for a big production, but I like to imagine him here, taking a look at all your faces, so many people who loved him in their own way, and saying “wow” like he did. 

Times like these are bittersweet. It’s obvious that we grieve our loss and wish for better times, but it amazes me how much we learn about a person when their journey is complete. I spent a good hour at the funeral home last night just taking notes on our favorite Smiley stories and laughing at how close our family came to wiping itself out through our parents’ childhood mischief. Playing a game of chicken with Ahwo’s hunting arrows by shooting one straight up in the sky, laying down in the grass, and seeing who would be the first to move. Shooting at each other with BB guns and using cardboard as a “bulletproof” vest, only to have Hilda shot in her neck just above her bulletproof area. Climbing in the forbidden Broemer family treehouse and watching Hilda seemingly tumble to her doom just as she was about to reach the top. My dad thought she was seriously hurt. Hilda thought she was dead. 

If we were to give a theme to the Sylestine kids’ childhood years, it would probably be “Don’t Tell Dad”. Which isn’t to say that they feared their father, but they very much respected him. That respect was born from a deep love that has been apparent since I was old enough to notice it. And now that he has gone from us, we witness it as an appreciation for everything he left behind. And that’s really what this is all about, right? An appreciation of the man who did so much for so many. Whether by word or by deed, we all have been touched in some way by this remarkable man we called Smiley. 

Where did he get that nickname anyway? Did anyone ever ask or was it just another great nickname from the Rez? Well, legend has it that Coach King at Big Sandy gave him that name because, you guessed it, he was always smiling. If you think about the things that teenage boys are always doing, Ahwo could have done much worse in the nickname department. 

Some other Ahwo trivia - he loved westerns, and especially loved Bonanza - his half windup was legendary and his rising fastball much feared - he made some dang good biscuits - his sneezes often scared small children - he loved to hunt (even in the coldest of temperatures and up until his last best days), and always saw deer but never shot them – just enjoyed being there - he was a scholarship athlete at the University of Houston - he loved working with his hands (carving and weaving) - he picked up his basket weaving later in life (in his 60’s) - he was an Oiler fan - he was a Longhorn fan (who can blame him?) - when he worked he ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day - his favorite breakfast was eggs with rice - he loved his Red Man and 7-Up - he was the baby of his family - he was a corporal in the Army during the Korean War - he loved to read the story of Jesus’ birth (and later in life quizzed the family with fill in the blanks) - his number one piece of basketball advice was “don’t miss your free throws” - he drove a pulpwood truck for years and would sometimes take the kids into town in it - he didn't often shoot at deer when hunting, but he accidentally killed a doe when defending his corn and peas – every year he’d plant, and every year they would come and eat his crops - he was a big softy – once while logging he came upon a squirrel nest with baby squirrels that he brought home - he threw out the first pitch at an Astros game – and threw a strike for that matter - he was virtually crippled in 1983 due to a bad car accident, but that didn't stop him from being active – was even known to play a pretty decent first base with his cane hanging out of his back pocket - even harvested his own river cane for a long while - was a single dad for about 5 years and provided for his kids, even while working long hours – trusted his kids to do the right thing and take care of each other – they all said that even though they didn't have much, they always had food on the table and a roof over their heads - he devoted himself to his family – attended Rick’s JV football game in the thunder and lightning with no other parents around – hardly ever a ball game or concert missed, no matter where it was - avid sports fan – would go anywhere to watch just about anyone, just because he cared - family man – married over 40 years to Ethelyn.

When you hear these things about our Chief, you start to pick up on those qualities that made him admirable to most.  He was a man of simple means who did right by his family without regard to himself. He was a man of faith – an elder in his church and a believer in the promise of heaven – Jesus said to love God and love your neighbor, so that’s what Ahwo did. He loved interacting with people, always having time to say “hello” and have a chat. He was never too busy for you and always paid attention to what you were saying. He delighted in the accomplishments and success of others, especially his children and grandchildren. He found joy in family. He loved kids and would get a twinkle in his eyes whenever he got to hold our babies or be around our young ones. He appreciated the holiness of family gatherings, even the simplest ones. He was dedicated to making our tribe better. He served as a member of the council for most of his adult life, and he had been a chief for over 20 years at the time of his death. He always represented our people in a good and kind light.

My favorite memories are too many to list – first time he met Quinn (telling her “God made you”) – time spent farming (shelling peas, husking corn, riding on the tractor) – hunting in sub-freezing temperatures – softball tournaments – my rehearsal dinner where he commented he was glad to see me get married since he was starting to get worried. For a man with so many names, probably his favorites were Dad, Ahwo, and friend. We will certainly remember him that way, but he was so much more to all of us. For some he was a brother. For others he was a neighbor. For many he was a hero. And for even more he is a role model. 

