Above The Coushatta Indian tribe has preserved many aspects of their culture on their reservation, located north of Elton. The tribe also operates the Grand Casino Coushatta in Kinder.
Below: The Cultural Heritage Center in St. Martinville tells the story of two peoples uprooted from their homelandsAcadians and West Africans. Louisiana Office of Tourism photos
By DARLENE P. COPP
|ew places in the United States embody the notion of America as a melting pot of cultures as strikingly as does the state of Louisiana. Named Louisiane in honor of Frances King Louis XIV in 1682, Louisianas French roots run deep. But scratch the surface and you will find that American Indians, blacks, Spaniards and Germans vitally contributed to Louisianas evolution.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous cultures thrived in the Louisiana territory. Archaeologists call these prehistoric civilizations Mound Builders in tribute to the most prominent evidence they left behind.
Hundreds of sites contain ceremonial or burial mounds, many among the oldest and best preserved on earth. Those open to the public that have interpretive exhibits include the campus mounds at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the Marksville State Historic Site in Avoyelles Parish and Poverty Point State Historic Site in West Carroll Parish. For a brochure on ancient mound sites in Louisiana, call (225) 342-8170.
Louisianas American Indian heritage is maintained throughout the state.
The Chitimacha, renowned weavers of split-cane baskets, are the only Louisiana tribe still occupying some of their aboriginal land. Visit their recently renovated tribal museum in Charenton TuesdaySaturday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Call the tribal center at 1-866-936-2654 for details, or click on www.chitimacha.gov.
The Coushatta have preserved medical practices and tribal languages as part of its culture. The tribe, which lives on a reservation three miles north of Elton, also operates the Grand Casino Coushatta in Kinder, where they host an annual pow wow, this year on Oct. 1 and 2. Hundreds of dancers and dozens of craft vendors will be featured. Call 1-800-584-7263.
At Marksville, the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe operates Paragon Casino and is building a new tribal museum. Call (337) 584-2261 or click on www.tunica.org.
African-American culture in greater New Orleans is especially rich due to a complex mixture of free people of color (les gen de couleur libres) and slaves during the colonial and antebellum periods. These free people of color often owned large tracts of land, but most worked as tradesmen, according to Textures, a state guide to African-American culture. Enslaved blacks gathered on Sundays at Congo Square in New Orleans to socialize, dance and sing music that would later evolve into jazz.
The black experience is documented in an increasing number of historic sites and museums across Louisiana. In Natchitoches, Melrose Plantation guides tell the story of a freed slave who became matriarch of a wealthy, land-owning family. In nearby Alexandria, the life of Arna Bontemps, who wrote during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, is memorialized at his boyhood home.
Some plantation tours along the Great River Road just west of New Orleans have recently begun to include stories of blacks. Laura Plantation in Vacherie and Evergreen Plantation in Edgard are among those including details of African life. At Laura Plantation, guests learn that the sugar plantation was started in 1805 with seven slaves, most of whom were from West Africa. When the Civil War started, there were as many as 185 enslaved workers on the farm.
In Donaldsonville, the River Road African American Museum is expanding exhibits begun 10 years ago at Tezcuco Plantation, which burned to the ground in 2002. Because she focuses on freedom stories as much as slave life, Kathe Hambrick, founder and director, is excited about moving to a town that had a large population of free blacks before the Civil War.
An African American Museum was added to the St. Martinville Cultural Heritage Center, which proposes to tell the stories of two peoples uprooted from their homelandsAcadians and West Africans.
Southern Louisiana is known for Zydeco, a musical style traced to black sharecroppers. To experience this music, head to the dance halls in the area, including Richards Club in Lawtell. The Opelousas Museum and Interpretive Center houses the archives of Zydeco music festivals.
The Spanish created a profound legacy in Louisiana. To reinforce the colony against the British, Spanish Gov. Bernardo de Galvez brought in thousands of Canary Islanders, Los Isleños. Today, most of their Spanish-speaking descendants live in St. Bernard Parish just south of New Orleans.
In recognition of how other colonists and American Indians helped to mold their identity in Louisiana, the Los Isleños Museum is being transformed into the Los Isleños Heritage and Multicultural Park.
Galvez also founded New Iberia, named for Spains Iberian Peninsula, with colonists from Malaga, Spain. Still home to descendants of the original 16 families, it is the only surviving town from Spanish Colonial Louisiana.
Galvez Plaza in Baton Rouge pays lasting testimony to his role in shaping the state.
Germans may be the last ethnic group that most people would connect with Louisiana. Yet in Frances early efforts to colonize its frontier holdings, German pioneers were among the first to arrive.
A drive through Cajun Country will reveal numerous German names on signs and businesses. But the initial Germans took up residence along the Mississippi River some 30 miles outside New Orleans. They made such an impact that the area later became known as the German Coast.
A German-American Cultural Center in nearby Gretna, settled by later German immigrants, preserves their history. In the north, members of the Utopian Movement founded Germantown Colony in 1835 near Minden where original and replicated buildings represent the story of these colonists. In the south, the rice farmers of tiny Roberts Cove just outside Rayne invite everyone to their Germanfest the first weekend of October.
Louisiana native Ernest Gaines supplied this assessment for his book Textures regarding the states melding of cultures: Even today, in our food, literature, songs and way of speaking, theres a strong mixture of French, Spanish, African and American Indian. I cannot imagine that any other state has this kind of color about it.
|Darlene P. Copp is a contributor from Oxford, Miss.|
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