In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Vice Principal Chief Lora Ann Chaisson, United
Houma Nation, in her office. October 2014.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Lora Ann Chaisson, vice principal chief of the United Houma Nation.
Where are your tribal communities located?
The United Houma Nation (UHN) tribal communities reside within a six-parish (county) service area encompassing 4,570 square miles. The six parishes—Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, St. Mary, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines—are located along the southeastern coast of Louisiana. Within this area, distinct tribal communities are situated among the interwoven bayous and canals where the Houma traditionally earned a living. Although by land and road these communities are distant, historically they were very close by water.
Where were your communities originally from?
The Houma history is a tale of survival and adaptation. When the explorer LaSalle traveled the Mississippi River, a bear-headed pole adorned with fish heads marked the territory boundary between the Houma people and the now-extinct Bayougoulas—that pole is how modern-day Baton Rouge got its name. Accustomed to living off the land, the Houma were traditionally hunters and gatherers with strong roots in agriculture and were part of the mound-building civilization of the Southeast.
With the encroachment of the European settlers, the Houma began migrating south until they reached the lower regions of coastal Louisiana. The Houma lived in harmony with a changing landscape, but held close to their traditional roots. Much of coastal southeast Louisiana is filled with tribal settlements, as well as remains of functional and ceremonial mounds.
Peace was short lived. The original tribal village in Houma, Louisiana—the village site is the current-day courthouse square—was burned, and our citizens were forced to move into the southernmost communities of southeast Louisiana. With close proximity to the water and with the area's abundance of natural resources, the Houma survived quietly in this paradise that settlers believed to be uninhabitable. New challenges began to affect our communities in the 1930s as oil and gas was discovered in the marshes where our people settled. Unable to read and write, tribal citizens were unfortunately targets for unscrupulous land grabs by outsiders.
What is a significant point in history the United Houma Nation would like to share?
A key moment in our tribe's history was the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The tribe was deeply impacted by the segregation in the Reconstruction Era of the Deep South. Houma people experienced segregation and discrimination in restaurants, stores, buses, and even churches. Moreover, only schools for African Americans and whites were available, and neither admitted Native Americans. The Houma people were excluded from receiving a formal education, which was an injustice with far-reaching consequences.
The Houma continued to demonstrate incredible industriousness, resourcefulness, and perseverance. Despite not having a formal education, many of our tribal members forged forward in caring for their families through commercial fishing, owning their own businesses and private land. It was not until the 1940s that Houma children could attend school, and this was solely credited to missionaries establishing “settlement schools.” These schools sometimes offered up to a seventh grade education and were staffed by uncertified instructors. It was not until after the Civil Rights Act was passed that the local school district was forced by the federal government to provide a desegregated public education to our Houma children. The first students from the United Houma Nation were allowed to graduate from high school in 1966. Today we are proud of the many tribal members who are pursuing higher education, receiving professional degrees, and making contributions in many professions.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our government is comprised of a principal chief and 11 Tribal Council members who represent districts where community members reside. Currently our service areas and tribal communities are comprised of over six parishes (counties) bordering the Gulf of Mexico.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
In addition to the United Houma Nation Tribal Council, we have established an Elder Advisory Council, as we highly regard elders' wisdom and strength.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The principal chief and Tribal Council representatives serve four-year, staggered terms with elections held every two years.
How often does your government meet?
Our Tribal Council holds public council meetings on a monthly basis, and meetings are rotated throughout each of the tribal communities.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As a leader of the Houmas people, I am deeply committed to all matters related to the tribe and its members.
Much of my service is dedicated to tribal youth and tribal elders. I have worked for the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana (ITC) for 21 years. This organization provides employment and training opportunities for tribal youth and elders who are members of the five tribes in Louisiana—the Chitimacha, Coushatta, Jena Band of Choctaw, Tunica–Biloxi, and United Houma Nation. This position has given me the opportunity to show my deep appreciation for our tribal elders and to mentor our tribal youth. In addition, I facilitate elderly festivals for both ITC and UHN.
As the vice principal chief, I have many duties, including chairing the Tribal Council Government Committee, which addresses federal recognition; serving on the Diabetes Coalition; representing UHN within the National Congress of American Indians; serving as a board member for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association; and serving on two state workforce boards.
Houma half-hitch plametto basket woven by Lora Chaisson.
I also feel a great sense of responsibility to learn and pass on our traditional Houma ways. I am a traditional basket-weaver and have created my own traditional jewelry line made of parts of the alligator which normally were discarded and considered useless. One of my proudest accomplishments is co-founding the Bayou Eagles dance group in order to pass along our traditions to the next generation.
I have been featured on the nationally televised Travel Channel and PBS to demonstrate our native cooking. I have represented the Houma people in France, as well as at numerous events throughout the United States.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
My family has been deeply influential in preparing me to become a leader. I remember my first public speaking engagement at the age of 15. It was held at an elite Catholic school in New Orleans. I remember my mom and members of the Indian education program staff helping me to prepare and practice speaking in public.
Vice Principal Chief Chaisson gathering materials to build a hut for a Native American festival in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Bayou Lacombe, November 2014.
