The grounds of the Vermilionville Living History & Folk Life Park undergo a transformation on the last Saturday of every month to the steady beat of Native American drums.
The hypnotic rhythms welcome visitors to a clearing at the back of the museum’s land where members of Louisiana’s Native American tribes dressed in traditional regalia hum and sing tribal songs.
They sit under the shade of a structure covered with a roof of palmetto leaves as they make jewelry, purses and other crafts, working with their children to pass on traditions that were established hundreds of years ago during a much simpler time.
The monthly series is a part of the museum’s new Native American residency program, in which Louisiana tribes are invited to stay and engage with the park’s visitors for a day each month.
The tribes set up at what is known as the Native American Common Ground — a field that serves as a ceremonial site for the tribe. A palmetto leaf-covered structure that provides a shaded meeting place for gatherings is of a design not specific to any particular tribe.
The program was opened to about a dozen Louisiana tribes that have had contact with Vermilionville. Currently, five tribes have scheduled dates to be there, according to Jolie Johnson, the museum’s operator coordinator.
The first residency took place in April, she said. In September, in honor of Native American Culture Day, the common ground will be shared by all the tribes.
“This site is not for Vermilionville, it’s for (the tribes,)” Johnson said. “Our main goals are to show the tribes that we want to have a space for them to come and interact with the public on a more consistent basis, not just one day a year.”
She said the museum is trying to get word out to the community that the last Saturday of every month is an opportunity to engage with Native American tribes at Vermilionville.
The ceremonial structure erected on the site opens to the east for the rising sun and is made of mostly hackberry, maple and persimmon and covered by a palmetto roof. Modern hardware was used in building the structure so it could withstand storms but was disguised with traditional rawhide.
The structure was completed last September and is the first structure to be finished for the Common Ground.
“We wanted to create a ceremonial ground, a common area, not a structure that was specific to one tribe but something they could all call their own,” Johnson said.
Plans are in the works to build a second structure by next year to mirror the original and to create an open crescent area.
The museum’s 10-year plan calls for a domestic living area at the site, as well as a native planting area where crops such as corn and tobacco will be grown.
Structures for the Native American Common Ground project are being built by tribe members using wood from trees in Louisiana.
The project was initially funded through a grant given by the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission but is now funded completely through Vermilionville.
The Canneci N’de Band of Lipan Apache Native American tribe will be the resident Native American tribe this Saturday, and will be doing crafts and dancing to their native songs.
“One thing I really enjoy about this tribe is that they’re very involved with the youth community, that they work with their younger family members and they pass on the traditions,” Johnson said. “They’re continually passing on the traditions, which is important.”
The tribe will be mostly doing crafts and dancing to their native songs. One tribesman, Edgar Gray Wolf Bush, will be making a purse out of a turtle shell while other members will be making jewelry.
The Lipan Apaches were first captured and enslaved by the Spanish in the 1700-1800s and were sold throughout Louisiana. Today the tribe, whose name translates to “pole pine standing in a row,” is local to Southwest Louisiana with many members living in Lafayette and Lake Charles, and they work toward reviving, preserving and retaining their culture, as well as their language, in Louisiana.
Other tribes scheduled to participate in the program this year are the United Houma Nation and the Avogel Tribe of Louisiana.
Last month, the tribe Pointe-au-Chien, from lower Southeast Louisiana near the Houma and Terrebonne marsh area, came to Vermilionville and made jewelry.
“You see them every day in your day-to-day life,” Johnson said. “They’re in the grocery stores, they’re in your schools but they look like everyday people. But when they’re here, they tend to come in their regalia so it becomes a little bit more visual, and it makes a visual connection with people.”