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Storms, Rising Seas Threaten Louisiana's Unique Mix Of Cultures


When storms like Hurricane Barry batter Louisiana's coast and water replaces marshland, people move away. And that puts at risk a unique cultural mix - Europeans, Africans and Native Americans all living off Louisiana's land and water. As Tegan Wendland of member station WWNO reports, the state is trying to preserve some of their traditions before they disappear.


TEGAN WENDLAND, BYLINE: Janie Luster walks through crunchy oak leaves in the humid Louisiana air to a stand of green palmetto in the shade. She reaches her arm deep down into the stems and starts hacking.

JANIE LUSTER: Takes a sharp knife, pointed knife.


LUSTER: And this is where you have to be careful, a little spider there. There's also ants.

WENDLAND: She pulls out a stem and unfolds it like a giant fan.

LUSTER: It's got that nice white color to it, forms like an accordion.

WENDLAND: We're in Houma, about an hour southwest of New Orleans. Luster will dry the leaves out and tear them into strips and use them to weave baskets - not just any basket - the Native American Houma half-hitch.

LUSTER: We were the only tribe in the whole country to make this type of basket.

WENDLAND: The art of the half-hitch has already been lost once before, generations ago, when tribal members were forced to assimilate. But Luster researched it and brought it back in the '90s. Today, she's brought a big stack of dried palmetto into a classroom in the offices of the United Houma Nation, where about 15 students of all ages are gathered around a table.

LUSTER: What you have in front of you is one of the bases that's started.

WENDLAND: It's a laborious process. It can take several days just to weave one basket. Pretty much everyone's struggling. But 15-year-old Rhett Williams' fingers dart fast.

RHETT WILLIAMS: So you have the weaver, which is a thicker piece. You use the weaver, and you wrap around it. And you just connect it to the last row you did.

WENDLAND: He's attended a few of these classes. Now his mom gets mad when she catches him weaving instead of doing his homework.

RHETT: Growing up, you know, you're not in touch with your elders. Now that I'm getting in more within the tribe and, like, learning culture and tradition, I've realized, like, I was, like, deprived of, like, the true tradition and culture.

WENDLAND: Many in Williams' family have moved north over the years, joining the exodus after every devastating coastal storm. Some areas have lost more than 40 percent of their population over the past several decades. Hurricanes and saltwater intrusion from rising seas are also killing off the palmetto and other plants sacred to the Houma. That worries Maida Owens, director of the Louisiana Folklife Program.

MAIDA OWENS: When people move, you know, some things get left behind. And one of the things that frequently is left behind is something that relies on natural materials.

WENDLAND: Like dolls made from Spanish moss, corn-shuck weaving, wood carving. The Folklife Program is trying to preserve all of that, as well as gumbo recipes and Cajun songs.

OWENS: If it doesn't move with the people, then the tradition may not continue.

WENDLAND: The state estimates that thousands more will have to migrate as the coastal erodes. But Owens is happy to see that some young people, like Rhett Williams, are embracing these folk traditions.


WENDLAND: An older woman leans over the weaving table to ask him for help.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Like this? Is this where I go next?

RHETT: You were close. So come back out. Just turn it. Go ahead, pull it through. But just make sure you spin it this way instead of coming around that way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: For NPR News, I'm Tegan Wendland in Houma, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tegan Wendland is a freelance producer with a background in investigative news reporting. She currently produces the biweekly segment, Northshore Focus.