The African American and Native American communities of North Central Louisiana, specifically the area around Powhatan in Natchitoches Parish, had knowledge of each other’s existence but at the same time virtually no real social interaction.
Native Americans were second-class citizens and felt different and isolated, while African Americans were the lowest on the social pecking order in a highly stratified society that in some ways remains in certain historical patterns.
Therefore, history has been predominantly oral and genealogical as opposed to written. The “White” or predominant history has included both African American groups and Native Americans, but their intimate knowledge of that history has been limited by the stratification and taboos that took place, according to the participants in a videotaped forum today.
Chief Rufus Davis, Dora Belton, Shirley Love and Vern Fisher met at the Adai Cultural Center today and initiated a shared history platform in order to put together the missing pieces of their ancestral involvement, known about, but never fully shared in conversation.
Chief Davis is the head of the Adai Nation, a tribe of approximately 1800 members in Texas and Louisiana, 68 years old and a resident of the Parish since birth.
Dora Belton, of mixed Choctaw, African American and French ancestry, 93, lived in the Parish until age 18, then moved to Illinois and Texas where she worked as a licensed practical nurse until the age of 65 when she retired and returned to her home in the Parish.
Vern Fisher, 54, is an African American from Mallard, Louisiana, two miles from the Adai Cultural Center.
Shirley Love, 51, is originally from the area surrounding Powhatan in Natchitoches Parish but has been living in Michigan since she left high school. All came together for the first time as a group today to begin a pioneer effort to bring their shared history to each other and potentially to the public. The first segment was videotaped today over a period of more than two hours. I was there today as the moderator of the filming, asking the questions and celebrating with the group what is history making in terms of this shared experience.
Natchitoches Parish is a place rich in history because it is the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase and where various European, African and Native American groups lived separately but shared a common history on some levels.
The problem is the intimate details of that history were neglected due to the imposed restrictions on social interaction. The Native American and African American communities, according to Belton, Davis and Fisher, knew about each other and relied on each other to exchange herbal remedies, quilting and other cultural knowledge, but without deep intimacy and communication. The separate groups were mutually supportive in each other’s survival and grew up knowing “their place” and knew that place was separate from their white neighbors of predominantly French, Spanish and English ancestry.
Today, old stories were shared, some for the first time. This is part of a growing opportunity, initiated by Chief Davis, to help groups provide each other important data that helps to reinforce group identity and integrity.
According to the forum participants, the Native Americans and African Americans had mutual regard for their separate ways, knew from the whispers of their ancestors what shops to avoid and what patterns of behavior to evidence. But these truths have not been spoken or written down in detail, as is now being done.
It was for the participants a stunning occasion, and the ongoing experience will be shared as the stories of shared history take shape. Old neighbors are experiencing communication and interaction in this way for the first time, as the process is taking place for this to be formalized.
Videotaping will allow the preservation of information and the evolution of written documentation to be completed. This “first” brought a celebratory mood to those involved as they take the first steps in cementing a new brother and sisterhood they said today will only enhance their individual sense of community and pride.