Below is an excerpt from a post on the Library’s Of the People blog by Folklife Specialist Guha Shankar who interviews Community Collections Grant recipient Professor Tammy Greer (and team) about their project, “And We are Still Here:” Stories of Resilience and Sustainability from Houma Culture Bearers in Louisiana. This post is part of the Of the People blog series featuring the 2022 awardees of the AFC’s Community Collections Grants. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story.
Professor Tammy Greer’s project is a wide ranging, multi-site survey of material culture traditions still practiced in Houma communities in Louisiana. In her Community Collections Grant application, Professor Greer described a number of the arts and crafts pursued by her fellow citizens of the United Houma Nation and the natural resources they rely upon to maintain their ways of life. She noted: “Many of our tribal members still live off the land and practice traditional crafts such as basket weaving, wood carving, blowgun construction, palmetto hut construction, and moss doll making. The native plants, including palmetto, cane, white oak, long leaf pine needles, cypress and cedar, used for basket-making, are still available along the bayous as are the black walnut, honey locust, red oak and other native trees used for carving.” In my interview with her, she elaborated on the progress that she and project team members – documentarians Monique Verdin and Kaliq Sims, and Houma traditional artist, Janie Luster – have made since they launched the initiative in Summer 2022.
In your proposal for the grant project, you noted that your documentation of Houma cultural practices seeks to encompass not just artistic practices, but also broader historical and social factors that continue to pose major challenges to your community’s lifeways. You stated: “Our culture, including our material culture, values, knowledge of the land and community cohesion are threatened.” Your intended approach to bring these critical issues into the light was to have practitioners articulate their experiences about Houma cultural history, environmental degradation, and generational change. How has this approach actually worked out in the course of your fieldwork?
It has been surprising, but also heartwarming, that our tribal artists have been very open with us. The information we have gathered covered more territory than I expected. Most elders spoke about segregation in the public school system that they, themselves, experienced, with Houma Natives having their own schools and an 8th grade limit in those Native schools. Most elders spoke about how access to native plants, and other materials needed for their art, is becoming increasingly harder to navigate. Most spoke about the rising bayous and coastal waters, and about more frequent and increasingly devastating hurricanes. They spoke about the loss of understanding of our cultural ways, especially among youth. And, as well, they spoke of their art forms – half-hitch coil palmetto baskets, cypress baskets, four-strand braided palmetto baskets, wood carvings, palmetto huts, clay ovens, wattle and daub huts, and Spanish moss dolls.
For instance, this video compilation of excerpts from project interviews provides a sense of the range of Houma community perspectives and topics – not to mention the unexpected hilarity that sometimes occurs in the course of fieldwork!