Native Waters: A Chitimacha… | Louisiana Public Broadcasting
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ROGER STOUFF, Chitimacha Tribal Member
“I fish where Indian warriors once stalked hardwood oak forests and paddled dugouts through stands of red cypress older than the cathedrals of Europe, where enormous pyramidal mounds rose from clamshell islands off the coast of what would become Louisiana. …

“Four centuries ago, within sight of where I cast my line, a chief stood and jabbed the butt of his spear into the hard packed beach of white clamshell, and he forbade the Conquistadors to come ashore.

“That chief’s name is forgotten. He confronted a future none of his forefathers could’ve imagined, but some prophesied. Their dreams warned them of the change to come.”

SEQUENCE ONE: Fishing Sacred Waters

“I navigate native waters in a small wooden boat not unlike those my father built before I was born. He was the last Chief of the Chitimacha, a name that means ‘people of the many waters.’ Along with my grandmother, he passed on to me the traditions of our tribe. There are things that should not be forgotten, and I am among those who remember.

“But of all the things my father gave me, perhaps what will follow me with the most devotion, until the end of my days, is the love of fishing.”

I was raised in a wooden boat. To me, wooden boats are the contact, or the conduit between myself and the water. You can’t get that kind of organic energy from a fiberglass or from an aluminum boat. Wood is a living material. In a way, it’s still alive. Because it has a cellular structure and it has a definite feel to it that nothing else has.

From a spiritual and religious sense, this place is my cathedral. It’s my temple.

The Atchafalaya Basin is the ancestral home of my people. It’s over 800,000 acres of wild country—the largest river swamp in North America - bigger than the Everglades. But this fragile wetland is vanishing, and the question is whether the Chitimacha can survive without our native waters.

Out there I feel closer to my creator, I guess “nearer my God to thee,” as the song goes, than anywhere else in the world. Because those are the works of God, the works of the Creator – whatever name you give him. We go there to fish, but I think fishing is an excuse to be there. If I didn’t fish, I’d be there anyway.

SEQUENCE TWO: Recalling Tribal Stories

“As a Chitimacha, I am a fisherman descended from a nation of fishermen. Fishing here in the wildness of the Atchafalaya Basin in South Louisiana, my line connects me with eight millennia of ancestors and stories.”

“I fish where a boy named Ustupu was cursed by bad medicine, doomed to chase his six great hunting dogs across the heavens for eternity; where an old couple was turned into bears; where the devil Neka sama reaches out from the fire to snatch children into the hearth. I fish where three dozen villages and thirty thousand warriors thrived for eighty centuries.

“For me, fishing is hooking into the invisible strength hidden in these waters. It is struggling with an irresistible force pulling back and rushing away, towing me with it, at least in spirit, across not only an expanse of water, but a corridor of time. I’ve been pursuing that force most of my life.”

(Moss is used for a lot of things….)

DAYNA BOWKER LEE, Historian & Ethnographer
There’s no way to separate the past and the present in the Chitimacha world. And the way that connection has been maintained, that link to the past is through the oral tradition.

It conveys bits of information that you can’t pick up in other places, because each story teller personalizes that story in a way that gives it a little bit more life and a little bit more meaning and that story is then passed down through the generations and are embellished and added to and kept in families and communities.

I come from a long line of storytellers. I mean obviously we had no written language, so oral tradition was the way that information and knowledge and spiritual values were passed down from generation to generation. And even in modern times, my parents and my grandparents were all storytellers. They moved all over the Southeast during powwow season telling their stories, telling about Chitimacha. I think that of the five brothers that moved away from here that were my grandfather’s generation, only he came back. And I think that one of the reasons he came back was to become the chief, to become the storyteller.

And I guess by default, through my career as a journalist and a writer, after he was gone, without even really realizing it, I started writing about my people because I felt there was an absence there.

KIMBERLY WALDEN, Cultural Director, Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana
The Chitimacha remember their history collectively, as a group. Things that were important to the tribe, stories, traditions, were carried on in tribal families. And we had certain families that were maybe the basket weavers. We had medicine people. That sort of structure carried on even to our present day.

You know when I write a story or tell a story between myself and the listener, it brings the events and the people and the time when that story took place to life again. But in my mind, I’m bringing it, I’m resurrecting it. I can almost feel the presence of the family members and Chief Soulier Rouge and the great warriors. I can feel their presence alive.

