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Other Cultural Groups
by Maida Owens

Some cultural groups are found throughout Louisiana. Italians, one of the largest such groups, began arriving en masse from Sicily at the turn of the twentieth century. Most settled first in rural agricultural communities, later moved into cities to start small businesses, and soon dominated the food distribution systems. But some rural Italian communities remain. One is in and around the town of Independence in the Florida Parishes, where strawberry farming persists, and families make strawberry wine. Another rural, conservative Italian community is located around Powhattan in north Louisiana.
       One tradition closely tied to Italian American ethnic identity is the St. Joseph altar which has seen a resurgence of popularity since the 1970s from Shreveport to New Orleans. Catholics often promise God that they will build an altar if a favor is granted or in hopes of having a favor granted. The altar contains religious icons and food for the community including special breads in the form of Catholic symbols, casseroles, cookies, cakes, and fava beans. While an altar can be promised at any time to any saint, most commonly, an Italian family will build an altar in their home for St. Joseph, the patron saint of Sicily. The altar is usually built on or near St. Joseph's Day, March 19. Family, friends, and the community are invited to attend the blessing of the altar and the Feeding of the Saints, and to eat the food on the altar (Orso 1990, Owens 1989:134, Warren 1982). More recently, Italian American associations, such as the Grandsons of Italy, build a community altar that is publicized for the general public. It functions as an ethnic identity marker for the organization (Gardner 1983).
       Many people are surprised to discover that Louisiana has a significant Native American population -- the largest within the eastern United States. Although they do not fit the stereotyped image of what most people think of as Indians, the Louisiana tribes and bands have played a significant role in shaping of the distinctive culture of the state, both north and south. Many of the original inhabitants of Louisiana shared their culture with the newly arrived Europeans and Africans, teaching them how to take advantage of the natural bounty of the land. So file (powdered sassafras for gumbo), place names (Atchafalaya, Kisatchie), and hunting and fishing practices sometimes attributed to European American pioneers such as handfishing, should actually be credited to the Native Americans (Mire 1990). The Attakapas, Chitimacha, the Houma, and the Caddo are the only surviving tribes that were in Louisiana at European contact, although they were not necessarily settled in their present locations. The others, including the Choctaw, Tunica Biloxi, and Koasati (Coushatta), were relocated to the state during the Spanish period. Four of the tribes -- the Tunica Biloxi, Chitimacha, Koasati, and most recently the Jena Band of Choctaw -- have been federally recognized and have reservations, although these are relatively small when compared with the reservations of the American West. State recognition has been extended to the Houma, the Clifton Choctaw, the Choctaw Apache of Ebarb, the Caddo Adais, and the East Baton Rouge Choctaw. Quite aside from these "recognized" groups, numerous other Native Americans live in the state. The tribes are presently gaining more recognition, and one of their cultural survival strategies -- isolation -- may not have as important a role in their cultural conservation efforts as it had in the past. But the trade off is that more tribal members are making greater economic progress.
       The Chitimacha, a small tribe of about 300 members located at Charenton, in St. Mary Parish, is world renowned for its river cane basketry. Five individuals continue to make the double and single weave baskets in traditional patterns. This is one of the most conservative of the state's traditions, and it is passed on exclusively within the culture.
       he Houma, the largest tribe, numbering about 10,000, live in the marshes and along the bayous of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. Until recently, they have maintained a life style close to the land, with emphasis on fishing and trapping. The weaving of palmetto (a native palm); curing Spanish moss to make dolls, bags, and mattresses; and carving duck decoys and model pirogues are some of the current craft traditions maintained (United Houma Nation n.d.).
       The Koasati (also known as Coushatta), located outside of Elton in Allen Parish, are perhaps the most conservative of the tribes. They have maintained their native language and most families speak only Koasati in their homes. This tribe is world renowned for its pine straw baskets. They also make traditional river cane baskets for their own use as well as for sale (Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana 1992).
       Several Choctaw bands are located in Louisiana. Those in Jena (LaSalle Parish) and in Clifton (Rapides Parish) maintain close knit communities. The folk art of the Clifton Choctaw has been documented (Gregory and Hatley 1992). Other Native American tribes include the Apache Choctaw (Sabine Parish), the Caddo Adais (Natchitoches Parish), and the Tunica Biloxi (Avoyelles Parish). Each community has its own crafts traditions. The Tunica Biloxi maintain their annual sacred corn feast and continue to live on lands they have held for centuries. Their storytelling traditions and some of their songs survive. The Choctaw Apache and Caddo Adais still live in the vicinity of the eighteenth century Spanish outpost of Los Adais. Because their ancestors converted to Catholicism and learned Spanish, these groups are in some ways more like southwestern mission Indians than southeastern tribes. Tamales, salsas, and picantes are included in their food traditions; they often carve, plait whips, and do leatherwork.
       Many other ethnic groups live in Louisiana, but their traditional culture, including storytelling, has not yet been documented by either folklife researchers or community scholars for presentation to others. Some are particularly strong in urban areas or university communities, while others are dispersed in rural communities. Some ethnic groups are closely identified with certain occupations. For example, many independent, small town motels are owned and operated by East Indians. Other groups specialized in merchant trades. Lebanese peddlers followed the railroads and rivers and settled in many small towns as merchants and grocers (Saloom and Turner 1994). Chinese merchants can also be found in both large cities and such small towns as Lake Providence and Ferriday. Louisiana is also home to Africans, Greeks, Pakistanis, Iranians, Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese. Fortunately, the Louisiana Library Association has initiated efforts to facilitate research by publishing surveys of collections of some ethnic groups (Riquelmy 1994).

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