Oct 6, 2023 - News

How the Houma preserve a climate change-threatened tradition

Several people gather around a large white table to weave baskets together. Janie Luster is seen at right.

Janie Luster, right, shares lessons about making baskets with her Houma community. Photo: Courtesy of Janie Luster.

A Houma woman is working to ensure her ancestors' basket-weaving traditions are passed on, one basket at a time.

Why it matters: The cultural traditions of the Houma people, who are native to southeast Louisiana, are under threat by climate change as rising water and worsening weather patterns prompt retreat from the coastal lands they've long called home.

Driving the news: Indigenous Peoples' Day is Monday, Oct. 9.

Flashback: Prior to French and Spanish colonization, the Houma were just one of the tribes living in Louisiana. As the Europeans encroached on their lands, the Houma moved further toward the coastline, deeply influencing their cultural practices.

  • "The lifestyle was in the water," says Janie Luster, an artist, weaver and former United Houma Nation Council member. The Houma people were known as hunters and fishers, and their decorative arts included woven baskets.
  • But by the 1940s, no Houma member knew how to weave their palmetto baskets anymore, Luster says.
  • "We were the only tribe that did this basket in the whole country, so we couldn't go to Chitimacha or Coushatta to ask how to do this basket," Luster tells Axios New Orleans.
A photograph of a woven basket with a lid.
Houma artist, "Basket with lid," early 1930s. Palmetto and plant fibers; 13 inches x 11 inches x 8 inches. Photo: Courtesy of Denver Art Museum: Native Arts acquisition funds

That changed in 1992. That's when Richard Conn, a longtime Native Arts curator from the Denver Art Museum, stepped in, Luster tells Axios. Conn reverse-engineered the weaving process by examining Houma baskets within the museum's collection and showed the process to Luster.

  • Still, it wasn't easy to grasp.
  • "I ended up trying my hand, praying to my grandmothers and ancestors that if they had the gift to please pass it on," Luster says. "I went back to it and sat down and I often say, I had a come-to-Jesus meeting with the palmetto."
  • It clicked, and Luster's been weaving ever since.

What's happening: After Hurricane Ida devastated many of the communities where the Houma people live today, Luster, who now has three generations of weavers in her family, felt more acutely the urgency in passing on the basket weaving tradition.

  • "Our people are migrating and we want them to take this knowledge with them, and when you do baskets, you do more than weave," she says. "You do culture. You connect people."
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