SEQUENCE THREE: The Chitimacha Indians in History and Oral Tradition.

“This is how my world begins. The Creator of all things moved in thunder across a great sphere of water and knew that perfection was the sole proprietorship of gods, so he formed the land. He did this by commanding Crawfish to swim down below the waters and, doing what Crawfish still does today, bring up mud into a mound like a volcano’s throat—more and more, until the mud pierced the surface and dried under the sun. The edge of the sea laps at the margins of Crawfish’s labor, sifting it away, but rivers move the earth from here to there, dumping it back into the floodplains and basins. Lakes collect and persist, pools of grace to remind those who live too far away from the sea of what lies beyond. There are only three things that remain constant in my life: Crawfish continues to build the land, water continues to confront it, and the infinite journey between the two.”

The ancestral territory of the Chitimacha covered most of the Louisiana coastline and was bounded by the lakes and rivers, it stretched from the Atchafalaya Basin to east of the Mississippi River. And, it was demarcated and bounded by four sacred trees.
Louisiana was rich with native people when Europeans got here, very complex cultures, not all the same. But of all the Indian people, all the native people who were in Louisiana – at the time of first contact - the Chitimacha are the only nation that remains on any part of their ancestral homeland.

“They came from Natchez, my father’s people. There was some sort of rift, some manner of division. They touched a brand to the eternal flame that burned for so long at Grand Village and moved south, carrying the flame with them, to be attended night and day, never allowing it to expire, for that would mean the end of all things.”

According to traditional history, the Chitimacha, came to the coastline from the northwest and originated around where Natchez, Mississippi is now and that’s where the Natchi people were. And the Natchi people and the Chitimacha were very close relatives. They participated together ceremonially, they intermarried. And, they continued to do this and to form a kind of a cohesive unit made up of two separate parts until the 1730’s when the Natchi were destroyed by the French as a nation.

“When they came here, they found the only graceful, poetic balance of water and land in all of creation: These majestic swamps and marshes, the towering salt domes and great shell reefs, the rivers slicing courses through the earth, the abundance, the safety. They looked upon that great lake, named it, and they forever more became Sheti imasha, people of the many waters.”

STEPHEN CHUSTZ, Acting Director, Atchafalaya Basin Program,
Louisiana Department of Natural Resources
The story of the Atchafalaya Basin begins as the ice age ends, and the glaciers begin to melt and sea level begin to rise. The Atchafalaya River becomes one of the largest distributary channels of the Mississippi River.

Before the levee was built, this gigantic series of lakes fed by the Atchafalaya River, was, to me, like the great lakes of Louisiana. It was just huge. It was a series of lakes, you know, a hundred miles long. Fifteen, twenty miles wide in spots. And very deep. Very deep. Because the river kept it scoured out.

After the flood of 1927, people were so afraid of losing their property again that based on science of the time, they thought that the Atchafalaya Basin levee was the best answer to protecting homes and property. And you can’t fault people for that, because they were working with the best information they could at the time. But the result of that levee was that it restricted the flow of the Atchafalaya.

Even today the Basin is one of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in North America.
When you look out it’s one of the most vast wilderness areas that we have left in this country.
At the time of the Chitimacha, I can only imagine that, that is was such a wonderful resource for them to hunt, fish and to provide for their families. The Basin today is considerably different than the Chitimacha would have seen before colonization. We know that there are areas that were once vibrant swamps and vibrant areas that are not nearly as productive. The cypress forest that existed long ago with huge trees present are not longer as abundant.

“Early mornings, with a bamboo fly rod and a mist over the surface, I can almost see back to when there was nothing here but Chitimacha. In the palmetto patches growing from the bleached, bone-white shell hard-pack of the villages and hunting camps and ceremonial ground, black-haired and dark-skinned children peek from far behind the veil of the Great Sadness into a world they cannot recognize. Their grandchildren bear strange-sounding names, speak an unknown tongue and attend churches of brick and mortar, rather than open air, and water always nearby.”