"I believe that every human mind feels pleasure in doing good to another.” – Thomas Jefferson.  I think that’s exactly why Ahwo was so smiley. He spent his life focusing on others and got pleasure from that. And doesn't it seem fitting now to think about the name he chose for himself so many years ago… Oscola. A flute. An instrument. Something used by someone else to make beautiful and soaring melodies for others to enjoy. Even now, just by saying his name, he’s teaching us a lesson. And that’s why I’m asking that we leave today not sad at our loss, but rather celebrating a job well done. His physical time with us is over, but his soul lives on in each of us here. He is not truly gone because we will all take him with us as we go our separate ways. That is our inheritance. That is his gift to us. The gift of a healthy, happy, and generous spirit. A gift which, if you choose, can be passed on to future generations through the way we carry ourselves. On behalf of our family, we hope you remember Chief Oscola with a fond heart, and find pleasure in doing good to others, just like he did.

Clayton M. Sylestine Obituary

Chief Oscola Clayton M. Sylestine, affectionately known by many as Smiley, was born on Feb. 11, 1932 on the Indian Village. He peacefully died on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, surrounded by his family. He was the son of James Feagin Sylestine and Mary Thompson Sylestine. He had 10 brothers and sisters. He is preceded in death by his parents; sisters, Annabelle Sylestine Alec, Stella Bell Sylestine Langley, Edith Nell Sylestine Abbey, twins Jennie Dare Sylestine and Johnnie Dare Sylestine and brothers, Harry R. Sylestine, Lloyd Jimmerson Sylestine, Larry Nathan Sylestine and Carey Dawson Sylestine. He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Ethelyn Battise Sylestine of the Indian Reservation; his daughter, Pamela Sylestine Anderson of Houston; son, Rick and wife Belinda Sylestine of Kilgore; daughter, Hilda and husband Dee Ray Pittman of Magnolia and son, James F. Sylestine of the Indian Reservation. He is also survived by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Elizabeth Sylestine and sons Benjamin and Lane Anderson of Houston, Jeremy Sylestine, his wife Molly and daughter Quinn of Austin, Danielle Sylestine and son Slade of the Indian Reservation, Christopher Anderson and sons Morgan and Aiden of Houston, Shawni Sylestine and sons Jaden and Kameron of Houston, Joshua Sylestine and daughter Annaleigh of Livingston, Shaun Pittman of Houston, Micah Hoyt and his wife Samantha and sons Kayden, Dawson and Uriah of Harrison, Ark., Destiny Sylestine and daughter Ashlyn of the Indian Reservation, Santana Sylestine of the Indian Reservation, Solomon Sylestine of the Indian Reservation and Tylia Sylestine of Kilgore. His surviving in-laws are Donnis and Carol Battise, Naomi Battise and Katherine Thompson, all of the Indian Reservation. He has one sole surviving sibling, Lillian Isabel Sylestine Celestine, who is 90 years old. 

He graduated from Big Sandy High School in 1950 and went on to attend the University of Houston. There, he played basketball for the Houston Cougars. He left U of H to join the United States Army, and was a corporal in the 1st Infantry Division, 18th Infantry Regiment from 1953 to 1955. He was stationed in Ashaffenburg, Germany during the Korean conflict. He worked in the logging industry and also worked for 17 years with Champion Forestry until his retirement in 1988. He was a member of the Indian Presbyterian Church. Smiley was a deacon, Sunday school teacher and an elder. Smiley served on the Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council for many years. In 1992, he was elected to serve the tribe as second chief. He was elected and inaugurated as principal or first chief in 1995. Chief Oscola visited many schools and with many different groups to educate others about the Alabama-Coushatta people and their culture. He faithfully served as first chief until his passing. He was well-noted for his long career as an outstanding fast-pitch softball pitcher. He played and coached for the Texas Indians softball team and traveled throughout Texas and surrounding states to play. Batters feared his fastball. In his spare time he would work on river cane and pine needle baskets, among other traditional crafts from his tribe. He had a great love for all sports and was a strong supporter of his family's involvement in school sports, as well as for the tribal and local youth. Services were held on Monday, Feb. 4, at the Multi-Purpose Center, with interment following in the Indian Reservation Tribal Cemetery. Elder Debbie Battise-Kleinman and Bro. David Busby officiated. Pallbearers were Smiley's grandsons, Jeremy Sylestine, Christopher Anderson, Joshua Sylestine, Shaun Pittman, Micah Hoyt and Soloman Sylestine. Benjamin Anderson and Jaden Gray. Honorary pallbearers were members of the Texas Indians softball team, his Champion co-workers, Alabama-Coushatta Tribal Council, Walt Broemer, John Davis, Joe Schneider, Wilburn Rowe, Thomas Sylestine and William S. Sylestine.