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As People Move North, State Makes Effort To Protect Coastal Cultures

Claire Bangser
Rhett Williams learned palmetto basket weaving at a summer camp last year and has since taken it up as a hobby.

Louisiana’s coast is a unique mix of cultures. For hundreds of years Europeans, Africans and Native Americans have lived off the land and water. But that land is disappearing, battered by storms and rising seas, and people are migrating north.

Now, the state is trying to preserve some local traditions before they disappear.

Janie Luster walks through crunchy oak leaves in the humid Louisiana air to a stand of green palmetto in the shade. She reaches her arm deep down into the stems and uses a sharp knife to cut out a stem. Then she unfolds it like a giant fan. She points to the soft heart, “It’s got that nice white color to it,” she says. Perfect for weaving baskets.

Credit Claire Bangser
Janie Luster researched the "Houma half-hitch" and helped bring the basket back in the 90's. Now she teaches weaving classes for tribal members.

Luster will dry the leaves out and tear them into strips. “We were the only tribe in the whole country to make this type of basket,” she says. It’s called the “Houma half-hitch.”

The art of the half-hitch has already been lost once before, decades ago, when tribal members were forced to assimilate. But Luster and a few other elders researched it and brought it back in the 90’s, with the help of Richard Conn, who was the curator of the Denver American Indian Museum.

https://vimeo.com/346745022">Heart of the Palmetto from https://vimeo.com/raconteuse" title="Raconteuse Media">Raconteuse Media on Vimeo.

Luster brings a big stack of dried palmetto into a classroom in the offices of the United Houma Nation, in Houma, where about 15 students of all ages are gathered around a table. She hands them each a small dry coil of palm leaves, the beginning of a basket.

Credit Claire Bangser
The art of the "Houma half-hitch" was lost for more than 40 years until Janie Luster helped bring it back in the 90's.

The process is laborious, it can take several days just to weave one basket. Nearly everyone in the classroom is struggling. But 15-year-old Rhett Williams’ fingers dart fast. He has attended a few of these classes. Now he loves basket weaving so much that his mom often catches him weaving instead of doing his homework.

Williams says growing up, he did not feel very connected with his Native American elders. “Now that I’m… learning culture and tradition, I've realized, I was deprived of…the true tradition and culture,” he says.

"Now that I'm learning culture and tradition, I've realized, I was deprived of the true tradition and culture." - Rhett Williams

Many in Williams' family have moved north over the years, joining the exodus after every devastating coastal storm. Some areas have lost more than 40 percent of their population over the past several decades.

Hurricanes and saltwater intrusion from rising seas are also killing off the palmetto and other plants sacred to the Houma.

That worries Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program. Owens says “When people move...some things get left behind. And one of the things that frequently is left behind is something that relies on natural materials.”

Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO
Rhett Williams first learned the Houma half-hitch at a summer camp. Now he gathers and dries out his own palmetto leaves to weave baskets at home.

The Folklife program is part of the Louisiana Division of the Arts. The state is working to preserve folk arts like dolls made from Spanish moss, corn-shuck weaving and wood carving; as well as gumbo recipes and Cajun songs. “If it doesn't move with the people then the tradition may not continue,” says Owens.

The Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority estimates that thousands more will have to migrate as the coast erodes.

But Owens is happy to see that some young people like Rhett Williams are embracing these folk traditions. An older woman leans over the weaving table to ask him for help. He leans towards her, points to her basket, and guides her hands as she makes the next stitch in her Houma half-hitch.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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