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Lora Ann Chaisson: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Lora Ann Chaisson.

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Lora Ann Chaisson, vice principal chief of the United Houma Nation.

Where are your tribal communities located?

The United Houma Nation (UHN) tribal communities reside within a six-parish (county) service area encompassing 4,570 square miles. The six parishes—Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, St. Mary, St. Bernard, and Plaquemines—are located along the southeastern coast of Louisiana. Within this area, distinct tribal communities are situated among the interwoven bayous and canals where the Houma traditionally earned a living. Although by land and road these communities are distant, historically they were very close by water.

Where were your communities originally from?

The Houma history is a tale of survival and adaptation. When the explorer LaSalle traveled the Mississippi River, a bear-headed pole adorned with fish heads marked the territory boundary between the Houma people and the now-extinct Bayougoulas—that pole is how modern-day Baton Rouge got its name. Accustomed to living off the land, the Houma were traditionally hunters and gatherers with strong roots in agriculture and were part of the mound-building civilization of the Southeast. 

With the encroachment of the European settlers, the Houma began migrating south until they reached the lower regions of coastal Louisiana. The Houma lived in harmony with a changing landscape, but held close to their traditional roots. Much of coastal southeast Louisiana is filled with tribal settlements, as well as remains of functional and ceremonial mounds.

Peace was short lived. The original tribal village in Houma, Louisiana—the village site is the current-day courthouse square—was burned, and our citizens were forced to move into the southernmost communities of southeast Louisiana. With close proximity to the water and with the area's abundance of natural resources, the Houma survived quietly in this paradise that settlers believed to be uninhabitable. New challenges began to affect our communities in the 1930s as oil and gas was discovered in the marshes where our people settled. Unable to read and write, tribal citizens were unfortunately targets for unscrupulous land grabs by outsiders.

What is a significant point in history the United Houma Nation would like to share?

A key moment in our tribe's history was the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The tribe was deeply impacted by the segregation in the Reconstruction Era of the Deep South. Houma people experienced segregation and discrimination in restaurants, stores, buses, and even churches. Moreover, only schools for African Americans and whites were available, and neither admitted Native Americans. The Houma people were excluded from receiving a formal education, which was an injustice with far-reaching consequences.

The Houma continued to demonstrate incredible industriousness, resourcefulness, and perseverance. Despite not having a formal education, many of our tribal members forged forward in caring for their families through commercial fishing, owning their own businesses and private land. It was not until the 1940s that Houma children could attend school, and this was solely credited to missionaries establishing “settlement schools.” These schools sometimes offered up to a seventh grade education and were staffed by uncertified instructors. It was not until after the Civil Rights Act was passed that the local school district was forced by the federal government to provide a desegregated public education to our Houma children. The first students from the United Houma Nation were allowed to graduate from high school in 1966. Today we are proud of the many tribal members who are pursuing higher education, receiving professional degrees, and making contributions in many professions.

How is your tribal government set up?

Our government is comprised of a principal chief and 11 Tribal Council members who represent districts where community members reside. Currently our service areas and tribal communities are comprised of over six parishes (counties) bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

In addition to the United Houma Nation Tribal Council, we have established an Elder Advisory Council, as we highly regard elders' wisdom and strength.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The principal chief and Tribal Council representatives serve four year, staggered terms with elections held every two years.

How often does your government meet?

Our Tribal Council holds public council meetings on a monthly basis, and meetings are rotated throughout each of the tribal communities.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

As a leader of the Houmas people, I am deeply committed to all matters related to the tribe and its members.

Much of my service is dedicated to tribal youth and tribal elders. I have worked for the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana (ITC) for 21 years. This organization provides employment and training opportunities for tribal youth and elders who are members of the five tribes in Louisiana—the Chitimacha, Coushatta, Jena Band of Choctaw, Tunica–Biloxi, and United Houma Nation. This position has given me the opportunity to show my deep appreciation for our tribal elders and to mentor our tribal youth. In addition, I facilitate elderly festivals for both ITC and UHN.

As the vice principal chief, I have many duties, including chairing the Tribal Council Government Committee, which addresses federal recognition; serving on the Diabetes Coalition; representing UHN within the National Congress of American Indians; serving as a board member for the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association; and serving on two state workforce boards.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.