Three Women, Three Artists, Three Paths toward One Goal: To Keep Their Culture Alive

To celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, March 8, the National Museum of the American Indian hosted the public program Native Women Artists: Creativity & Continuity. Visitors had the opportunity to meet three unique Native women artists and hear their stories.Delores Elizabeth Churchill (Haida), Pat Courtney Gold (Warm Springs Wasco), and Ronni-Leigh Goeman (Onondaga) discussed their explorations and journeys as indigenous artists, while also demonstrating their artistry. The more everyone talked, the more I realized how much I have to learn about Native culture. From Alaska to New York, weaving is not just a talent, but it is also a way of passing culture and history to generations to come. 

Pat Courtney Gold 2015

Born and raised on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, Pat Courtney Gold (right) does traditional Wasco weaving. She has traveled nationwide to learn Wasco basketry and to be able to pass along the culture. Pat explained a thought-provoking story behind the three colors she has placed on the bottom of her baskets since 2011. “The red, white, and blue base honors the young men and women in the presidents’ war,” said Ms. Gold, referring to Iraq and Afghanistan. She has been doing weaving this into her work since 9/11. “Fourteen years later, and I am still doing it. I thought it would last only a couple years but it didn’t,” she told me, while remembering the young adults she knows and who left her hometown to fight. 

Ronni-Leigh Goeman (below) can take months to go from the idea and concept to making one of her amazing baskets. Growing up on the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) in upstate New York, she began making baskets at a young age, captivated by the art of weaving. Each of her baskets has a special meaning, inspired by nature, her culture, and the traditions of her people. Her baskets are made of black ash trees and a mix of moose hair, porcupine quills, and sweet grass. 

 Ronni-Leigh Goeman 2015

“I would never kill a moose to get their hair! People know I work with it, so when they hunt they just throw them in my backyard,” Ms. Goeman assured me.

Her husband, StoneHorse Goeman (Seneca), is the artist behind the little sculptures on the top of each basket. He has created artworks in partnership with her for almost twenty years.  

Delores Churchill 2015Delores Elizabeth Churchill (right) is one of those people you can be around without anyone saying a word and feel good. Who needs words if you have this amazing talent! Ms. Churchill's passion for her basketry is vibrant in her eyes. I could sit and watch her weaving for hours. That is what I did (for a couple hours, anyway). In a few words, she explained the story behind the hat in the picture, recovered from a retreating glacier in northern Canada. The “spruce root hat was found with Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi, also known as the Long Ago Person Found.” Delores Churchill is the subject of the documentary Tracing Roots, which portrays her search to understand the history and cultural context of the hat.  

I was stunned to see small children in some way interested in the artists' art and the meaning of it. It must be the passion they have that intensifies and attract young kids. If only one of those kids went home and started weaving something, anything, I am sure these artists would be happy to see that their goal was reached. 

—Claudia Lima, NMAI

Claudia Lima is an intern in the museum’s Office of Public Affairs.

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April 01, 2015

This Day in the Maya Calendar: April 2015

Cholq'ij, the Maya sacred ceremonial calendar of 260 days—a cycle of 20 Day deities and 13 numbers—is the basis of the Maya spirituality that survives to this time, practiced daily among millions of Maya people, in thousands of communities. The interpretation of the days can vary from one Maya people to another. The interpretations given here are based on sustained conversations and participation over three decades with Maya Q'eqchi calendar priest Roderico Teni and daykeeping families in the area of Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, by Jose Barreiro (Taíno), head of NMAI’s Office of Latin America, and his wife, Katsi Cook (Mohawk). Glyphs representing the Day lords appear throughout Maya Country; these were painted by Esteban Pop Caal (Q'eqchi Maya) of Cobán.

For more background to this series, please see Jose's introduction, "Living in the Practice." For further insight into the role of the Day lords in everyday life, please see the Maya Journal. For the complete year so far, please see the Maya calendar archive.

