We call it “Jazz Fest.”
Maybe that’s because abbreviations are easy. Or maybe it’s because we think “Jazz Fest” encompasses all we need to know about what goes on at the Fair Grounds during these two magical weeks.
“But it’s not really just ‘Jazz Fest,’ ” said Janie Luster, a traditional artist at the festival and a member of the United Houma Nation. “It’s the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” she said, emphasizing the word “heritage.”
And although they might not receive primary credit in the history books, Luster made the case that celebrating New Orleans' heritage without including its indigenous population would be incomplete.
Historians believe ancestors of the United Houma Nation, along with related tribes such as the Choctaw, Chitimacha and many others, were in the region more than 1,000 years before the French arrived in 1682. They called the land “Bulbancha,” or land of foreign languages, because of its role as a crossroads for trade among many tribes.
They traded in the earliest days of the French Market. They used Bayou St. John for transportation and had a settlement on its banks long before Spanish Fort. Native Americans used dried, ground sassafras leaves as a seasoning, which is how you get filé. And the Choctaw word for filé — kombo — is suspiciously similar to gumbo.
Even Congo Square, where the music and dance of African Americans led to the creation of jazz, has a lesser-known tie to the region’s Native Americans.
“I was walking through Congo Square with a group of out-of-town visitors,” Luster recalled, “and an African American drummer, without even knowing I was Houma, mentioned my ancestors’ participation in those festivities, and how the site was sacred to us long before they arrived on it.
“It was so special to be remembered. Because for so long we haven’t been. And that’s part of why our inclusion in Jazz Fest is so important.”
A family affair
Luster got her introduction to the festival when she accompanied her parents beginning in the 1980s. Her dad would demonstrate how to build a hut made out of palmetto leaves like the one he lived in as a child, and her mom would make traditional dolls out of Spanish moss.
“When my dad passed away in 1992, my husband and children continued the tradition of building the palmetto hut," she said. "It’s really a family affair.”
For her part, Luster focuses on two types of crafts. One transforms the scales of the not-so-beautiful alligator gar (provided by their cousin, a fisherman) into flowered brooches, earrings and other pieces of art. She learned the skill from her mother and now makes the pieces with her daughter Ann, who joins her at Jazz Fest.
The second craft was a Houma style of palmetto baskets, a skill lost to the tribe for nearly a century before they were able to locate an example of it in a Denver art museum. Through a lot of hard work — “and many, many screw-ups!” — Luster was able to relearn the skill.
Now, she’s introducing others to the craft once thought lost.
“It’s really cool,” she said. “We see people at the fest who vaguely know they’re of Houma descent, and they’re wanting to have conversations about their identity. Or we’ll just see people who remember catching big ol' gar fish with their parents when they were kids! The conversations are amazing.”
Keeping a culture alive
Visitors to the second weekend of this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will have lots of opportunities to engage with the region’s earliest human-oriented history. Craftspeople, like Luther, will be at the Native American Village, where festivalgoers can talk with, learn from and buy from jewelry makers, basket weavers and wood carvers.
Choctaw tribe member Grayhawk Perkins will tell stories at the Kids Tent on Thursday at 2 p.m., presenting a mixture of spoken word, song and dance. He sees his job as even more than representing his tribe and the United Houma Nation.
“No matter what their culture is,” said Perkins, “I try to encourage the children who watch my performance to become storytellers. I want them to be excited about sitting with their parents and grandparents and learning their own stories — every culture and family has them — so that one day they can be the ones to preserve them, and to share them with a new generation.”
Hungry visitors can enjoy festival-favorite frybread, as well as Indian tacos and two varieties of macque choux.
“You’d be amazed at how many people come to us in the crafts tent or the food line and say they had no idea there were Native Americans in Louisiana,” Luster said. “That’s why it’s so important we’re included. We’re keeping a culture alive.”