When I was a younger man, actually a child, my father used to take me to places like this to hunt for pot shards, little pieces of pottery, like that one. The Chitimacha would break their pottery every year and make new ones, because it was taboo to put new food or new game into old pottery. Sometimes we’d wade and we’d find pieces with the thumbprints of the makers still inside of the clay after it was fired. Sometimes we’d find designs like incised, and sometimes with paint. And it was just an amazing experience to still find it today.

Chitimacha literally means people of the many waters. And the area of those waters stretched across about a third of Louisiana. That included this area, which was actually sort of the capital of the entire nation. The Charenton area, the beach area, and the religious center of the nation was here.

We were a peaceful people. We had dozens of villages, tens of thousands of members. The Chitimacha were probably the most powerful tribe in Southern Louisiana at the time.
In the winter they would have hunted things like bear and deer, large mammals. In the summer, they gathered seeds, berries, and other plant resources. And in the fall, they gathered things like pecans and hickory and other nuts that could be stored.
Aquatic resources were very important to the Chitimacha, they had an intimate relationship with the coast and exploited coastal resources and fresh water resources and fresh water muscles, brackish clams, oysters, crawfish, fish, waterfowl. The resources were vast and abundant.

My Dad said this place was Eden. Everything the Chitimacha wanted, anything they could possibly need in this environment, it was all right here.

It was at this place, actually, this was a massive village site, a huge place. It was probably teeming with warriors and women and children. It was here that the conquistadores landed, as local tradition has it. And the Chitimacha told them that they couldn’t come to shore. The Na Ta I like to think of him as the brave warrior who probably stood on these shores and jabbed the butt of his spear into the ground. And he looked out at these people with these huge sails and the shiny helmets and the strange beards. And he told them, “Don’t come ashore.” … And the Spaniards tried to come with guns and swords, and we beat them back.

But that was the beginning. That was first contact. That was the beginning of the demise. What we call the Great Sadness; that moment of European contact when everything would change in ways that we couldn’t have foreseen, and, led to almost the virtual extinction of the Chitimacha people.

We have no written evidence that the Chitimacha ever were encountered by the Spanish Conquistadors, but when Hernado de Soto’s expedition came down to the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, they were attacked by a group of Indians using an atlatl. And, an atlatl is a tool that propels an arrow or a shaft with a greater velocity and a greater distance that can just be achieved than throwing that shaft. And, the Chitimacha, we know, were the last of the nations to use the atlatl. And, also in the Chitimacha traditional history, there are many stories about Spanish Conquistadors coming up Bayou Teche and trying to take captives.

And we do know also that there were other expeditions that touched along the coast line of Louisiana in the 16th century. And so, it’s entirely possible and not just possible, but plausible that the Chitimacha who were in control of the entire coast were encountered by Spanish people.

“I believe that much of the conflict through the years between natives and non-Indians arises from a basic difference between the way they view the world and the way we view it. Somebody once said to me that as an Indian, we see things that other people don’t see. We see what’s behind things, what’s through things.”

“Many ages ago—after the onset of the Great Sadness that began on this continent five centuries ago—a Chitimacha family was searching for food when a white deer appeared near them. Though it was forbidden to harm such an animal, their hunting grounds had diminished greatly, and they killed, cooked and ate it. After their hunger was satiated, the old people say, each member of the family stood up, as if in a trance, and walked deliberately into the lake, never to be heard from again, at least not in their human form. Yet it is said among my people that they sometimes emerge from the lake as balls of fire, penance for their crime being eternity in such form.”

This is a very old story - my friends and I would camp across the lake from here, and many, many, many times, we would actually see four or five balls of light over this place, over this spot. And we never could explain it.

In my early 20's we camped out here and one night pitch black we were watching the lights and suddenly this voice rang out, it was almost an animalistic growl and we jumped out of our skin, it was an old fisherman and he looked out, we asked him about the lights, and he looked out across the lake at Peach Coulee and he said something that I'll never forget…he said it's thin there. He said it's thin.

“I didn’t know what he meant at the time, but I think I do now. There are places where the boundaries between this world and the next, the separations of the seen and the unseen, are not so substantial. Peach Coulee in the Atchafalaya Basin is one of the thin places, and now and then, the comfortable lines we depend on to organize and make safe our world bend, converge, and overlap.

I believe there are places on this lake and places elsewhere, where there's power. There's power that we can't sense in our cities, on our streets and in our homes. And, that's the power of the earth and the power of our ancestors.