Illustrations: Esteban Pop Caal (Q'eqchi Maya), calendar glyphs. Cobán, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala; 2003. Paint on wood. Purchased from the artist. 26/2685. Photos by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI 

4 Eh  |  Thursday, April 2, 2015 

262685_EhCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 4 Eh. Eh is Bobcat, also the Path and the Tooth; 4 is a balance. Eh can orient individuals, groups, or communities to their destiny. Eh is the day to ask for protection from dangers and obstructions during travels—specifically, that on your road the attention of thieves or highway police or border inspectors will be deviated from your trajectory. Solitude is in Eh, light rain, kindness, alignment. People born on this day can be good counselors, spiritual guides with the gift of prayer to Ajaw (Creator) on the destiny of things. Also, good dentists are born on this day. Eh is one of the four pillars of the 20 days, a Yearbearer—a strong, especially sacred day. A prayer started in Batz can be carried by Eh through the full cycle of 20 days. —Jose Barreiro 

3 Batz  |  Wednesday, April 1, 2015

262685_BatzCorresponding with this day in the Gregorian calendar is 3 Batz. Batz is Monkey; 3 is a rotor. Monkey braid, monkey fingers, monkey tail, Batz is the grasp of the monkey's hand so tight and braided the fist will not let go, even in death. Batz is a good day for beginnings, and for some Maya daykeepers, Batz begins the 20-day calendar. Batz is unity, a good day to tie things together, a good day for a marriage or to start a construction, a good day for initiation into the ways. Batz is the thread of time that rolls out from under the earth, weaving life until cut, weaving time into history. People born on Batz are calm and self-confident; they make good spiritual guides and leaders, and goodhearted architects. —J. B. 

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March 30, 2015

Humanity and Complexity: "The Navajo Times" previews "Diné Spotlight"

The Navajo Times published an excellent review by Alysa Landry of "Dine Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film," a public program at the museum in New York April 9 and 11. Subscribers can read the original article online. For nonsubscribers, the Navajo Times has generously given the museum permission to reprint Ms. Landry's review.

 

Humanity and Complexity: ‘Diné Spotlight’ to show accurate picture of what it really means to be Native

By Alysa Landry

NEW YORK CITY – When it comes to movies, much can be said about aspect ratios and picture quality, but regardless of a movie screen’s height and width, the picture itself is still flat.

That’s especially true when it comes to most mainstream films about American Indians, according to Angelo Baca, a Navajo filmmaker and graduate student at New York University.

The National Museum of the American Indian is trying to change that with a two-day fi lm screening featuring two full-length films and 17 shorts.

The free event, “Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film,” runs April 9 and 11 at the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York. A total of 14 Navajo filmmakers will have their work shown, with topics ranging from love stories to science fiction to the gritty, hard-hitting stories of modern life on the reservation.

The combination, Baca said, should leave spectators with a more accurate picture of what it means to be Native.

“These films bring complexity and dimension to an otherwise one-dimensional and conflated representation of Native Americans,” Baca said. “They cover a wide range of things that people don’t necessarily associate with Native Americans. They show how much humanity and complexity we have as people.”

Baca, who is pursuing a doctorate degree in anthropology, will moderate a discussion held after the screenings. He believes the event will help bust stereotypes – especially for an audience at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

“A lot of museum-goers are expecting a certain kind of film,” he said. “Navajo filmmakers are doing great work and breaking expectations, breaking a lot of rules. They are going beyond the stereotype that Indians belong in documentaries or behind glass.”

DrunktownsFinestFinal-1200x520
In this scene from Sydney Freeland's feature-length film "Drunktown's Finest," a rebellious Navajo man clashes with his Army recruiter. (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution) 

Diné Spotlight opens April 9 with a screening of Sydney Freeland’s acclaimed film, “Drunktown’s Finest.” It continues April 11 with a series of short films, followed by the New York premiere of “Chasing the Light,” by Blackhorse Lowe. Both feature-length filmmakers will participate in discussions after their movies play.

Organizers are expecting a crowd of 250 or more, said Cynthia Benitez, film and video center programmer for the museum. The screening coincides with the ongoing “Glittering World” exhibit, which showcases the jewelry of the Yazzie family of Gallup, N.M.

The two events together allow the museum to shine a spotlight on the Navajo Nation and encourage conversation about its modern culture, Benitez said. The museum is also bringing some of the filmmakers to the exhibit, offering visitors the unique opportunity to “meet the people behind the objects.”

“You can’t tell these stories through artifacts,” she said. “When you have contemporary films, it gives us another educational aspect to offer visitors who don’t realize that the Navajo are not just turquoise jewelry or ancient people. With films and filmmakers here, people can ask them questions directly.”

