SHREVEPORT – Name changes. Relocation – both forced and voluntary – seeking a more favorable political environment to exist.
The historical perspective that Four Winds Cherokee Chief Two Feathers and United Houma Nation Chief Lora Ann Chaisson shared Monday highlighted the personal effect of the sweeping narrative taught in schools about the interaction between Native Americans and Europeans in North America.
The LSUS Office for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Engagement organized the event and the Noel Herring Endowed Chair sponsored the event to celebrate November being Native American Heritage Month.
Chief Two Feathers, who heads the Four Winds Cherokee tribe of about 4,500 in western and central Louisiana, said his ancestors arrived in the area in a train of 40 or 50 wagons in the late 1700s.
“We were coming from the Carolinas in 1795,” Chief Two Feathers said. “In the territory that the French and Spanish owned, Indians had more basic rights in the Catholic areas than the mostly Protestant area we were leaving.
“Our wagons settled in No Man’s Land in western Louisiana that no one country controlled at that time.”
The more lenient laws of what is now Louisiana didn’t last, and Chief Two Feathers said Native Americans regularly changed their last names or did other things to hide their identities because of legal, social and cultural intolerance.
“We have a lot of Goins here, well that last name was originally Gaines,” said Chief Two Feathers, who brought an array of items crafted by his tribe, including war clubs, moccasins and gourds. “Indians would also add ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’ to their last names to appear Irish.
“You didn’t want to be Indian around 1900 in Louisiana.”
For the Houma, they were pushed off their traditional homeland around the Baton Rouge area and headed south into the bayous of Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes and fanned out all along the Gulf of Mexico.
The tribe hunted and fished these areas traditionally, but it was tougher to make a living in the bayous and marshes instead of on the banks of the Red and Mississippi rivers.
“Congo Square in New Orleans started as Houma sacred ground where we would celebrate the annual corn harvest, and we still conduct ceremonies there,” Chaisson said. “The French Market started as a Houma trading post.
“I’m a fourth-generation basket weaver, and there are some of my families’ cypress baskets that are in the Smithsonian (National Museum of American History). We are tied to this land.”
But historical disadvantages didn’t just remain history.
Chaisson explains that her people can’t weave cypress baskets anymore because the intrusion of salt water has made the cypress unharvestable.
The loss of Louisiana land to coastal erosion in addition to more powerful hurricanes has complicated life in the state’s most southern reaches.
“My kids used to hunt deer in our backyard,” said Chaisson, who is 58. “Now they fish.”
Chaisson said the recovery from these storms isn’t equally shared among Louisiana residents.
One island in southern Terrebonne Parish used to house roughly 700 families.
Failure to repair and fortify the main road as well as rebuilding the gas line to the community are some of the reasons that the majority of families have left the area.
Now that the new owners of these properties have built fishing camps on that land, Chaisson said the state has invested millions to strengthen the infrastructure.
“We’re fighting so that our babies don’t have to fight these fights,” Chaisson said.