Southern Hospitality
Calvin ties to Houma tribe reach across generations

By Janel Curry and Marie Roper '11

marie and houmaIn the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, my daughter Marie and I urgently sought out information on the region of Louisiana south and southeast of the city of Houma, La., where many of the members of the Houma Nation, an American Indian tribe, live. Very few people have ever heard of the Houma Nation or the region around Houma, La., but I had called Dulac, a Houma tribal community south of Houma, La., my home in the late 1970s when I served with the Mennonite Central Committee.

My daughter had heard my stories about the Houma and knew she was named after a Houma woman, Marie Dupre, who had become my good friend and mentor among the tribe. My assignment, when I lived with the Houma, was to research and write their history and construct a cultural ethnography of the tribe in order to establish their legitimate claims to being the historic Houma tribe. When I left in 1978, I gave the tribe a copy of my document and published several articles on the Houma in order to establish their existence in the public record. I had last visited the Houma in 1986 and had lost contact with Marie Dupre, who was elderly, in the early 1990s.

After hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Dan Vandersteen, a counselor with Calvin’s Broene Counseling Center, was assigned by the Red Cross to the city of Houma, La. Among the people with whom Vandersteen worked were those from the Houma tribe (not to be confused with the city that was named after them). Little did he know that his experience would help forge a relationship between Calvin College and the Houma tribe across both distance and generations.

houmaA Calvin News announcement about Vandersteen’s assignment led me to seek him out when he returned to campus. I listened to how these people had affected his life, much as they had affected mine. The next spring, when Vandersteen wanted to take a group of students to work in the area during spring break, I contacted the tribal center and established a contact for him. What has transpired are several Calvin College groups going to the Houma region in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Many of these students have used the experience to meet their cross-cultural engagement requirement. This has required that they read several articles I have written on the Houma for background and write and reflect on their experience in Louisiana. 

The year 2008 was special for me because Marie, a freshman at Calvin, went with one of these Calvin groups. Before she went, we constructed a list of names of people to try to find, printed maps of the area with my handwritten annotations, and made a list of questions to ask and places to take photos. Marie plans to be a photojournalist, so this was the perfect assignment for her! The Houma welcomed her in the midst of their great challenges. And through her experience, I was once again struck by the wonder of the openness and hospitality offered by the Houma and their ability to welcome my daughter as “one of their own.”

During the week she was there, I received several phone calls from Marie as she shared the excitement of the learning experience and the wonder of the Houma peoples’ embrace of her. When she returned, she brought me chicory coffee that we made in my Louisiana coffee pot, which has sat on my kitchen shelf unused for many years. Just as Marie Dupre made me chicory coffee in her kitchen and talked about her people with me 30 years ago, Marie and I sat, and she told me about what she had learned and seen. The only difficult news was that she had not been able to locate her namesake, who perhaps left the area to live with one of her children or is no longer alive. My daughter not only met her cross-cultural engagement requirement through the experience, but also wrote a research paper that was an update on the status of the Houma. She wrote:

The Houma Tribe, which is primarily Catholic and French-speaking, has lived along the bayous of southern Louisiana for generations, but their struggle for federal recognition as a tribal group has been ongoing since the 1920s. Because of changing colonial powers, first French control, then Spanish, followed by British and finally American control in the late 1800s, the Houma tribe moved further south into the bayous to avoid conflict. The result was the lack of a treaty that could have established their legal existence. Houma oral tradition and early documents support the claim that the tribe received a land grant from the Spanish in the mid-1700s for the area between present-day Houma and Morgan City, La. But changing colonial powers resulted in the Houma disappearing from census records during the late 1800s and being recorded as “extinct” by the federal government. Those years of separation and seclusion resulted in a significant lack of anthropological and sociological records, as well as historical documentation, that are needed for tribal recognition purposes. When anthropologists encountered the Houma in the early 1900s, they looked upon the group as just a mix of various groups on the margins of settlement rather than a tribal group.