“My father and I most often fished at one of those “thin places” where this power persists - we called it the Pond Lily Worship Place.”

The Pond Lily worship house was the central religious site of the entire Chitimacha nation. In days when the nation was strong, people would come, from my understanding, all over, from all over the nation and gather here at least once a year, probably more. There was a mound of shell, Rangia shell that stretched out thirty, forty yards into the little bay that it was on. In the 1920s and ‘30s, shell became a valuable material to the Americans. Shell was driveway material. It was concrete base material. And I was told by the old people that they dredged all the shell with bucket trucks, bucket barges, out of the Pond Lily worship place. And skeletons were literally dropping out of the buckets. These were our chiefs and these were our noble people. These were our medicine men. These were the most honored that we had among us. I was told that the old people nearby who knew it was happening were watching from the other shore and were literally wailing in agony.

In my job as cultural director, we see a lot of our cultural sites, sacred sites, mound sites, village sites, being destroyed. A hundred percent of Chitimacha village sites from prehistoric times are off reservation. They’re on those lands that we don’t control anymore. It’s a very scary thing for me and for tribal members to know that a lot of these places are on private land.
And so it is tough.

“It is in “thin places” like the Pond Lily Worship Place that the power and mystery of an unseen world overlaps with this one. But, for modern Indians, balancing between two worlds is often a struggle.”

For many, many, many years of my life, I turned my back on that heritage because I couldn’t reconcile the two. I couldn’t understand the difference between being Chitimacha and being not Chitimacha. It was near the end of my father’s life that I did finally understand that, with his help. And to his benefit, he wasn’t a pusher. He was the type of man that let me just find my way on my own.

When I finally came around again and realized that this was who I was and there was no use fighting it, then those stories came back to me.

“Bayou Teche, my father’s people said, was created many generations ago when a huge snake attacked the Chitimacha Nation. It was so large its tail was at Port Barre, La., and its head near Morgan City at the junction with the Atchafalaya River. Many warriors tried to destroy it. Many died. It took a massive effort of all the tribe’s strongest men to slay the great serpent. Its great body lay there and decomposed, and water sought out the spot where it had compressed the earth in its death throes, forming the small channel. My father’s people called it “teche” meaning snake.”

You know the geologists and the hydrologists tell us that this was formerly a channel of the Mississippi River. And its flood plain created this ridge we’re standing on, it created all these forests. And I have no problem with that. I think that the spiritual doesn’t preclude the scientific or vice versa.

“The two are not mutually exclusive. It is the inability to believe which astounds me sometimes, as I walk along the water’s edge, watching small bream strike at bugs and chase minnows.”

SEQUENCE SIX: Threats to the Basin and to Chitimacha Identity

“The Atchafalaya Basin is a place where the boundaries between water and land merge, and the two constantly contest with each other. The Chitimacha people have lived at the water’s edge for uncounted generations. But, today, our native waters are under threat.”

The primary environmental threats to the Atchafalaya Basin are the invasive aquatic species that we see in the waterways – hydrilia, salvinia, giant salvinia – they’re more abundant now than ever. We also have issues with sedimentation and well as hypoxic conditions as waterways have been cut off from their natural flow.
Since the 1927 flood when levees began to be installed in the Atchafalaya Basin, they have disrupted the hydrology of the area and they have played a great role in the sedimentation that we see occurring as hydrology has been changed. Areas that were once wet and werer easily traversed now have sediment in those areas and they’re not nearly as productive or as accessible.

“The levees strangled our ancestral lake into a gasping, lethargic web of channels. Later the oil industry would arrive with steel rigs and hard hats, cut pipeline and crew boat channels, breaking the marsh into dying segments. Sandbars dissect the basin, infested with Chinese tallow and other non-indigenous species.”

This is Lake Fausse Point, this is the ancestral home of the Chitimacha people. At one point this lake ran 8 to 10 feet deep. But the levee just dissected it, after the flood of 1927 - it was a flood protection measure. And now it's maybe two and a half - three feet, four feet at the very deepest in a few spots. It’s slowly silting in, when we lose a lake like this, we're not only loosing an environmental place, an ecological system; we're also losing a cultural legacy.

