Cathy Cashio-Kauchick

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NEW ORLEANS - The culture of the French speaking Houma Tribe was honored at the State Museum of Louisiana with special ceremonies last month, including presentations by representatives of France.

Pierre Cassan, secretary general of France's High Council of French Speaking Countries and Bernard Maizeret, the New Orleans consul general of France, honored a commitment of cultural exchange between France and the tribe.

The March 26 event launched the tour of the Houma Indian Arts: Triptych (art exhibit) and the presentation of the Houma history publication, "Women Chiefs and Crawfish Warriors." Festivities included a pow wow dance performance and a presentation by Cassan.

"I hope that the Houmas continue to produce their art, gain notoriety, and reaffirm their ancient culture through the perpetuation of their craft," Cassan said.

The art exhibit highlighted highly prized collectibles of three renowned Houma artists: Marie Dean, whose basket weaving is displayed at the Smithsonian Institution, and woodcarvers, Cyril and Ivy Billiot, "With growing interest in promoting the culture of the only French-speaking Native American tribe in the United States, this exhibit will travel from New Orleans to Luxembourg, Paris, Provence, and other European sites," said curator Dr. Frederic Allemel said.

Besides spreading the Houma culture through art, the tribe recognized the importance of researching its history and providing information for the youth.

"Women Chiefs and Crawfish Warriors," written by T. Mayheart Dardar, was presented at the forum. Financed and published by contributions from the Lions Club of France, this publication was created as a bilingual resource for Louisiana students, who needed a concise history of the tribe. It also encourages the study of the French language.

The title honors the tradition of women in tribal leadership, a tradition maintained today as evidenced by Brenda Dardar Robichaux's leadership of the tribal council.

In his book, Dardar describes the Houmas as a tight-knit community of families whose bonds have survived to this day.

"When Custer was making his last stand in 1876, the Houmas had already dealt with the Europeans for 170 years," Dardar said. "The Creole influence of the Native Louisiana families, who were descendants of the original settlers, is reflected in current Houma language. Anthropologist Swanton in 1907 recorded a considerable Houma vocabulary collected from a variety of tribal elders. The Houma language integrated an 18th century French dialect. The Europeans in turn were influenced by the Houma's knowledge of the land, herbs and crafts.

"Although the Houmas had early contact with Europeans, the relationship with them was not sustained. Because the Houmas were isolated from America during the territorial period beginning in 1803, many Houmas did not speak a word of English until the 1930s when modern roads led to their bayou communities.

"The early contact with mostly French and Spanish settlers was highlighted by a fairly peaceful coexistence. The territorial period of American occupation of the land marked the beginning of exclusion of the Houmas from broader society. Because they were 'Indian,' Houmas were not accepted. They could not attend public schools until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1966."

Despite their different exposures to European cultures, the Houma maintained their identity, focused on their survival as a nation. Today, there is a resurgence of basket weaving and wood carving as well as opportunities to share Houma culture, speakers said.

"There have been a number of programs leading up to this commemoration of cultural diversity," said Dr. Marie Crouch. While focusing on the social historical aspect of literature, Crouch became interested in the Houma Tribe. She was first introduced to the tribe by the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana in the early 1990s.

"I was impressed by the real values of friendship, hospitality and non-commercialism of these people," Crouch said. Because of her exposure and subsequent alliance with the Houmas, Crouch launched a campaign to promote recognition of the tribe in France. Already recognized by the state of Louisiana, the Houma await a final determination on its federal recognition petition.

The cultural exchange will continue with Houma youth participating in a convocation of French-speaking countries to be held in France in June.