Strong as Grass: A Year After a Devastating Tornado, the Caddo Nation Rebuilds in East Texas

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Phil Cross was ten or twelve years old when he first heard his elders reminisce about the grass houses their people used to live in.

Cross was transfixed. The old structures looked sort of like beehives, he was told. Fashioned from thatched switchgrass and pine poles, they were surprisingly spacious, a proud symbol of Caddo prosperity. One such structure, built a thousand years ago on the grounds of what is now Caddo Mounds State Historic Site in East Texas, was two thousand square feet and stood perhaps forty feet high.

“It would have been magnificent,” Cross said.

Grass houses sheltered the Caddo people for well over a millennium. By Cross’s childhood in the forties and early fifties, however, decades had passed since anyone lived in one. Cross had never even seen a grass house. “How did you build it?” he asked.

The elders showed him. 

Cross grew up near Binger, Oklahoma, the capital of the Caddo Nation, on land allotted to his family when the federal government broke up the Caddo Indian reservation in 1901. He went on to build several grass houses of his own. He also read history books to confirm and supplement his hands-on knowledge. After a career as an aerospace engineer, Cross dedicated himself to Native American history and culture and became a central figure in the preservation of Caddo crafts and traditions, like hunting for big game with bows and arrows he’d made himself.

By 2016, though, Cross was a silver-haired man of 73. His elders had died off. As far as anyone knew, he was the last member of the Caddo Nation who remembered how to build their traditional houses. “If I were gone, I don’t think anyone would have ever done one again,” he said. “It would have been lost forever, I’m guessing.”

Caddo Mounds rebuild

Chad Earles and Phil Cross

Wes Ferguson

Cross didn’t want the ancient technique to die with him. Neither did the staff of Caddo Mounds State Historic Site, which maintains close ties to the Caddo Nation, despite being 380 miles away. On Caddo Culture Day held each spring, dozens of members of the Caddo Nation return to the site to conduct ceremonial songs and dances.

Caddo Mounds is situated in the Piney Woods of East Texas, a little more than a mile north of the Neches River and thirty miles west of Nacogdoches. A village was established there as early as 800 A.D. by a wealthy band of Caddoan mound builders who called themselves the Hasinai, or “our own people.” Other tribes came to know them as the Tayshas, which translates as “friends” or “allies” and is the origin of Texas’s name.

“Our story is the story of Texas,” Cross said. “We were a group of people who were central to all of the events that happened in this area over many decades, starting when Europeans first came. It’s important for our people to know that hey, we were here.”

Although the Republic of Texas forced the Caddo people off their homeland in the early 1840s—first to settlements on the Brazos River, then to Oklahoma in 1859—three of their ceremonial earthen mounds can still be seen at Caddo Mounds. For posterity’s sake, Cross decided to build one more house within view of them.

He wanted it to be his biggest one yet, at 25 feet in diameter and about 18 feet tall, which is just a little smaller than the footprint of other houses archeologists have uncovered at the site. Slowed by an arthritic hip, Cross served as architect and foreman. Volunteers supplied most of the labor. And Chad “Nish” Earles, a talented Caddo artist then in his early thirties, apprenticed under Cross.

 “I knew he was the perfect person to have as an intern,” Cross said. “He’s very dedicated to Caddo culture. He sits at the drum, learns the songs. I knew he would take this as deep into his soul and mind as anyone.” 

Back when Caddo villagers lived in grass houses, thirty of them could build one in a matter of hours. The 2016 project, documented by a high-quality Texas Historical Commission video, took nineteen days. For the house’s frame, Cross and Earles selected young pine trees from the nearby Davy Crockett National Forest. The crew sank the poles into the ground, bent them together at the top, and fastened horizontal runners of inch-thick willow saplings to hold overlapping layers of native switchgrass, which formed the waterproof walls and roof.

Living and working among the religious mounds brought Earles closer to his ancestors. He also felt a heavy responsibility to learn as much as he could from Cross. The finished house filled him with a sense of awe. “It’s just this amazing-looking thing,” he said. “The pictures don’t do it justice. Like, when you walk in and look up, it’s huge, and it’s beautiful. The grass is perfectly layered and almost feathery, like a nest.”

Courtesy of THC

In the spring of 2018, Cross and Earles traveled from Oklahoma to East Texas for Caddo Culture Day. “This has been my second home,” Cross said as he took a seat inside the cool, shadowy grass house. Smoke wafted toward the tall ceiling as Earles’s brother, Chase, a Caddo potter, tended a boiling pot of corn, pecans, and herbs over an open fire in the center of the floor. Jeffrey Williams, the president of the Friends of Caddo Mounds group, was animatedly describing the construction process to any visitor who came inside for a look around, while Earles played the drum outside.

Cross surveyed the house with pride. It was a well-built structure. Solid enough to stand for decades.

One year later, Cross, now 76, wasn’t feeling well, so he didn’t make the journey for Caddo Culture Day on April 13, 2019. Dozens of Caddo Nation members, including the Earles brothers, their parents, and other relatives, did attend, however. The weather forecast called for storms.

Not long after lunch, the rain intensified, driving about eighty people into the site’s main building, which doubled as a museum and visitors center. Williams, a burly and bushy-bearded man of 63, remained inside the grass house with Madeline and John Ross, an older couple who both teach at Tyler Junior College, along with a Caddo couple in their mid-twenties. The small group felt relatively cozy and dry around the fire, despite the driving rain outside. 

Suddenly, at about 1:30 p.m., the storm began to roar. It sounded to Williams like a jet engine. The younger couple abandoned the grass house, sprinting across an open field in search of more secure shelter inside the museum. The air pressure changed, and the sky went black, as abrupt as the flip of a switch. A tornado.