This lack of recognition has limited the Houma people as they have attempted to obtain educational opportunity for their members. Up until the 1940s, Houma children had few opportunities to attend school. Schools were segregated between black and white—the Houma fit neither category. As a result, today 43 percent of the Houma tribal members have less than a high school education and only 8 percent hold college degrees. Their lack of educational opportunity has meant that generations have been highly dependent on the trapping and fishing industry alone for their economic well-being.

The population below the poverty rate among the Houma has remained at about 50 percent in the parishes (counties) of Terrebonne and Lafourche since 1989. For example, in the largest Houma community, Dulac, the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau records that 39.4 percent of the community are American Indian (no tribal identity recorded) and 30.9 percent of the people in the community live below poverty level, prior to the hurricanes of 2005.

While the Calvin students worked with the Houma on cleaning out homes that had been inundated with water, rebuilding and painting houses affected by the hurricanes, they also learned about the larger struggles of the Houma and the delta region in general. The problem for the Houma tribe is that it needs federal recognition in order to continue to fight for their home in the marshland of the Mississippi delta. Without recognition, the Houma people do not receive the same benefits as other tribes—legal sovereignty and funding for housing, schools, public health services and scholarships.

Since the 1930s, when oil was discovered in this area, the tribe’s lack of legal status has led to the deterioration of land rights and control over the region’s resources. French-speaking and often illiterate in the 1930s (as were many white Cajuns), they became vulnerable to losses of their land base to early oil speculators who went door to door and had people sign quit-claim deeds with an X and gave out small sums of money as “leases.” In this way Houma families lost their land one small parcel at a time.

While the oil and gas industry has exploded around them, the Houma have experienced environmental destruction from its activities. Since 1934, an average of 34 square miles of land per year has been lost from oil drilling activities that cause massive marsh and coastal erosion. The Houma, who have depended on the seafood industry for a livelihood, are having their home washed away, forcing them to move northward. When I lived in Dulac in the late 1970s, Houma tribal members would tell stories of growing up 15 miles farther south in the marsh. Since that time, the erosion of their land has continued, forcing a further abandonment of settlements.

The Houma community of Isle de Jean Charles is an example of the increasingly difficult reality facing the Houma. A watercolor painting of a scene from the island has hung on my bedroom wall for years, but that scene is largely history. Calvin students visited the Isle de Jean Charles community of 250 residents this past spring. They learned that the island faces rising waters as a result of oil drilling. Because of the erosion caused by oil drilling, a 72-mile levee system is being installed along the wetlands. This project originally included protecting the island from further erosion, but in the end it will not, leading to the dislocation of a community of people who have lived there for generations.

The physical erosion of their land is not the only threat to the Houma tribe. Thirty years ago, the price of shrimp was at an all-time high of $4.57 per pound, leading this region to be one of the highest producers of shrimp for the country. Today, according to Brenda Dardar, chief of the Houma Nation, shrimp prices in Louisiana have dropped to nearly $2 per pound. Declining prices have caused shrimpers to retreat from commercial fishing and begin selling privately. In Houma, La., it is not uncommon for grocery stores to allow private fishers to sell in the store parking lot. As the land and prices for seafood erode, so does the home and culture of the Houma tribe.

The Houma Nation has approximately 16,000 members. Though many remain below the U.S. poverty line, with both land and economy eroding, they have continued to welcome the stranger into their home. This open and welcoming group of people has shown us hospitality and exhibited an incredible welcoming spirit and lack of suspicion of outsiders. These same traits, perhaps, are the reason they moved into the rich marshland of the delta several hundred years ago, avoiding conflict, but also failing to obtain a treaty and the recognition of their existence as a tribal unit.

When I graduated from college, I went to live with the Houma. Though that was more than 30 years ago, the Houma people have had an indelible impact on my life. As is often the case, we go to serve, and instead we are served ourselves. The experience of living with them has forever shaped my life’s direction. And now their welcome and giving has extended to the next generation in my family and to others from Calvin College. May we show others the same spirit of gratitude, openness and hospitality as the Houma continue to model for us.

Maybe when my youngest daughter is out of high school, I, once again, will make that long trip south for spring break.      

Janel Curry is Calvin’s dean for research and scholarship.
Marie Roper is a sophomore at Calvin.