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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dissertation on Afro-Native Literature

 I blogged about Crossing Waters in the post "Is There A Place For Afro-Natives?" in June.  I found When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote by Jonathan Bradford Brennan among the references in Crossing Waters.  I feel fortunate to be able to obtain this work by Brennan on interlibrary loan from San Francisco State University library.  It's a doctoral dissertation, and not very widely available.

In his literature review, Brennan discusses an article on Mardi Gras Indians.  Mardi Gras Indians are a New Orleans cultural phenomenon that interests me a great deal.  They are largely African-American. Those who participate in the Mardi Gras Indian  "tribes" often don't claim to be of Native descent. I've encountered them in books and films about New Orleans.

 Brennan states that Congo Square in New Orleans (which became a major focus of Voodoo activity) was originally a Native sacred site.  Brennan gave no source for that information and did not specify what Native people considered it sacred.  This means that I needed to do some research.  I found a page from the Historical Marker Database on The Congo Square Marker   .  The inscription reveals that Congo Square may not have been the exact location of the sacred site. It is in the vicinity of the place where the Houma Indians celebrated their Corn Festival before the French colonized Louisiana.    Brennan theorizes that the 19th century drumming in Congo Square may have started as an Afro-Native practice because the Houma probably had drummed there.

  I found a report on the Houma  at Report on the United Houma Nation  which indicates that some Houma have been of mixed African and European descent.  I also found a page called Who Were the Houma Indians?    It states that the Houma were decimated by European diseases and that the U.S. government does not recognize the 11,000 people on the Houma reservation as descendants of the Houma.  One reason why they aren't federally recognized is the Afro-Natives among them.  Another is that their original language disappeared.  The Houma now speak Cajun French.   The Bureau of Indian Affairs has an obsession with racial purity that has such devestating impact on Afro-Natives.

In this context, I had a flash of intuition about the well known Mardi Gras Indian song now called "Iko Iko" which Brennan mentions briefly .  He calls the chorus a nonsense chant, but the chant contains the French word  "année" which means year.  Wikipedia says in an article that requires verification( Iko Iko  )that it was originally sung by James "Sugar Boy" Crawford who called it "Chack-a-mo" which became "Jackamo".   Crawford said he took two Mardi Gras Indian chants and combined them to create that chorus. It's interesting that "Chack-a-mo" looks like it might be related to Chakchiuma, the name of the Indian nation that the Houma broke away from.  The Wikipedia article has various re-constructions and translations of this chorus based on speculations that the chorus might be in a Native American trade language called Mobilian Jargon, Creole French or Yoruban.  To these possibilities, I would add my speculation that it might have been a Houma chant which unfortunately can't be reconstructed or translated since the language has disappeared.

I was interested to learn that French slave traders captured Natchez Indians and shipped them to Haiti.  So when their bi-racial descendants came back to Louisiana, they were Afro-Natives and their traditions were both Natchez and African.  Brennan cites Voodoo scholar Maya Deren as saying that Petro spirits and the practices associated with them in Voodoo were of Indian origin.  I understand Petro to mean fiery as opposed to the Rada spirits which are cool.

Wikipedia says that the theory that Brennan seems to support about the Lumbee being descended from the Croatan has been discredited. Tracy Hudgins disagrees.  She is a Lumbee descended woman who says on her Google site, The Lumbee Indians, The Lost Colony and The Goins Family that the Lumbee are composed of a number of peoples including the Cherokee, Cheraw, Tuscarora and the Croatan as well as African-Americans and European-Americans. Some believe that the Croatan were multi-racial.  Brennan states that the Croatan were an Indian, African and European community. "Croatan" was the message left on Roanoke island by the Lost Colony.  Such a message can be interpreted in various ways.  I suspect that Brennan is one of those who believes that the Lost Colony of Roanoke survivors joined the Croatan, and  that their descendants could therefore be alive today among the Lumbee.  According to Tracy Hudgins, there is evidence of this in the form of Lost Colony surnames among Lumbee families.  DNA testing would confirm such a claim.

 Brennan's ideas are certainly provocative.  I enjoyed doing research on the topics that he covered.   I am also interested in reading some of the Afro-Native books he discussed.  I'll have to get hold of Alice Walker's Living By The Word and Clarence Major's Such Was The Season soon.



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