Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 4, 2005. The Chitimacha.

I headed out of my Louisiana state park campsite this morning, not sure where to go or how to get there. The park staff showed me the routes to New Hibernia, Lafayette, and St. Martinville, and I thought maybe I’d check out one of those towns. But when I got through the park gates I impulsively turned the other way, heading southeast. A few hundred yards out of the gates the road became dirt, and I wondered if I was heading down a dead end. The road bounced and washboarded, but it kept going, so I figured it had to end up somewhere. My map showed it going to the town of Charpenton, but maps can be wrong. Ten miles or so down the road a group of men in trucks were working on the adjacent levee, and I stopped to ask if this road really went through. They assured me that it did, so I kept going. Eventually I started passing rough shacks along the bayou to my right, then a few somewhat nicer houses with potted plants and Christmas decorations. A sign in front of one group of run-down trailers read “Almost Heaven,” and a banner in front of another proclaimed it to be “Our Camp.” Finally a paved road labeled “Beach Road” crossed mine, and I turned onto it.

After a bit of meandering, I found myself in a town which I took to be Charpenton. I passed a building labeled “Tribal Health Clinic” and one labeled “Tribal Court.” Then I saw a sign for a museum, with neon lights proclaiming it to be open. I made a quick u-turn and went inside.

It was the two-room museum of the Chitimacha Tribe, a paean to cultural survival and the tribe’s efforts to recapture its language, its traditional basket weaving, and its history. You can imagine the exhibits; a mannequin dressed in furs, lots of baskets, a wall-sized mural of a traditional tribal village, some tools, a couple of dugout canoes, a stuffed bobcat, some old clothes, blown-up photos of tribal members at the turn of the last century. I nudged myself to read the posters on the walls when a man working in the office in back wandered up to me, saying he thought he’d heard someone come in.

Well, that made all the difference. John Paul – he told me his name later – is on the tribal council, and works for the director of the museum. He’s lived here all of his 45 years, expect for a period when he moved twenty miles away to have more room for his horses. But as soon as more land became available on the reservation he moved back. He talked about the weaving – the Chitimacha are famous for the baskets – and pointed out the old photos. Those people are his aunts, his grandpa, his great uncles, his cousins. This woman had taught the basketweaving skills to the girl next to her in the photo, who passed them on to him. The old man was his grandpa’s uncle. The girl in that photo had been adopted by the couple in another photo other when her biological parents died. John’s father was Chitimacha, but his mother wasn’t – she had had to elope to marry his father, because her family, living far away north of Lafayette (less than 100 miles from Charpenton), didn’t want her to marry a dark-skinned man. John’s own wife is Chitimacha. They were already dating when they realized they were third cousins. Everyone is referred to as an aunt or uncle in the community, he said, so they didn’t really know that they were actually related till someone else in the family told them. By then it was too late, so they just hoped being third cousins didn’t make them too close to marry.

The tribe is like a small town, running its own schools, police and fire departments, courts, and other public services. It runs a casino, which has been its primary source of support for some decades. The casino revenues

have been good, even allowing them to give scholarships to any tribal youth who want to go to college. Recently, though, a lot more casinos have opened up in Louisiana; the racetracks have slot machines now, and so do all the trucks stops. The competition has cut severely into tribal revenue, and now they are thinking of enlarging their lounge to bring in more visitors. The casino has been great for them, he said – it’s created jobs in the community instead of out on the oil rigs, and it’s given them the funds for new facilities and those all-important scholarships.

Anyone who can prove that she or he is one sixteenth Chitimacha can enroll as a member of the tribe. They have members all over the country, far beyond the 400-or-so acres and 1000-plus people on the reservation next to Charpenton. All enrolled members are eligible for the scholarships. But anyone who receives a scholarship has to do one hour of community service on the reservation for each $100 they receive. That’s brought some young people into the community who had never even been there before, and they are welcomed with open arms. John said that young people are coming back to the community after college as well, working in the reservation’s administration, its health clinic, or its casino as accountants, managers, nurses, and in other professional positions. Indeed, the exhibits in the museum included a panel on Chitimacha professionals, with photos of a few of them.

John is part of a regional organization of tribes in the south east, and he attends their quarterly meetings throughout the region. He’s active in their committees on both culture and governance. As the heir to much of the tribe’s basket weaving knowledge and staff of its museum, he is strongly committed to recapturing and invigorating the tribe’s culture. But as a member of its tribal council, he’s also interested in how tribes are governed. He drives to the SEAT meetings, which gives him a chance to visit other tribes and Indian sites throughout the south east. Some of his family used to live in North Carolina and have now retired back to the reservation; through them he has met tribes in North Carolina and been toured their lands.

John is a serious basket weaver, as are his wife and his sister. He learned the weaving patterns from his grandmother, but she only knew some of them. Others have come back to him, though. In his sleep, maybe, or through some other means of transmission, because no living tribe members knew how to create them. He learned in that way to create double-weave baskets, which have two layers of weaving, one folded over the other. Double-weave baskets are used when the contents must be kept fresh and moist, because they insulate better than single-weave baskets. Weaving techniques can only be transmitted to other tribe members; those outside the tribe are not allowed to know how they are

accomplished. So he can’t write them down for posterity – and it’s very important to him that in time his children learn to weave the baskets, to keep the culture alive. By the time they were teen-agers they both knew how to strip the canes to create the materials for the baskets, but they didn’t actually do much weaving. His son is 22 now and into dirt bikes; it doesn’t sound like he’ll take up weaving any time soon. His daughter is 25, and she is becoming a bit more interested. She wanted to give some baskets as a gift, and had to make them herself because no one else had time, so she had to take her skills farther than she had in the past. Her dad hopes this might be the start of a greater commitment to learn traditional skills.

No native speakers of the Chitimacha language are still alive, but the tribe is working to recreate the language. In the 1930s a linguist came through and made extensive recordings of the language. In the late 1990s the tribe hired another linguist, who used the recordings to create a Chitimacha grammar and dictionary. During the creation of the grammar, more words came back to older tribal members working with the linguist, who had heard the language spoken as children. Children now begin studying the language when they are in daycare, taught by adults who themselves learned the language from the new grammar. Adults can take Chitimacha lessons too, but John said he hasn’t had the time yet. He’s a busy man; in addition to his job, and his work on the tribal council, and his basket weaving, he’s also building a house, taking apart one of his classic cars, rebuilding his father-in-law’s roof, and doing a pile of other projects. We talked about whether the museum can get back any of the Chitimacha artifacts in the Smithsonian’s collection; I suggested that he might take this on as yet another project.

Before I walked into the museum, I was berating myself for making no real effort to get a sense of the Cajun culture that had drawn me to southern Louisiana. As I left the museum, I thought about how serendipity works. I’d never even heard of the Chitimacha tribe before I met John Paul, and now they were far more alive to me than the Cajun culture of the region ever would be no matter how much boiled crawfish I ate or music I heard

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