Episode 10 (26:47)
Louisiana is known as a melting pot of cultures and ethnic groups, so for oral historians, it’s a great place to get a variety of stories from people with widely differing life experiences. From Creole to Cajun, French to Spanish, African American to Native American, Louisiana just about has it all. In this episode, we’ll focus on people who were raised in, or spent most of their lives in the Atchafalaya Basin area of South Louisiana.
The men and women we’ll hear from today trace their heritage to Native American, French, or Cajun roots, or a mixture of these. But regardless of how these people identify themselves and their culture today, many of their ancestors shared a common thread of living on what nature provided. In the Atchafalaya Basin, people’s lives were tied to the places they lived – the plants they used for food and medicine; the animals they hunted, ate, and whose byproducts they relied on; and the streams, bayous and rivers that surrounded them. Each of these groups of people had their own traditions, customs, and knowledge passed down from generation to generation, surviving through centuries. Many of these traditions faded over time for various reasons, and many aspects of people’s lives and physical surroundings changed dramatically within their lifetimes.
Today’s episode will give us a peek at life throughout the last century in the Atchafalaya Basin area. From the Houma Indians Series: Roch Naquin will tell us about his heritage, his French-speaking mother, and the loss of the French language among his peers; Kirby Verret will discuss the symbolism of crawfish to the Houma tribe, and will talk about his family’s method for hunting geese; Rita and Howard Dion will make your mouth water with a description of the foods they ate as children, and Howard will tell us about the Houma’s struggle for recognition in the state of Louisiana. From the Sue Hebert Series: Samuel McQuiston will tell us about the place he was born, the changes he’s seen during his lifetime of fishing, and the upkeep of fishing nets; Edward Coussou will explain how he picked and prepared moss for sale, and how moss has gradually become less abundant in the swamp; finally, Nelson McQuiston will explain the process of making a dugout canoe, or pirogue.
AUDIO EXCERPT TRANSCRIPTIONS AND CITATIONS
SAMUEL MCQUISTON is the key excerpt. *For full transcription, see below.
Houma Indians Series
DANIEL D’ONEY: Okay, but you consider yourself to be full blood?
ROCH NAQUIN: Not really, though. French and Indian. I always . . . people say, “Who are you?” I say, “I’m French and Indian.”
D’ONEY: So your mom’s side of the family was full blood then?
NAQUIN: Not really, it’s a mixture from both sides.
D’ONEY: Alright, so your family’s a mixture. How much would you say you are Houma and how much would you say are … I guess you wouldn’t consider yourself to be Cajun French would you?
NAQUIN: We did not really receive Cajun French, even though we’ll have people call us that and we take it because they kind of look at the whole locality as such. Cajun is mostly a people who came from Acadia [in modern-day Canada], and Nova Scotia [Canada] and that area and came down into Louisiana whereas ours . . . the Naquins came from France. Supposedly, they were in Canada and when the shipping of people took place, some came into Louisiana and some they shipped back to France.
D’ONEY: You’re talking about the Cajuns?
NAQUIN: Yeah, and so supposedly the Naquins were shipped back to France and then from France they came to United States.
D’ONEY: They came back?
D’ONEY: So I guess you could consider them to be Cajun in a roundabout way.
NAQUIN: In a sense, yes.
D’ONEY: That’s pretty interesting.
NAQUIN: They called me that, they called me Indian. They have another name they used to call the Indian people, sabine. Used to be very offensive name at one time because it was kind of a put down name.
D’ONEY: Does anybody know where that term comes from?
NAQUIN: I’m not sure, but I think it was used to kind of indicate the uncivilized and all. There’s like, you know, “You’re not as much as we are.” But I don’t have the full history on that.
D’ONEY: Because there’s a Sabine River but I don’t think I have . . .
NAQUIN: Yeah, Sabine River out west over there that divides Louisiana and Texas. I was interested you know, on that too … because of the fact supposedly the Houma came over that general area. But, I really don’t know just where they got that name, but it was common.
DANIEL D’ONEY: What about your mother? Did she speak or write English?
ROCH NAQUIN: My mother spoke only French. She never learned any English. We tried to teach her but she always said, “No, I think I’m too old now.” At a point she finally got too old to learn and then at that time she started saying, “Well, maybe I should have tried to learn English.” She didn’t get to go to school, so she didn’t know how to read or write. She could count and everything. Learned, you know, a few things, basic things like that, but she had never gone to school. I used to . . . I tell people there was only four words that she knew . . . four or five words: good morning, goodnight, goodbye, shut up.
D’ONEY: [Laughing] Okay, did she get a chance to use those very often with her kids?
NAQUIN: Yes. [laughs]
ROCH NAQUIN:They would tell us we were not to speak French in school. If they would catch us speaking French, they would make us write five hundred times, “I must not speak French in school.” Because the hope for us was to try to get us to learn in English. But that had a bad effect, because first of all, it began to leave an impression which is something would be wrong with the language every time I used it, I would get punished. But also parents were interested in having their children learn French, I mean English, and so they would not stress French. And what happened was we have several generations who lost the ability to speak French.
