When Plank Road charted a path to developing blue-collar plant jobs, families living along Choctaw, Tecumseh and Chippewa started a tradition at Istrouma High that helped preserve the Native American legacy at the heart of Baton Rouge’s founding.
More than a half-century later, the 1960s classes of Istrouma High have formed a newer tradition that celebrates the original Istrouma tribes and the graduates of Istrouma High, whose mascot was the Indian.
This year will mark the 10th official year a group of Istrouma graduates have met for biyearly reunions called Pow Wows hosted by Frank and Kathleen Parker. A secluded Indian mound on the outskirts of Zachary has been dubbed Trails End Reservation. Alumni meet in the spring for a crawfish boil and the fall for a pig roast to recall days gone by and spark new connections.
Frank Parker, a 1967 grad, has become the honorary chief of this tribe not because of overwhelming conquest or widespread notoriety. He owned Frank’s Specialty Meats in Zachary for years, but he is an organizer, historian and a silent force in keeping the Istrouma Indian Nation together. “Frank has been in touch with this Istrouma group since he got out of high school,” said Kathleen Parker, who retired from the Bank of Zachary.
Frank Parker moved to Zachary in 1971 and then to the large piece of property he calls Trails End Reservation in 1976. Trails End is a museum both inside and out. A wealth of vintage oak trees and pathways line the property labeled with Istrouma-related names of the Parker children and grandchildren. A life-sized statue of Nawaganti, the legendary Istrouma chief, stands in front of the house. Another statue in the back honors Nawaganti’s twin brother.
The Parker’s have enshrined their home with the Istrouma memorabilia and reminders of their youth, including two working jukeboxes loaded with the sounds and tunes of the '50s, '60s and '70s.
Large tents set up throughout Trails End help to accommodate hundreds of visitors at a time. “The first year after we got married, he told me we were going to have a few friends over for the 4th of July, and I looked up and there were 250 people in our front yard,” Kathleen Parker said.
Earlier gatherings were open to other classes, but overwhelming attendance has limited the recent gatherings to class of the 1960s.
Frank Parker explained that the gatherings have evolved. He had the first pig roast 10 years ago and opened a second meeting and with seafood. Now, "in the fall, we have a pig roast and the spring is a crawfish boil,” he said.
The traditions of the Pow Wow are followed each year. The group gathers before they eat to sing the alma mater, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a blessing. Veterans are honored and the alumni spend the rest of the day visiting. In a slight deviation, hats were incorporated this past May when the spring Pow Wow fell on the same day as the Kentucky Derby.
This year’s fall Pow Wow will be held in early November, and attendees will come from all over the country and at least one alum currently living out of the country.
The Pow Wow helps the attendees reconnect with friends from as far back as elementary school because Istrouma students were often together from first to 12th grade. The faculty, parents and students were all from the Istrouma community. “People re-establish relationships and it’s been a wonderful thing,” Kathleen Parker said.
The Istrouma Cupid has also struck during the Pow Wows and the Parkers tell love stories where couples reconnect, or new romance has sparked. Galen Sorey, class of 1967, and Nonie McClure, class of 1969 are an example. Both widowed, Sorey had been a widower for four years. McClure had been widowed for two years.
They had both gone to Istrouma and grown up in the same neighborhood, but they didn’t know each other. McClure’s older sister was in Sorey’s class. He saw her name tag and her year and stopped to ask about his classmate. “For about four hours, they were talking in the yard,” Kathleen Parker said.
When Frank got the checks for the next Pow Wow, he asked his wife, “you will never guess who Galen is bringing to the Pow Wow.” “Why, Nonie, course,” Kathleen Parker said.
The Pow Wow was May 4, and on July 15, there were some people down at the street who had some exciting news to share with the Parkers. Galen and Nonie Sorey had eloped to Liberty, Mississippi, on that Monday; two months after their second Pow Wow meeting. “Romance on the Reservation,” Kathleen Parker exclaimed.
The Parkers are particularly tickled that the Sorey happy ending is not the only reservation romance. Kenny and Linda Owen got married last year after reconnecting at a previous reunion. Kathleen Parker said they had a common love for LSU football and got married. Several other couples bitten by the “Istrouma Cupid” are dating.
Love is in the air, but the Istrouma Nation keeps the rivalries of their youth alive. Baton Rouge High is still their arch-foe and some images of Chief Nawaganti show a plush bulldog hanging off his spear.
Dot Dickinson, class of 1966, serves as an organizer and historian of all things Istrouma High and the recent Pow Wows. “Legend has it that Istrouma was a Native American word meaning Red Stick,” she explained. “The term was later translated to "Baton Rouge" by the French who took over the land. Nawaganti was the leader of the Istrouma tribe and he led with dignity, bravery, pride and grace. He fell to the white intruders, but his tribe remained the Istrouma Indians. The area of the city became known as Istrouma.”
Each Pow Wow starts with the school alma mater that refers to the Indians: "Here roamed of old the red man. Here stood his skin teepee … Tis Istrouma cried the trees."
Dickerson was instrumental in getting official state recognition of the Pow Wows and Frank Parker. In 2014, Gov. Bobby Jindal issued a proclamation recognizing the event and naming Frank Parker the honorary chief of the Istrouma Indians.
Dickerson jokingly said she feels the proclamation is significant even though Jindal is a Baton Rouge High graduate.
Frank Parker takes his unofficial role as chief and alumni leader very seriously. He feels the event shines a light on Istrouma High graduates. Billy Cannon, LSU’s Heisman Trophy winner, is a pre-1960s graduate. Notables from the classes of the 1960s include George Rice, who played for the Houston Oilers, and former state Rep. Woody Jenkins. Jenkins, a local journalist and publisher is an active supporter of Istrouma High and the current “voice of the Istrouma Indians.”
Frank Parker is both a historian and a keeper of the Istroumas flame. He said he feels it is important to preserve the legacy of the original Istrouma Indians. A permanent exhibit about the school, including the original Nawaganti statue, is housed at the main branch of the East Baton Rouge library.
The Parkers' home is built on a historic Indian mound similar to the formations at the LSU Mounds. The originals structures were burned down by Confederate forces during the Civil War and fell victim to fire at another point in its history. Trails End Reservation is significant to the Istrouma Nation alumni but also has been a refuge during severe flooding, including the devastating 2016 flood when area friends and neighbors were able to find high ground on the Istrouma Nation meeting place.