Wind swept through the low, open door of the grass house and blew the fire across the floor, like lava, then up the dry thatched wall. Winds of up to 140 miles per hour lifted the pine poles from the ground. The house collapsed. A tall storage rack holding baskets of seeds and other traditional goods fell on top of Williams, knocking him to the floor. He crawled out from under the wreckage, where he was immediately pummeled by a “hailstorm” of debris.

“The wind stopped for just a second,” Williams recalled. “I turned my head and opened my eyes. I could see the house kind of flattened. It bounced, then lifted and arced away from me.” 

The Rosses were still inside the house, now in the air.

Williams turned toward the museum, 45 yards away, and watched the tornado lift the roof of the building, only to slam it back down. The walls collapsed, and the windows exploded. “I was just being peppered by glass,” he said.

Inside the museum, people had been singing a Caddo birthday song when the power went out. An emergency light kicked on, spotlighting the drum, which is the focal point of the Caddo people’s circle dances. “I thought someone had turned the lights off and turned that light on the drum intentionally,” Earles said. “I think everyone else did too. That’s why we kept going.”

Seconds later, his ears popped. Everyone looked around—what just happened? “Get in the back room!” someone shouted. Victor Galan, an archeologist and vice president of the friends group, who is married to Rachel Galan, the Caddo Mounds assistant site manager, hurried to slam shut an exterior door. The wall crashed down on his neck and spine. Earles took three steps before the walls and roof caved on him, too. He fell on top of his brother. “It was like a bomb exploded,” he said. “It was just instant.”

Through his rain-streaked glasses, Earles saw the tornado pass overhead where the roof had been just moments before. Injured children were screaming. People were trapped under the walls. He immediately started looking for his parents. “Everything’s crazy. Everyone’s bleeding. Everyone’s crying.” His mother had been hit in the head, and his father had a bad gash on his shin. Earles sprained his wrist. Like many, he was covered in debris, and his skin was raw from “tornado rash.”

Back outside, the weight of the tornado pressed Williams into the mud. A bench bounced off his back, and a folding chair hovered beside him, then gashed the back of his head. The younger couple had only made it halfway to the museum. When the wind started to lift the woman away, her partner grabbed hold and pulled her to the ground, where they huddled with their heads together.

In a matter of moments, the tornado was gone. It was still raining heavily. Williams saw John and Madeline. They’d flown across the field before the house disintegrated and they were dropped to the ground. Williams had injured his leg and couldn’t stand, so he crawled toward Madeline and tried to shield her from debris that was still blowing in the gale-force wind. He thought she might be dead. Then she screamed. “You’re alive!” he said. John was, too. 

About forty people were injured, several critically. An elderly passenger in a car that happened to be driving past Caddo Mounds was thrown through the windshield. She later died from her injuries. Of the people celebrating Caddo Culture Day, Victor Galan was in the worst shape. He’d cracked several vertebrae in his neck and couldn’t move his body. The others weren’t sure if he would make it. 

That afternoon, the EF3 tornado, one of at least three that day, tore a more than forty-mile swath through the mostly rural, forested area, also striking the small nearby communities of Weeping Mary and Alto. So many trees fell over the road to Caddo Mounds that emergency crews were blocked from reaching the victims for hours. By some miracle, Williams said, three former military-combat medics and two nurses were among the survivors. They performed triage until ambulances and helicopters could arrive three hours later. Wet blankets and T-shirts from the gift shop provided some warmth. The visitors center and museum was destroyed, as was the grass house, of course.  

To Earles’s surprise, every Caddo member was alive. “All our culture-keepers were in one place, and we almost all died,” he said. It would have been a crushing blow to the close-knit nation of about six thousand. Earles was further relieved when he pulled the ceremonial drum out from under a toppled museum exhibit. Somehow the drum, made of elk hide stretched over a cedar frame, was unharmed.

The Caddo have never been strangers to tornadoes. There’s even a Caddo word for a shared tornado experience: shaho. In the months that followed the April 13 storm, many of the survivors found solace in that word and the idea behind it. The tornado had bound them together. “There’s power in that word,” Rachel Galan said. “It encompasses hardships, lessons, victories, community, hope, and resilience. Having a name for it has been really important for us all.”

Although Caddo Mounds closed for the remainder of 2019, the Texas Legislature designated $2.5 million to help rebuild, and the mounds themselves were unharmed by the tornado. Squash, beans, and other native plants continued to grow in the Snake Woman Garden, named for a Caddo legend, where Rachel Galan often spent quiet time when not caring for her husband, Victor. 

Caddo Mounds

Museum reopening

Leslie Bush

On a blustery afternoon in early January, about fifty people gathered outside the garden for a quiet ceremony to mark the site’s reopening to the public. Just a few dozen yards from a temporary visitors center set up near the concrete foundation where the museum once stood, site manager Tony Souther dug holes and, to mark the occasion, planted a native muscadine grapevine and a cedar sapling, which Marilyn Threlkeld, a Caddo Tribal Council representative, watered from a nearby spring. “Now we let this tree grow strong in our hearts,” Threlkeld said.

In February, Victor Galan finally came home from the hospital. He has gained enough strength in his arms to use a standing chair. “He doesn’t have movement in his wrist or fingers yet. That’s what he would really love to see,” Rachel said. “It’s been slow, but the big thing is to get him back at all.” 

Although Caddo Mounds has again closed to the public during the coronavirus pandemic, Cross, who is now 77 years old, has agreed to return to East Texas sometime in the near future so he can oversee a new construction project on the site. Cross will again be working with his apprentice by his side. “I’m ready to go back and rebuild that house,” Earles said.

He won’t have too long to wait. It’s been a rainy spring in the Piney Woods. Not far from Caddo Mounds, the switchgrass is already growing tall.