Naquin, Roch, interview by Daniel d’Oney, audio recording, 1996, 4700.0841. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
KIRBY VERRET: And one of the signs of poverty in her era was to eat crawfish. If you were so downtrodden that you couldn’t find any food, you could take one of these tubs, a kind of a wash tub, and you could put it where they let the rice fields drain out. You could put a tub full sunk down by the drainage. Some of the crawfish would wash out of the rice field, and as they’d hit that tub they just settle to the bottom, and if you let it sit there it would just eventually fill up with crawfish and all you do is get the water out of it and you have a tub full of crawfish. But that was at one time a symbol of poverty, when you ate crawfish. I found that unique, knowing that there was such a . . . somewhat of a dishonor to eat crawfish. Of course, later on as I grew up to find out that the crawfish was . . . very much a tribal symbol, you know, that was our symbol. But to eat it just for the sake of survival, that was . . . There was more to it than I understood.
DANIEL D’ONEY: Yeah.
VERRET: Clearly there was sacredness about the crawfish, but also it represented poverty. So there were two worlds there of . . .
VERRET: Yeah, you see how the crawfish who was a creature never to back off, who would stand up to anybody, and hold his ground, even if it meant death. So that crawfish was one symbol. Then of course, the crawfish that came out of the earth was sacred in a way, but also was the ultimate sign of poverty if you ate it.
KIRBY VERRET: My mother would go in the back of the camp in the trapping field and she’d turn loose a few loose sheets of newspaper. And the geese would be flying over, they see that . . . those papers that would look like geese moving on the ground, and they’d drop down and my father would shoot a couple of them, we had supper. I mean they’d fall for that, you just take a newspaper sheet and you’d drop it on the . . . Let the wind blow, it would roll on the ground, and they’d actually think it was geese. So they’d circle down and see what it was, and . . . There was always a way to get food.
Verret, Kirby, interview by Daniel d’Oney, audio recording, 1997, 4700.0842. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
DANIEL D’ONEY: What did you all eat growing up?
HOWARD DION: Fish, crabs, shrimp.
RITA DION: I ate a lot of seafood.
H. DION: Wild game, duck, deer.
R. DION: Yeah, my mom cooked duck and deer, rabbits and stuff that I don’t …
H. DION: Rabbit. We lived off the land. I mean, we strictly … all our food was …
R. DION: And then to go with that …
H. DION: … seasonal.
R. DION: … we had white beans or mustard greens.
H. DION: Got to have white beans and rice with everything.
R: DION: White beans and rice, or … And then my dad had a garden, so he grew vegetables. So we had green beans and mustard greens, and things like that.
H. DION: But we ate everything.
HOWARD DION: Well, people were scared all over. They thought that the Houmas was going to reclaim them the whole parish. And our legislature made sure that there wasn’t any political help coming to us. We got a letter from … that was intercepted from our attorney general Gus[?], and wrote our legislature to be sure that the Houmas . . . “Whatever you did,” you know, “don’t recognize it, because the state will be in jeopardy.” That’s his own words. I don’t have . . . The only documented help that we have from the Houma Alliance and our state recognition was from Governor Edwin Edwards. He recognized our cause and he thought that we had a good legitimate reason to do what we were doing. He supported us, and [Governor] Dave Treen supported us also. But as far as our senators and representatives and all those guys, you don’t hear from at all. Nothing was ever documented that I received from them.
Dion, Howard and Rita, interview by Daniel d’Oney, audio recording, 2003, 4700.1574. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Sue Hebert Series
SAMUEL MCQUISTON: Where I was born, they had plenty of water. But that dump in the [Atchafalaya] Spillway now and that’s filled up with sand [ … ?] near high enough to cultivate. They do have cattle over there on them places where . . . right where I was born seventy-nine years ago on the eleventh of October, 1899. They got cattle there where they had water at that time. And I’m not ashamed of it, I was born on a camp crib. I don’t know if you know what a camp crib is, but it’s a bunch of logs nailed together and [throw it?] over and a tent put on top of it. That’s the way . . . That’s the place I was born.
SAMUEL MCQUISTON: We’d get anywhere from three to eight cents for catfish and from about one and a half to three cents for buffalo [fish] and goo [gaspergou, a drum fish]. But today, they all up in the … catfish is about forty-five cents and the buffalo and goo is about twenty cents. Lot of difference in the price, but it’s due to the scarcity of fish. We don’t have the fish we used to have. I used to catch fish by the thousands of pounds and today I catch about a hundred pounds. So there’s just a lot of difference between fishing then and fishing now. We have a truck come now to the river, to the edge of the river where people comes in with the fish and buy them and some of them take the fish to places like [?]. But we don’t have no more boats running through the community like they used to be.
