The following is a guest post by American Folklife Center (AFC) Folklife Specialist Guha Shankar, who interviews AFC 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 American Folklife Center’s Community Collections Grants program. 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!
In what ways is this project important/meaningful for you as documentary field workers who are also community members?
We – Monique, Kaliq, and I – are well aware that some of our traditional art ways are in jeopardy of going to sleep. We heard from the artists that there are not very many youth interested in weaving and carving, and building huts and wattle and daub structures, to carry on those ways. And that is difficult to hear. But, when we interviewed United Houma Nation Principal Chief Lora Ann Chaisson, she spoke about how, years ago, she and some others organized youth basket-making camps, where the youth harvested basket materials from the forests and swamps and completed several different kinds of Houma baskets during the week-long camp. I was encouraged by that effort. And we can do that again.
Also, we heard over and over about tribal members migrating north, some just a few miles away, but also some moving to other states. The strength of social and political structures and occasions such as tribal organization, events and elections has a lot to do with geography (and traditional territory where we lived), and because we are losing land, our tribal members have to move. We have all wondered what that loss will mean for our tribe.
We heard about racism, discrimination, and a lack of access to schools and public office that our tribal members experienced and, some of it, recently. I have known about all of this forever, but hearing first-hand accounts about these barriers, over and over, was difficult. I know that all of our families suffered similarly, and so there is a shared legacy because of those barriers.
What memorable moment or moments from the fieldwork could you share with us?
Wow, there are so many! I remember meeting Ms. Janie Luster at a palmetto patch so that we could document harvesting palmetto. The mosquitos were thick and we put a towel around her legs to keep them off her. She set up her table next to the woods so that she could show me the process of making a basket. To the right of where she set her table, there was a sign that read KEEP OUT and she saw that. She reminded me that we had talked about a lack of access to those palmetto hearts that she needs to continue basket-making, and also to wood that woodcarvers need and the cypress for poles to build huts and other natural materials that are needed by the traditional artists to continue their art. And so there we were…so close to the heart of the matter and to the heart of those palmetto…AND that KEEP OUT sign between us!
How do the artists react when you ask if they would participate in the project?
No artist has turned us down for an interview. Our artists seem to consider this an opportunity for our tribal citizens and others to see some of Houma culture. We will give our documentation materials to the Library of Congress and, also, to the artists – and we will make a banner and short video for each artist so that they can use this documentation material as they apply for grants, as well as display and sell their art. We all see that now, because of this documentation, our youth for at least seven generations will have access to our artists/stories, their words, and their art. The artists seem to know that this is part of their legacy and that this is needed. And they have been so generous, so honest, and so vulnerable in their stories. It has really been an honor to do this work with these folks.
Documentarian and project team member Monique Verdin adds: It has been an honor for us to listen deeply to the stories and reflections of our Houma elders, and to create a space for all of us to participate in the sacred practice of oral history transmission that respects the fullness and interconnectedness of their and our Indigenous realities and experiences here in our coastal communities, where the bayous meet the Gulf of Mexico.