To Swim in Strange Waters: Memory, Ecology, and Landscape in the United Houma Nation of Southeastern Louisiana

AHA Session 114
Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Southdown Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Robbie Ethridge, University of Mississippi
New Orleans and the Wider World
Michael Dardar, United Houma Nation

Session Abstract

The Houma nation of southeastern Louisiana have long enjoyed a unique relationship with their environment.  Located in the Fort Adams, Mississippi area in 1699, shortly after that date they began a drift down the Mississippi river to the marshes and bayous fringing the Gulf of Mexico.  In their new locale they developed a complex relationship with the environment.  Shrimping, fishing, and trapping developed as their new economic base, whereas indigenous plants and animals served as the foundation of their material culture. These three papers examine different aspects of Houma history as it reflects the conference theme of “Lives, Places, Stories.”

J. Daniel d’Oney’s paper examines how the history of the United Houma Nation (UHN) has been appropriated by the non-Indian residents of Fort Adams, Mississippi.  Once a thriving Mississippi river port, the sole vestige of Fort Adams’ glory days is a small Catholic chapel, in front of which a marker claims an adjacent bluff as the site of the first baptism in the Lower Mississippi Valley. The marker is an attempt on the part of local residents to use Houma history for their own purposes, without the consent or assistance of any member of the United Houma Nation.  This paper looks at concepts of who decides Houma history, why it is recorded, and how a chosen narrative affects the group whose history has been misappropriated.  

Doctor Ng-A-Fook examines how Houma survival depends on an intimate knowledge of the coastal landscape and how the US government has historically denied Houma people access to the material resources promised through the historical signing of treaties with the French. Everyone who lives by hunting or gathering must notice, read, interpret, and share the meanings of signs in the natural world. Therefore, for hunters or fisherman, the landscape becomes the temporal-relational library for their cultural-historical activities.  This presentation draws on a life writing methodology to examine how Houma elders construct traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of the places they inhabit through cultural-historical activities like trawling and fishing. Houma oral histories of inhabiting the Louisiana landscape offer us an alternative conceptual framework for organizing tribal narratives and incorporating knowledge into the school curriculum either as science or history.

Frédéric Allamel examines conflict between the UHN and oil companies that has raged since the early 20th century.  Clashes began early, then grew as the UHN sought recognition and the oil industry supposedly lobbied to eliminate an opponent in the region.  Tension escalated with a failed lawsuit against Exxon for poisoning Houma residents, an outcome revealing the close ties between the oil industry and Louisiana politics. The 2010 oil spill deeply impacted the Houma economy and environment and amplified the group’s self-perception of victimization. In the 21st century manmade coastal erosion forces many Indians to relocate and raises issues such as ecocide and ethnocide, and ultimately the death of the Houma culture.

Taken as a panel, these papers illustrate three different facets of Houma history and examine memory, ecology, and conflict over environmental resources.

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