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Building with mural in purple of trumpet musician
Treme Recreation Community Center, New Orleans. Photo by AFC Folklife Specialist Meg Nicholas.

Reflections from the AFC Board of Trustees Meeting in Louisiana with Chair Heather Hodges

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The following is a guest post by Heather Hodges, Chair of the AFC Board of Trustees and Director of Institutional Advancement, The Historic New Orleans Collection, who offers an insightful summary of the AFC Board of Trustees meeting in New Orleans and Thibodaux, Louisiana, March 13-15, 2024.

Photo of large group standing in front of retail display.
Members of the AFC Board of Trustees, special guests, and Library of Congress staff at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Photo by Meg Nicholas, Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center.

The American Folklife Center is nearing its 50th year of serving the nation by documenting and sharing cultural expressions of the human experience to inspire, revitalize, and perpetuate living cultural traditions. It has now become one of the largest ethnographic collections in the world. In advance of our Spring 2024 Board of Trustee meeting, I read with great pleasure a report from the AFC’s Head of Archives, Michael Pahn, on the state of the Center’s archives. It’s always rewarding to read about important new acquisitions. It is equally satisfying to read about the great progress being made on processing arrearages, because that means that important collections, such as the Robert Winslow Gordon Songsters Collection, are now accessible to members of Congress and the public.

Gordon, the first head of the Archive of American Folk-Song at the Library of Congress, notably was responsible for the first known recording of “Come by Here” (1926), a song that came to be known as “Kumbaya.” Exhaustive research by a number of people revealed that the singer was a Gullah Geechee man named Mr. Henry Wylie. When I was the Executive Director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, the work that the community did in collaboration with the AFC to reclaim that history represented a meaningful and significant achievement for all involved.

That desire to connect AFC collections deeply back into the community and galvanize new documentation projects was at the root of why I joined forces with my colleagues in the Williams Research Center at The Historic New Orleans Collection, State Folklorist Maida Owens, and Dr. Josh Caffery at the Center for Louisiana Studies, to invite the AFC to hold the Spring 2024 Board of Trustees Meeting in Louisiana in New Orleans (Orleans Parish) and Thibodaux (Lafourche Parish). I have committed to using my term as Chair to encourage my fellow Trustees to be creative and entrepreneurial in collectively thinking of new ways to directly engage with more Americans about their work to document traditional culture and share memories of military service, as represented by the Veterans History Project (VHP). This joined a need to further leverage social media, digital technologies, and philanthropic support to connect our growing collections deeply into more American communities.

A photo of Chief Darryl Montana with a statue of his father next to him
Chief Darryl Montana next to a statue of his father, Allison “Big Chief Tootie” Montana, Congo Square, New Orleans. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

Over March 13-15, the Trustees who came to Louisiana had the opportunity to talk directly with people about their cultural projects and gain insights into the challenges and opportunities facing tradition-bearers and folklife professionals at the neighborhood level. They spent two days meeting with community members from Congo Square in New Orleans to the bayou community of Thibodaux. They learned something new at every stop, and with every conversation about how AFC’s significant investments of public and philanthropic funds in collections, public programs, outreach and research are – or can – be connected to the cultural preservation work of Black Masking Indian Big Chief Darryl Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Hunters, Houma basket-maker Janie Luster, Louisiana State Folklorist Maida Owens, Houma language preservationist Hali Dardar, and accordion maker Andre Michot, to name a few meeting presenters and contributors.

The Trustees began the trip at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a community museum in the historic Treme neighborhood of New Orleans with a unique collection of Black Masking Indian suits. The museum’s original home was severely damaged by Hurricane Ida in 2021, which compounded the challenges related to the unexpected death of founder Mr. Sylvester Francis in 2020. It is a collecting and community institution that we learned must continue to exist, and that has found ways to thrive anew in the face of increased severe weather events and neighborhood gentrification. I challenged our Trustees to think about the lessons that could be learned about how community-based collections anchor communities, provide a sense of identity, tether young people to tradition, and document cultural expression sensitively and from the inside.

Later that night, at the Old Firehouse in the Marigny, we were treated to a talk on the history of jazz and a performance by National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow and legendary jazz musician Dr. Michael White. He gave us a virtuoso performance, but also lamented on what he saw as a growing disinterest and lack of awareness about what constitutes traditional New Orleans Jazz, as married with fewer young people wanting to pursue that musical path. This led to more questions for my Trustee colleagues: How do national archival collections help elders like Dr. White achieve a goal of engaging more youth in the project of sustaining traditional jazz? How do musicians like him find and contribute generative archival material to continue his work? Who else in the community would have benefitted from being at that reception to hear him speak and how do we connect them to him and our vast music collections?

An interior shot of AFC Trustees looking around the Backstreet Museum in New Orleans
AFC Trustees exploring the Backstreet Community Museum, New Orleans. Photo by Heather Hodges.

