Local Indigenous Community calls out for justice and accountability

Louisiana Weekly [New Orleans LA]

August 23, 2021

By Ryan Whirty

Situated in the slender, triangular slice of land known as Bienville Place park in the French Quarter, the 26-foot statue of the man commonly known as the founder and father of New Orleans stands as a monument to the historical narrative established more than 300 years ago by white European colonizers and subsequently embellished, glorified and practically sanctified by successive generations of white Christians in what is now Louisiana.

Indeed, the imposing statue of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville explicitly links the historically ballyhooed and supposedly righteous white-man’s development of the American state with the growth and omnipresent influence of Catholicism and other Christian sects in the halls of political and socioeconomic power by also featuring a small bronze figure of a pious, Bible-reading Catholic priest accompanying and symbolically blessing the statue of Bienville, a white European colonizer.

However, often overlooked or outright ignored is a third figure sitting below Bienville’s grand gaze – a dour, downcast Indigenous man, seated at Bienville’s feet in a pose that emanates a message of acquiescence to the implied greatness of Bienville and, emblematically, the other white male Europeans who exerted their notion of Manifest Destiny over a continent.

But, despite the long-established, racially exclusionary narrative of American exceptionalism and the inherent greatness of white society and Christian expansion and dominance – a narrative buttressed and lionized in southeast Louisiana by the statue of Bienville in the French Quarter – the historical reality that cannot be ignored is that the Indigenous peoples of Louisiana, like much of the rest of the original residents of what is now the United States, often didn’t have a choice in the matter. The victims of genocide never do.

Even French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville, even with his own biased, condescending, bigoted conceptions of white superiority, wrote in his seminal survey, “Democracy in America,” in 1831 that “[b]efore the arrival of white men in the New World, the inhabitants of North America lived quietly in their woods, enduring the vicissilived quietly in their woods, enduring the vicissitudes and practising the virtues and vices common to savage nations. The Europeans, having dispersed the Indian tribes and driven them into the deserts, condemned them to a wandering life full of inexpressible sufferings.”

The four primary tribes that populated, and still have a strong presence in, what is now Louisiana – the Chitimacha, the Coushatta, the Tunica-Biloxi and the Jena Band of Choctaws – at the time European colonizers arrived here in the 17th century have, over the centuries, had their land taken, their food sources depleted, their culture marginalized and their history largely erased at the hands of a white society that often had no room or, indeed, no tolerance for Native-American culture and belief systems.

In fact, of the original Indigenous communities in the state, only the federally recognized Chitimacha Tribe has managed to retain some of its ancestral homeland on its reservation in the New Orleans area. The Sovereign Nation of Chitimacha is located near Charenton, La.

However, last month, dozens of tribal citizens and other people of Native heritage in New Orleans – or Bulbancha, the city’s name in the original Chahta dialect – gathered at the Bienville statue in the French Quarter to commemorate and honor their culture and heritage, one that was often forcibly eradicated by white society.

On July 11, despite a steady rain, the group partook in a community altar build at the base of the Bienville statue, accompanied by music, singing, drumming, prayer and other actions of spiritual recognition and devotion. Participants in the altar build were encouraged to bring flowers, candles, food and prayers as contributions to the altar and the event.

“It was an opportunity to bring together our community for healing, and it was an opportunity to share our culture and educate folks,” said Anne White Hat, a Lakota who helped organize and publicize the gathering.

White Hat said Indigenous people from as far away as Canada came to the memorialization, with attendees enjoying an opportunity to share their own experiences and the ways the legacy of oppression, removal and genocide of Native Americans has impacted and continues to impact them personally.

“We were really doing this in solidarity,” she said. “Every Indigenous person has been affected.”

White Hat stressed the importance of last month’s gathering to local Indigenous people.

“It’s our shared story,” she said. “This is really a historic moment for us.”

Another local Indigenous rights advocate, Jenna Mae, echoed those thoughts, saying that the local Indigenous community is trying to preserve and revive its traditional heritage, as well as rectify the damage and trauma inflicted on Native peoples for centuries.

“We’ve had a loss of language, loss of our cultural ways due to the policies of removal and erasure,” she said, “and it’s had an intergenerational impact that continues to be felt.

Specifically, last month’s commemoration at the statue memorialized the thousands of Indigenous children who were ripped from their families and forced into church-run boarding schools, where they were abused, belittled and terrorized to forget their native cultural heritage and adopt the religion, language and ways of the purportedly superior white man. Many Native children not only lost their culture and pride; they also lost their lives.”