When I was older, my mom encouraged me to apply to the selective American Indian Opportunity (AIO) Ambassador Program. I thought, “No, that’s for others. I couldn’t do that.” My mother encouraged me that I could. That was in August and September of 1997, and in November of that year she passed away unexpectedly. Friends of mine—Louise Billiot and Ken Taylor—encouraged me to apply as it was my mother’s wish. The deadline was December 31, and after completing the application, I was floored when I received a letter informing me that I was chosen to be part of this prestigious program.
Through the Ambassadors Program, under the leadership and direction of LaDonna Harris, I had the opportunity to travel across the United States and to South America. We developed our leadership skills, shared our tribal histories, and examined where we acquired our medicine from. I had the opportunity to meet with national and international leaders. We traveled abroad and learned about the interconnections across tribes and the commonalities and diversity of strengths and challenges across Indigenous peoples.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My parents have been my most influential mentors. Their Houma pride and perseverance was instilled at an early age. My mother was one of the first members of the Terrebonne Parish Indian Education Parent Committee. Not only was she our family matriarch, but the family business accountant as well, despite her limited education. My father, with only a third grade education, was able to build his own successful welding business. He employed over 100 employees. Mom and Dad didn’t allow the lack of a formal education keep them from accomplishing their life goals.
LaDonna Harris has been a sincere and encouraging mentor to me since I attended the AIO program, and we remain close to this day. Her life history serves as an example to me never to allow adversity or challenges to derail me from accomplishing my own goals.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
My grandfather Pierre Chaisson was a medicine healer or traiteur, as it is called in our language. My maternal grandmother also healed with herbal medicines, which we still practice today.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
Our tribal members are spread throughout the six parishes bordering the Gulf of Mexico. Within those parishes our tribal rolls are listed at 17,000.
What are the criteria to become a member?
A person must demonstrate direct lineal descent from an ancestor who is listed as a progenitor on our tribal registry. Currently our tribal rolls are closed to all applicants except children under the age of five.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands?
The Houma–French language that the Houma people speak today is a mix between the French spoken by early explorers and the traditional Houma language. Houma–French can be understood by French speakers from francophone countries. While there are several different French-speaking communities in Louisiana, the Houma represent the state's largest concentration of French-speaking people. Nearly all of the elders speak Houma–French; some elders are monolingual in Houma–French. Among the younger generation, the speakers are fewer, though many understand the language.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
Although there are many private businesses owned by tribal members, the lack of federal recognition currently means the tribe does not have economic enterprises that are solely owned by the tribe. The Tribal Council has specific goals to develop economic enterprises that will benefit the entire tribe in the future.
What annual events does the tribe sponsor?
The tribe sponsors an annual Elder’s Festival, the Annual Tribal Awards Banquet, and an annual pow wow sponsored by United Houma Nation Vocational Rehabilitation Services. The tribe has been one of the only Native food vendors at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Our booth is run by volunteers and visited by over 1,000 people per day.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Located in the New Orleans vicinity, we host visitors from all over the world who want an authentic bayou experience. Several of our tribal communities are located along the lower bayous of southern Louisiana and offer the state's greatest fishing, freshest seafood, and friendliest people. Our tribal members offer boat tours, charter fishing, wonderful foods, and a rich, distinct culture.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Despite maintaining a close relationship and being recognized as a tribe by the French government since the 1600s, along with receiving support from the Louisiana congressional delegation, we are still awaiting recognition from the U.S. government. Federal recognition is instrumental to enable our tribe to grow and develop as a sovereign nation—despite volunteerism and generosity being flourishing and prominent values within the tribe that enable the tribal government to meet and undertake extensive community efforts.
We have always known who we are. We have always been close-knit and self-sufficient, and we continue to live off the land and water through fishing, gardening, and transmitting cultural traditions. We experienced segregation and discrimination as Houma people throughout history as we were excluded from schooling. However, despite having a strong and thriving tribal identity recognized by multiple nations throughout history, we await the promise of Article 6 of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, which states, "The United States promise to execute such treaties and articles as may have been agreed between Spain and the tribes and nations of Indians, until, by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes of nations, other suitable articles shall have been agreed upon."
What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?
Enjoy the freedom to obtain your education and jobs and to have the ability to walk into any public facility. Your parents and grandparents sacrificed much and laid the heavy groundwork for you! Keep your tradition and culture alive as Houma people. Learn your traditional crafts, such as weaving baskets, building traditional homes, and your Houma tribal medicine. Value our elders’ wisdom. They are the keepers of our Houma history.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
One of the greatest challenges our tribe is facing today is coastal erosion. As I mentioned earlier, our tribal communities lie along the coast of Louisiana. We no longer have the protection of barrier islands or completed levees. When hurricanes and floodwaters come from the Gulf of Mexico, our communities are the first to feel the impact.
Without federal recognition, we cannot apply for the funding that is available to help federally recognized Native communities when they face disasters. We have to rely on the donations and generosity of other tribes and organizations.
Many of our burial grounds, homes, and whole islands made up of our Indian people are suffering the losses. Coastal erosion leaves our Houma communities in grave danger of losing our herbal medicines, materials for our baskets, and our homelands to the Gulf of Mexico.
Photographs courtesy of the Chaisson family and the United Houma Nation.
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.