* SAMUEL MCQUISTON: Now, about the operations of a net fisherman … in tarring his nets and taking care of them, there’s cotton twine … Used to have to take nets up very often. Maybe in the summertime when the water’s hot, take them up every two weeks and tar them. And we’d have maybe a hundred to tar at one time and there’d be maybe two or three of us together in the family that would tar. We never would have anybody else to come and tar with us. Other than maybe a friend tar one or two nets for … get him a mess of fish to eat. But we didn’t have a whole lot of people coming and tarring with us.
SUE HEBERT: Who knitted these nets?
MCQUISTON: Well, most of the nets that was knit was by lady folks around here that knitted nets. I know my sister and a lot of other people. Your momma used to knit. There’s still ladies that knit nets. Used to knit a net for a dollar and a half, and now they want fifteen dollars to knit it. Things is went up so high you can’t get something done for nothing anymore like you used to be. I like the used to be, not the times of now.
McQuiston, Samuel, interview by Sue Hebert, audio recording, 1979, 4700.0045. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
SUE HEBERT: How about picking moss? What kind of tools you use for that?
EDWARD COUSSOU: Well, I used a barge about eighteen feet long, six feet wide, and a twelve foot derrick on there, and a twelve foot pole and I’m five feet nine. So I was [?] up in there.
HEBERT: Yeah, you right. And you got to get the moss out of the trees way at the top.
COUSSOU: Oh yeah, get the moss out of the trees. Why … the reason that I [?] a little moss was on account of these snakes get on them limbs and you get bit.
HEBERT: Oh really?
COUSSOU: Oh yeah. You’ll get bit.I’ll tell you this: Atchafalaya Basin is plum full of these little cottonmouths!
HEBERT: Well, after you picked the moss, what did you do with it then?
COUSSOU: Well, I come in with that moss and I throw it overboard and let it soak.
HEBERT: It wouldn’t float away?
COUSSOU: No, no. I [?] slope, whatever it is, go down before you get to the spillway out there. Let it stay in there today … I put it in there today, next day I come and I take it out and I put another load in the same place. If you don’t do that … Now you just pile that moss on that bank, and wait for the rain to wet it, you going to lose that moss because it’s going to burn up. It’ll just get so hot, you can’t hold your hands in there, and it won’t get either color. Once it get a dingy looking color, it won’t come out.
EDWARD COUSSOU: Today, I don’t know what happened, moss is dying in the woods. You didn’t have no more moss. Used to hang from way up in the tree to way down.
SUE HEBERT: You don’t think people picked too much of it? That wouldn’t have been it?
COUSSOU: No, no, no. That’s not [?] that’s [?] You had moss you couldn’t catch in them big trees, well, maybe sixty feet high. But, I don’t know what killed it out, but it’s dead. And now they ain’t got no moss, they paying twenty cents a pound for it. And when I was picking, much as I ever got was six cents a pound.
HEBERT: How much could you make a day picking moss?
COUSSOU: Well, I never did figure that out. I made a living and raised six kids. I could tell you that much about it.
Coussou, Edward, interview by Sue Hebert, audio recording, 1979, 4700.0454. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
SUE HEBERT: … made the pirogues, you made dugouts. Some people did.
NELSON MCQUISTON: Well, there was about three men back there years ago made dugouts.
HEBERT: They did them all of the time?
MCQUISTON: Out of a solid … a solid cypress tree. A half of a tree. Take a pretty good size cypress tree and bust it in half. They’d hew it out andmake what they call a dugout.You know how they had to do that?
MCQUISTON: They had what they call a hand auger. They’d bore holes … bore holes, and they’d bore a hole in that log … If it’s sixteen foot long, they’d bore holes with that auger, excuse me, about every six inches apart all the way through that log. Then they’d take wedges [?] and bust it open, half of it. Then they’d dig out some of the inside of it … dig out some of the inside of it where they could turn it over. Then they would make the outside just like the shape they wanted it. And all just like they wanted. Then they’d bring the inside out there to about maybe a inch and a quarter thick all the way around and that’s what they call a dugout.
McQuiston, Nelson and Lottie, interview by Sue Hebert, audio recording, 1979, 4700.0044. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
“Mixed Houma Indians, Bayou LaFourche, La.” from The Houma People of Louisiana: a story of Indian survival by Greg Bowman, [1982?], photo by John Swanton, used in Bowman courtesy of the Smithsonian’s Swanton collection.
Group of boys, detail from photo in The Houma People of Louisiana: a story of Indian survival by Greg Bowman, [1982?].
Two girls, detail from photo in The Houma People of Louisiana: a story of Indian survival by Greg Bowman, [1982?].
Jim Courteaux with crawfish banner, from Land of the Houmas by Sherwin Guidry [1981?]
Spanish moss, from Land of the Houmas by Sherwin Guidry [1981?]
King, Freddie, interview by Tatiana Clay and Eric Julien, audio recording, 2008, 4700.1921. Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
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