It is a challenge for the Chitimacha to maintain our connection with the water. Many of us have grown up our entire lives being out on the water, hunting, fishing, enjoying time with family. And the condition of the waters in the area has changed dramatically, even in my lifetime.

With over 1000 members on the rolls, the tribe resides on a 500 acre reservation at the edge of the Atchafalaya Basin. Once a nation of fishermen, virtually none of the tribe makes a living anymore from our native waters.

It definitely causes an alteration in traditional lifestyles because people have to go away from the community to work in large part. And, so there’s a disconnect, where people used to live together in family groups, community groups, now, they still are connected and they still come together, but it’s not that daily interaction that has been so important in the past.

You know my grandparents, my grandfather and his brothers had to leave here for opportunity and to get away from oppression, and they spread out across the United States. In those days, an Indian couldn’t get hired in town. In those days, there was really not much for them to do to make a living. All that’s changed now.

It’s a challenge to be two things at one time. It’s a challenge for all people to maintain a sense of tradition and yet participate in, in a world that’s basically dominated by a tradition that’s not your own. And, it’s a delicate balance to find that way of living in which you are able to embrace what makes you yourself and in this case Chitimacha people and to embrace that and pass that forward in your family and in your community group and it’s a huge responsibility. It’s not one that’s taken lightly.

And I’ve learned to become a member of both communities. It hasn’t always been easy…
I think the challenge for the modern Indian who must exist beyond the reservation is, to bring those two worlds together and keep both of them separate, but keep both of them sacred. It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge to reconcile the two.

Despite threats to both our ancestral homelands in the Atchafalaya Basin and to our traditional way of life, the Chitimacha tribe is presently enjoying a cultural renaissance—beginning with the recovery of a nearly forgotten language.

The Chitimacha language is a unique story. The language died, essentially, with the last two fluent speakers: Chief Benjamin Paul died in 1932, and Delphine Stouff died in 1940. Prior to their death, there were ethnographers found out about the language and came here to document it. And so we have extensive documentation. And what we primarily relied on in bringing back the Chitimacha language is the documentation done with Ben and Delphine in the early 1930s by Dr. Mark Swadesh. And, he sat down with Ben and Delphine and recorded two hundred hours, an unprecedented amount on any language, from what we hear, and gathered stories and vocabularies. And really, that’s the basis of the Chitimacha revitalization program that we have today. If it wasn’t for the time that those two spent, and this gentleman coming here, it would have been impossible to reconstruct the language.

The tribe assembled a group of elders who still had memories of the language as it was spoken by the adults when they were children. A linguist was recruited to help revive those memories.

I finally asked the linguist to speak a few words in that language. And that was a turning point. Once they heard it, they knew that he had knowledge of the language, and he was on the right track. And they began contributing their memories. And then we knew that we had not lost it. It was going out the back door, and we caught it, you know, right as it was slipping away. Because if we wouldn’t have had those elders to know whether or not he had the correct pronunciation, my generation wouldn’t have known. So it was a critical point at which we got it. So we say our language wasn’t dead or extinct. We say it was sleeping.

Technology has made it possible to bring the Chitimacha language into the homes of every tribe member.

About three years ago we heard that the Rosetta Stone company was going to subsidize communities and help them develop their language on their software. And we had been looking at the Rosetta Stone software, and we really couldn’t afford it, being a small community, small budget, tribal budget or cultural department budget. We really couldn’t afford it. And for ten years, we had been teaching the language in the schools, and to the elders and adults. And so we wrote the grant and crossed our fingers.

And of twenty-five communities worldwide, our application was picked. And, we were the first ever funded for the Rosetta Stone Endangered Language Program.

In 1997, the tribe established a cultural department. Along with reviving the language, it is responsible for preserving and promoting the heritage of the Chitimacha people.

We also do other things with the children, primarily, because we have our own school system. So we teach them the history, so that’s going to be carried on. We teach them beadwork. We teach them about the legends of the tribe. We try to include different art projects and things like that, just so that they have their own way of internalizing the history and the culture. And we’ve done a museum for our tribal members to preserve various topics of the history, and also get that out to the general public. And we’re proud of the museum.

Now, with language preservation efforts well under way, the tribe’s Cultural Department is turning its attention to a new topic.