On Thursday, we travelled by bus to the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park & Preserve Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, an hour outside of New Orleans, for a day of presentations and panels. Topics included a deep dive into the public and academic infrastructure for supporting folklife in Louisiana, in addition to presentations from community members on a range of cultural documentation projects and traditional practices, such as the craft of making handmade Indigenous and Cajun musical instruments like rivercane flutes and accordions.

We heard how the availability of federal funding delivered through the office of the State Folklorist Maida Owens was a pivotal inflection point for Houma basket maker Janie Luster and fiddle maker Chris Segura. We also heard how new funding available from the AFC, through its Community Collections Grants program, as part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative supported by the Mellon Foundation, had resulted in rich documentation projects. Phanat Xanamane shared how his documentation project on the Louisiana Lao New Year’s Festival in Broussard has spurred elders to initiate new projects to engage young people to ensure the preservation of the culture. His project and Dr. Tammy Greer’s, “And We are Still Here:” Stories of Resilience and Sustainability from Houma Culture Bearers in Louisiana, had provided an opportunity for community members to design and actively participate in the documentation of their culture.

Community collections projects like Tammy’s and Phanat’s help us to infuse our immense archival collections with a more diverse set of perspectives on the mosaic of the American experience. As I told the Trustees the next day: The AFC made these projects happen. You made that happen. Our charge as Trustees is to actively and vigorously seek philanthropic support to catalyze new projects.

At the end of Thursday, Trustee John Rice remarked that he was impressed to hear about the connections between occupations and different traditions, such as represented by the Center’s Occupational Folklife Project (OFP) collections. This echoed what we heard from Big Chief Darryl Montana about how his dad’s expertise as a lather – skilled at building structural frameworks for plaster – led his father legendary Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana to innovate the incorporation of 3-D objects into his suits. The Center’s Archie Green Fellowship Awards, the basis of the OFP collections, have supported “fieldworkers across the country to record more than 1,800 audio and audiovisual oral history interviews with workers in scores of trades, industries, crafts, and professions,” as noted on the OFP homepage. What more can we do to help document these important intersections in American identity, work, and culture?

three musicians performing on violin and accordion
Jam session at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux. From left: Andre Michot, Anya Burgess, and Chris Segura. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

We also heard about the importance of language preservation projects, and met several members of the Houma nation, including those who are trying to reclaim their lost language, and others who seek to remind the world that they speak French. Janie Luster was pleased to learn about our VHP, because she knew of a Houma community member who was proud of his service as a French translator in WWII, and she was keen to have more Americans know about how her community supported the war effort.

I hope all the Trustees left Louisiana with a greater sense of their stewardship, community engagement, and fundraising responsibilities as Trustees. Hard work to be true, but it comes with the ability to wield the sheer power of the American Folklife Center: to collect, to support, to share, and to convene. Every Louisianian whom we invited to meet with the AFC Trustees agreed to enthusiastically. My closing remarks to my fellow Trustees was to remember all the people they met, and to consider all the great things that can happen when – like they did – you show up, and just say yes.

Basket maker Janie Luster showing palmetto leaves during her presentation at a podium
Janie Luster shows palmetto leaves during her presentation at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

I encouraged them to remember what they heard from Dr. Tammy Greer about the challenges of applying for the Community Collections Grant, at a time when her collaborators had lost much in Hurricane Ida in August 2021. They persevered due to their commitment to documenting and transmitting their culture. Janie Luster shared that when she struggled to learn how to make the traditional palmetto baskets that at some point she just decided to “listen to the palmettos” – just as we came together to listen to so many stories. Remember what our communities in Louisiana shared this weekend and let them be your model and guiding star for tackling the challenges of stewarding the AFC.

Our meetings ended with me offering a few specific calls to action for Trustees that encouraged them to embrace the work that comes their way. Whether from AFC staff seeking participants on a review panel for grant or fellowship program, Library of Congress development officers asking help in pursuing financial resources, or tradition bearers looking to align their local work with a national cultural institution, I asked the Trustees to just say yes recognizing – that each time they are able to say yes, they further support the mission and goals of the Center.

Heather Hodges, Chair, AFC Board of Trustees

Here a few more photos from the days we spent in New Orleans:

meeting participants discussing musical instruments with musician presenters seated on stage
Artist and AFC Board of Trustee member Natalie Merchant and musician Andre Michot. Photo by Heather Hodges
Trustee John Rice talking with flute maker and musician Dr. John DePriest
Trustee John Rice talking to Dr. John DePriest, who presented on Choctaw river cane flutes. Photo by Heather Hodges.
A photo of the exterior of the Backstreet Community Museum in New Orleans
AFC Head of Research and Programs John Fenn and Trustee Cyndee Landrum, Acting Director of the Institute of Museums and Library Services, outside of the Backstreet Community Museum, New Orleans. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

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