The films selected explore themes that resonate with the Navajo people – and with humanity as a whole, Benitez said. That includes the struggles of a transgender woman in Freeland’s film, Drunktown’s Finest,” and suicide and drug addiction in Lowe’s film, “Chasing the Light.”

The films represent a natural progression from traditional storytelling, said Freeland, who grew up on the reservation and went to film school because she wanted to tell stories.

“You have all the traditional art forms – painting, weaving, pottery, silversmithing – that are all forms of storytelling,” she said. “Filmmaking combines all the other art forms into one. It’s another form of storytelling.”

Although gritty and sometimes controversial, “Drunktown’s Finest” shatters stereotypes and presents three-dimensional characters, Freeland said.

“I wanted to tell a story about the people and places I knew and give them a chance to be represented on screen,” she said. “I wanted to show how a reservation is a diverse and dynamic place. It was about giving people a chance to be heard and seen on screen, as they are, as human beings with flaws.”

When filming “Chasing the Light,” Lowe wanted to capture “everyday life for the 21st century Navajo man.”

“It’s just the usual Navajo type of living,” he said. “It’s just straight-up reality. It’s depression, heartache, drugs, friends. And it’s a comedy because all the funniest things are always the darkest thing ever.”

“Chasing the Light” is Lowe’s second feature-length film. He’s also showing a short film during the screening.

The6thWorld
Nanobah Becker's film "The 6th World," in which Navajo astronauts journey to Mars, is part of "Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film." (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution)

The showcase will include 16 additional short films shown in two sessions. Nanobah Becker will show three of her shorts, including a music video starring Navajo ballet dancer Jock Soto and a science fiction film about Navajo people on Mars. She’s looking forward to showing her films to a New York audience.

“In a city like New York, the exposure of Native films and Navajo culture is very limited,” she said. “It’s like the end of a journey to be able to show something to an audience and to feel like you’ve affected people in a certain way.”

With 14 filmmakers’ work showing in New York and countless others making films on the reservation, Becker believes the Navajo people are establishing a cinematic record that is unique to the tribe.

“We are creating our national cinema, just like any other country,” she said “We have radio and print, but this is the next frontier. We’re contributing to something bigger.”

Other filmmakers use existing footage to explore history. Shonie de la Rosa’s film “Yellow Dust” uses archived film footage of nuclear testing and traditional stories to compare two kinds of yellow powder: uranium and corn pollen.

The film took off in Europe long before it gained popularity in the United States, de la Rosa said. Although it’s more than a decade old, he’s pleased it’s making an appearance in New York.

“It’s a short film, it’s experimental,” he said. “It’s kind of something I just threw together, but it’s taken on a journey of its own.”

Another theme apparent in some of the films is future possibilities, said Teresa Montoya, a moderator for the screening and a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University. Several of the filmmakers use their medium to explore “forward-facing” ideas, including Becker’s film about a Navajo space program.

“It’s powerful to use creation stories to not just think about the past, but also the future,” Montoya said. “I think visual production gives Navajo the opportunity to write and dictate their own histories.” Baca calls this phenomenon “visual sovereignty.”

“We’re pushing all the boundaries in terms of making independent films,” he said. “This emerges as cultural and visual sovereignty. Everyone who does these projects does it all on their own, from beginning to end. Making film is an act of sovereignty.”

The other filmmakers whose work is included in the screening are Klee Benally, Princess Benally, Christi Bertelsen, Christopher Cegielski, Sarah del Seronde, Melissa Henry, Daniel Edward Hyde, Bennie Klain,Velma Kee Craig and Donavan Seschillie.

For more information on Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/film-media or call 212-514-3737.

© 2015 Navajo Times. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Navajo Times

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March 27, 2015

Meet Native America: Robert James Super, Vice-Chairman of the Karuk Tribe

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 

Kaurk Tribal Council
Members of the Karuk Tribal Council, 2014–2015. From left to right: Vice-Chairman Robert Super, Secretary/Treasurer Joseph Waddell, Elsa Goodwin (Happy Camp), Arch Super (Yreka), Chairman Russell Attebery, Sonny Davis (Yreka), Joshua Saxon (Orleans), Alvis Johnson (Happy Camp), and Renee Stauffer (Orleans). Photo courtesy of the Karuk Tribe.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Robert James Super, Karuk tribal vice-chairman.

Can you share your Native name with us?

Super comes from Supahan, which means "bringer of the morning star." My ancestor was a medicine man for our tribe, so he prayed to bring good days for our people. The non-Natives shortened it to Super.