Along with the altar build, participants set out a list of demands for local and national political, education and religious leaders that many Indigenous people believe are necessary to find the truth and achieve justice, including:

• A comprehensive investigation searching for and identifying all Native children killed in church-run Christian boarding schools;

• Creating a list of all church records and documents relating to all boarding schools that is subsequently turned over to tribal leadership;

• A return of children’s bodies to their families for proper burial;

• That “all monuments and statues of colonizers, slave holders and perpetuators of genocide, slavery, imprisonment, torture and oppression” be removed, including the statue of Bienville in New Orleans’ French Quarter;

• That the local Catholic church, the biggest landowner in the Bulbancha area, dialogue with the local Indigenous community concerning possible resources for repair of the harm done by the church;

• Asking local Christians and other people of faith to call their institutions into account and demand that church leadership accept responsibility for its part in the genocide;

• The return to Indigenous peoples of the land stolen from them.

The government-run boarding-school system dates back to the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, and for a century and a half, the system forcibly assimilated Indigenous children into white society, often certainly against the children’s wishes, and ruthlessly suppressed their Native heritage.

However, the tide might be turning in the battle to mitigate and reverse that brutal system. In 2020, then-U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico – herself an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation whose family in New Mexico goes back 35 generations – co-sponsored federal legislation aimed at assessing the legacy of boarding schools and moving toward societal healing.

And just this June, Haaland, as the new Secretary of the Interior, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, which will conduct a comprehensive review of the terrible boarding-school legacy.

“The Interior Department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said in a press release. “I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

Local advocates hope such landmark moves show that history might finally be accounted for and rectified.

“A reckoning with the residential school system is coming,” Jenna Mae said.

On a personal level, White Hat said that members of her family were forced into subjugation by forced attendance at the famed Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania that served as the government’s foremost boarding school from 1879 to 1918.

For many American Indigenous, the Carlisle school symbolized the systematic eradication of Native culture and the tragic fates of thousands of Indigenous children from across the country. While many people in mainstream America might know about Carlisle through such “feel good” stories as the school’s juggernaut football team that was led by coach Pop Warner and the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe – who himself, despite his athletic record and now-restored Olympic glory, died at 65, poor and in ill health – Indigenous advocates feel the full, often grim picture of the experiences of children at Carlisle and other boarding schools must also be told.

White Hat said her family’s own experience with the horrors and ruinous impact of state- or church-run Indian schools is reflected in the experience of many Native peoples across the continent, and she said that the region’s Indigenous population, as symbolized by the Bienville altar build, wants the schools, churches and other power structures in Louisiana to accept responsibility and be accountable for the devastation they wrought on Indigenous people and their culture.

She said Native Americans are asking that their history and culture become a larger presence in modern school curricula, and that their challenges and viewpoints circulate in the media and the public discourse as a whole. She stressed the importance of raising awareness of the ways colonization and ensuing genocide continue to negatively impact the lives of Indigenous peoples.

“It’s about having a chance like this to be able to tell our story,” said White Hat, who has lived in New Orleans for 11 years.

Jenna Mae also said educating the public about the challenges facing Native Americans, both locally and across the country, is one of the keys to raising awareness of and generating support for an overall redressing of the plight of Indigenous populations in America. One of the biggest issues, she said, is poor health.

“There’s health disparities among Indigenous across the country due to intergenerational problems,” she said.

Those crises have become more acute in the age of COVID-19.

“Indigenous people statistically have terrible health outcomes in the pandemic,” Mae said, adding that signs have improved a little with the advent of coronavirus vaccines. Quantitative and qualitative studies support those assertions. In May 2020, Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, wrote a detailed description of the devastating impact of the pandemic in the Navajo Nation, and a recent CDC study revealed that in 23 states, COVID cases among Indigenous populations ran 3.5 times higher than among non-Latinx white Americans, and the hospitalization rates four times higher.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected American Indian and Alaska Native populations across the country,” states the Web site for the federal Indian Health Service. “…This has highlighted the need for comprehensive, culturally appropriate personal and public health services that are available and accessible to all American Indian and Alaska Native people.”

Mae stressed that she’s not a spokesperson for any Louisiana tribe – she’s of Eastern Sionan, Mvskoke and Cherokee heritage – but she has lived in the New Orleans area for 16 years and has been heavily involved in Indigenous advocacy.

She said that identity remains a crucial part of Native populations, but unfortunately, non-Indigenous New Orleans-area residents are often unaware that Indigenous communities still exist in southeast Louisiana, which only makes it harder to open the eyes of non-Native people regarding the historical horrors that have decimated Indigenous peoples.

To many Louisianans, she said, the plight of the Indigenous are out of sight, out of mind, an ignorance borne out by the almost complete lack of Native studies in local schools, including her own child’s school.

“Educated people with college degrees who are teaching in my child’s school have no idea about the tribal nations that are around the city,” she said. As a result, she and her compatriots in the local Native community must continue to fight for recognition and justice.

“It’s important for people to know that we are everywhere,” she said. “Some of us are here in cities, not just on reservations. One of the strengths of our [local Indigenous] community is putting that out there, saying, ‘We are here.’”◊