As Caddo Mounds Reopens, Tornado Survivors Heal Together

Jan 14, 2020

From Texas Standard:

Caddo Mounds State Historic Site sits in a small prairie, tucked just inside the pine curtain of East Texas. If you stand on the porch of its temporary visitors center and look southwest down state Highway 21, you can see a good distance – all the way to a forested ridge a few miles off. You couldn’t always see that far, but you can now.

“We were kind of isolated in this pine bowl, if you will, with the tall trees all around us, and then this prairie here,” says Jeffrey Williams, president of the Friends of Caddo Mounds. “But with the pines gone it looks so different.”

The site, located about 30 miles west of Nacogdoches, was home to a Caddo village for centuries. Most of them live in Oklahoma now, but they left a conspicuous legacy on their homeland: earthen mounds. There are three of them at the historic site – a triptych of grassy undulations.

But nearby trees and buildings were destroyed when a tornado hit the site last April during the annual Caddo Culture Day, a celebration during which modern-day Caddo demonstrate traditional artwork, dancing, food and music. Fortunately, the mounds were untouched by the tornado.

“When I pulled myself up out of the mud, one of the first things I saw were the mounds were still there,” Williams says.

Caddo Mounds was closed for nine months after the tornado struck. It reopened on Saturday – a major milestone for both the site itself, and survivors like Williams. They didn’t know it then, but the tornado folded them into another Caddo tradition of sorts: "shaho."

“Shaho is a Caddo word for the tornado experience,” Williams says. “It doesn’t mean seeing a tornado, it means experiencing it; the community that develops from a tornado experience.”

Connected To The Past

Williams couldn’t believe anyone survived the tornado when he first saw the wreckage – cars crumpled and flung in trees, the museum completely collapsed, the traditional grass house dwelling practically evaporated. But the calamity also created a community between the survivors.

“The word 'shaho' immediately connected me to the past because it wouldn’t be in their language if it wasn’t a thing,” Williams says. “Probably [for] everybody, the word 'shaho' gives us a thing to hold onto.”

It binds them to each other and to the people who lived among these mounds. That was evident on Saturday when the site reopened.

It was cold and windy, but about 50 people endured the weather to mark the occasion. The ceremony was simple: The crowd watched as site manager Tony Souther, with help from Caddo Tribal Council member Marilyn Threlkeld, planted a cedar sapling and a vine of muscadine grapes near Snake Woman’s Garden, named for a character in a Caddo parable about cultivating plants. People dabbed tissues at their noses and eyes as Souther and Threlkeld watered the tree with water from a local spring.

“Now we let this tree grow strong in our hearts,” Threlkeld said. “Say, 'It’s a new beginning here.'”

“A new beginning,” murmured the crowd in response.

For Threlkeld, the site feels like home. She’s been traveling to the site for decades from her home in Binger, Oklahoma, the modern-day capital of the Caddo Nation.

“We belong here,” she said. “It’s part of us, you know? Kind of makes us a little stronger in our healing.”

Strength And Gratitude

The tornado hit the site at about 1:30 p.m. on April 13, 2019. Rain forced most of the approximately 80 people there for Caddo Culture Day into the museum, including assistant site manager Rachel Galan. There was no warning it was coming.

“I didn’t hear anything, my ears didn’t pop. The lights went out, a window shattered, the building was gone,” Galan says.

She was knocked over by the building’s collapse, but was OK. Her husband, Victor, was not.

“I don’t think when we first found him we thought that he was alive. I know that by the time Life Flight showed up, I think we were close to losing him,” Galan says.

Victor cracked several vertebrae in his neck, paralyzing him. Trees felled by the storm blocked routes to the site, keeping emergency responders from getting there. It took hours for help to arrive; survivors wrapped wet T-shirts and wool blankets from the gift shop around the wounded.

Eventually, paramedics came. Several people were Life Flighted out, including Victor Galan, and a woman who later died. For most of the past nine months, Rachel Galan has been with her husband in Houston where he’s receiving treatment at the VA Medical Center.

Spending so much time away from their Nacogdoches home has been difficult. But they haven’t gone through it alone. It’s part of how they’ve experienced shaho: Friends raised enough money to help the Galans pay off debts and remodel their home so it’s suitable for Victor’s wheelchair. Others checked in on the Galans' grown children.

“My youngest [child] graduated high school in the middle of this, and we had friends who took her to her graduation and made sure we got to watch on Skype,” Rachel Galan says.

She says she expects her husband to return home in early February, and she’s getting back to work at Caddo Mounds where there’s still plenty to do. The Texas Legislature allocated $2.5 million to help with the rebuild, including a new museum. And of course, many of the survivors are still dealing with physical and emotional scars. It’s hard, but it’s shared.

“Shaho, I mean the tornado, this experience, has taken us back literally to the earth, to the space. And the rebuilding and recreation of this site we’re doing together. And that’s how it should be,” Galan says. “There’s a lot of tragedy, there’s going to be challenges going forward, but mostly what I feel is that potential and that strength, and gratefulness that I get to be a part of this recreation story.”