Right now we have about four basket weavers. And we would really not want to lose our basketry art. It’s generally been handed down in families. We need to document what takes place to make a basket, and we need to increase the number of tribal members that have that knowledge.

Well the language is very important. Basket making is, too. It’s part of our history, it all blends, it’s part of our culture. It’s all our culture, and it’s who we are.

“Once, there was a holy woman. When she encountered a young Chitimacha woman, the holy woman dropped a basket on the path in front of her. The young woman took the basket home and studied it carefully. Then she learned from the holy woman how to weave the river cane, how to gather and process the dyes, and how to pattern the designs. To this day, when a weaver goes into a cane patch and examines the cane, the joints still bear the impression of the holy woman’s finger.”

The baskets themselves are made out of river cane, which you find in this area. We just cut this cane from a patch that we planted here on the reservation probably five or six years ago. And it’s doing well. And we take this cane and we’ll split it and peel it, to make the baskets with.
Chitimacha basketry is intimately related back to the environment. It reflects the natural world of the Chitimacha that they experienced every day. The designs are zoomorphic and they have names that are very expressive like mouse tracks and things that the Chitimacha would have seen every day in their world. The designs were named these things in the Chitimacha language and even though the language died out for a while and is being brought back now, those names were retained through the generations and that shows the importance in Chitimacha basketry as a physical and visible expression of Chitimacha culture.
Baskets have always been around. The patterns have been handed down from one generation to the next. And it just goes back as far back as you can trace. And all of the patterns that you see in the baskets are patterns from things around you. You may not realize it, but something like this, pattern in this would be gusbi suqu, which is the Muscadine rind or peel. So story goes, the Muscatine berry when it’s smashed goes in four directions. The skin, and that’s where that pattern came from. So every pattern is from things that you see waxtik kani, which is the eye of cattle pattern, which you see in here which is in a tray. You’ve got something like this, which has got the jekt kani, which is the bird’s eye. Jekt is red wing blackbird, kani is eye, but we call it bird’s eye for short. …Just all things from around you every day. So, that’s the patterns that we’ve got. And they’ve been around forever. And actually the baskets touch everything, the language, all that connects us with our ancestors, because you feel that when you’re doing any of that, so…

(“What were the lights on the lake? Well, it was just sort of a ball of fire, a little ball bouncing on the water and they’d shoot up in the air…”)

The Chitimacha people are fortunate today. We have maintained and preserved and brought back many aspects of our culture, and that’s going to continue. So, we’re on the upswing, culturally. And I just want to encourage other communities that are in this situation to grab on to whatever’s left, and use those memories. Use those resources. Use your elders. And even if it’s one person, take it on as a charge on their own. Just hang on. And maybe in years to come, things will turn around.

The Chitimacha are fortunate, compared to many tribes.
Still, I am left to wonder about the future for the “people of many waters,” if those waters are disappearing.

Grand Avoille Cove is an area where we are seeing increased sedimentation --- and it is filling in at a higher rate than other areas of the Basin. What it’s caused is a change in the resources. It’s changing from an area that was once very wet to an area that’s filling in and becoming more dry.

What we’re having is an environmental nightmare that is affecting all of the basin, affecting all of Louisiana, but for the Chitimacha this is again, literally what we took our name from is vanishing. It’s vanishing right under our feet, it’s vanishing right under our boats, the land is going away due to erosion, the lake is silting in and eventually, you know the cypress trees are almost all gone.
Someone told me once that if you stop believing in something, it ceases to exist --- The power that's in this old land, the power that's in this old lake, not many people believe in it anymore. And, it's going away. If no one believes in these things anymore, it's gone.

“Out of the reach of memory, the Atchafalaya Basin has always been at the center of our identity as Chitimacha. These native waters are the very source of our story.”

On that personal level, on that indigenous level, it’s a place where I know that my ancestors have been here and walked these shores and fished these same waters. They threw out nets here. They built mounds here. It’s a connection with past that a lot of people don’t have any more.
You have to believe in places like this, you have to keep them in your heart. And, you have to keep them there - Or, they're not going to exist anymore.
Black Elk said that sometimes dreams are wiser than waking. And this is all a dream to me. It's a dream from a thousand years ago, and I just think I'm lucky to be able to experience it while I'm still awake.