Where is the Karuk Tribe located? 

Our main office is in Happy Camp, California.

Where are the Karuk people originally from?

Our aboriginal land is in Siskiyou and Humboldt counties, California, and a little piece of Oregon. We have stayed in our aboriginal territory. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

We signed a treaty in the mid-1800s. It was not ratified, but the U.S. government and the State of California still took our land. 

How is your tribal government set up?

Our Tribal Council is comprised of nine members elected by our tribal membership. We have a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary/treasurer, and six members-at-large who represent our three districts. 

Is there functional, traditional entity of leadership in additional to your modern government system?

We have boards and committees that interested tribal members are selected to sit on. Those bodies represent the membership and tribe throughout the organization.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

We have staggered four-year terms for each position on the Tribal Council.

How often does your council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets twice a month in meetings that are open to tribal members and twice a month for closed planning sessions.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I learned our culture when I was a teen. I also served on boards and committees throughout my life to help our people. I am 53 years old now, so I am more prepared to represent several different topics related to our people.

What responsibility do you have as a tribal leader?

To make the best decisions for our membership.  

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My cousin and his wife, Fred and Elizabeth Case. She was our medicine woman for our ceremonies.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

We originally had different villages on the Klamath River. We all met up when things needed to be prayed for and to observe ceremonies. Each family had head family members, so we are all descended from those leaders. 

Approximately how many people are in your tribe?

There are 3,723 enrolled members in the Karuk Tribe.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

A person must be one-eighth degree of Karuk blood to be considered for enrollment.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

We have approximately ten recorded fluent speakers of our language. We also have a language program to preserve and teach Karuk.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

We have two smoke shops, storage facilities, and soon will be embarking into gaming.

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

We sponsor a Karuk Tribal Reunion every summer, several youth sports throughout the year, and several community projects, including fundraising, hardship funding, and youth events.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Karuk Tribe is located along the scenic Klamath River, which is known for its hunting and fishing. We also have the annual Karuk Tribal Reunion and the Karuk People’s Center—a museum, library, and cultural center—as well as our lands. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?

Learn all the cultural activities to teach our future. 

Thank you.

Yootva—thank you. 

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
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. 

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Behind the Scenes of "Cerámica de los Ancestros: Central America's Past Revealed"—Joya de Cerén

In less than one month, Ceramica de los Ancestros: Central America’s Past Revealed opens at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York. The exhibition is making its New York debut after first appearing at the museum in Washington, D.C. In anticipation of the April 18 opening, the museum is releasing four behind-the-scenes videos about research sites that are the sources of many of the objects in the exhibition. This first video looks at the Joya de Cerén World Heritage Archaeological Site

The village of Joya de Cerén, in what is today el Salvador, was abandoned more than 1,400 years ago, shortly before the eruption of Loma Caldera. Buried under volcanic ash, Joya de Cerén was preserved unusually well. The site has provided clues to the domestic life of the peoples of the area, as well as an excellent overview of early architectural practices. Many of the objects excavated there illuminate social structures as well, pointing to a culture whose people had a high quality of life, with a say in both the authority and trade systems within their communities.

 

Interested in knowing more about Joya de Cerén? Download the free exhibition catalogue and check out “Dwelling in the Ancestral Joya de Cerén Village,” beginning on page 23. 

—Joshua Stevens


Joshua Stevens is the Public Affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York.

Cerámica de los: Central Ancestros America’s Past Revealed is a collaboration of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Latino Center.

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March 20, 2015

Meet Native America: Lora Ann Chaisson, Vice Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation

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

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 palmetto basket
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.

VPC Lora Ann Chaisson basketry
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. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 


Photographs courtesy of the Chaisson family and the United Houma Nation.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
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. 

Comments (1)

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What a great series. It is very nice to hear from our relatives along the Gulf Coast, I had no idea their numbers were so numerous. This fine lady seems so young to have accomplished so much. It is really great to hear directly from tribal leadership like this, speaking in the first person. Vice Principal Chief Chaisson speaks very well for her nation, and I hope she understands how proud the American Indian community is of her leadership, attitude and her respect for tribal elders. Compliments to everyone involved. I am an Ojibwe man living far from home over in Europe now, and it is great to have news like this, informative of what out many relations are doing these days.

 
 
 
 

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