Sinking Louisiana: Preserving Culture

Jun 28, 2019

As the coast continues to wash away and people move north, to higher ground, traditions are being lost: gumbo recipes, traditional basket weaving, French songs and stories. Now the state is trying to do something to preserve them.

All month long, WWNO is teaming up with Louisiana Public Broadcasting to bring you a special series called Sinking Louisiana. This week, WWNO’s Tegan Wendland talks with Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program.

Q: You've worked in Louisiana as a cultural anthropologist for many years. What first got you interested in Louisiana folkways and what are “folkways,” anyway?

Well, quite honestly, I grew up right here in this neighborhood in Baton Rouge and I was just always enthralled with Louisiana folkways. We actually tend to use the term “folk life” and that refers to all of those living traditions that are passed on within a group. And the group can be anything - it can be neighborhoods, families, churches, communities, occupations, whatever.

Q: What are some examples of those traditions?

Well the most common one is gumbo. Gumbo is probably one of those traditions that's a good example because it is not going anywhere. It is not in danger. (But) as a public program we prioritize those things that public money should be spent on. So we're much more likely to look at wooden boats or palmetto weaving.

Q: So talk a little bit more about that term “endangered.” How are some of these coastal traditions under threat?

Spanish moss and palmetto were used by Houma craftspeople to create both basketry and utilitarian items like blankets and mattresses. These materials were also used to create toys for Houma children.

A tradition that is “endangered,” is one that isn't quite functioning the same, and there's some kind of change within the culture. A good example would be corn shuck weaving. It used to be that that was needed on a farm, the same with split oak baskets. Now they're made, if they're made at all, for more nostalgic reasons.

Q: So they become more symbolic than functional in some ways?


Q: But how are they under threat? What are some of the factors that are causing these traditions to change or disappear?

Well, part of it is modernization. In the digital age certain types of things just don't have the same function within the community. The other is population shifts. When people move, things get left behind, and one of the things that frequently is left behind is something that relies on natural materials.

Q: And, of course, the subtext here is that people are naturally migrating away from the coast with every big storm and due to the threat of sea level rise and coastal erosion. And they might be ending up in places like Houma or Baton Rouge and maybe they're not necessarily able to sustain those traditions. So what can we do? How are you working to preserve these traditions?

Well, we've started what we call the Bayou Culture Collaborative to help coastal communities pass on traditions. The first step is to even realize that you need to think about this. So this spring we had a series of workshops to teach people how to document their own traditions - whether that's family, community, or whatever. I’m also reaching out to communities that want to, say, pass on palmetto weaving or the folk medicine and the herbal medicine that is in a lot of the coastal communities. I'm not only concerned about the traditions that are specifically based on plants and the changing of the ecosystems that might happen with communities, because it may be that doll making is important to a community. And so even though that is not 100 percent directly related to the environment, it is, because it's the cultural environment of the community.

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