Nanih Bvlbancha

Building New History in the Place of Many Tongues

On April 6, Nanih Bvlbancha was unveiled at 1900 Lafitte Avenue. The earthen construct rises as a conspicuous podium among the grassy spread of the Lafitte Greenway. An installation of the triennial art exhibition Prospect New Orleans, Nanih Bvlbancha (called so after the original Chahta name for New Orleans, sometimes as “Bulbancha,” or “place of many tongues”) is rich in history and legacy: It is the latest to join the hundreds of similar mounds constructed by Indigenous peoples that pepper the Southeast and that date back thousands of years to some of the earliest known man-made monuments on the American continent.

Nanih Bvlbancha is the product of a vast collective effort, generated and led by a team of Indigenous artists, academics, and community stewards who banded together as an intertribal collective to realize this shared dream. There’s Jenna Mae, a poet, ethnographer, and herbalist of Cherokee, Eastern Siouan, and Mvskoke descent; Ida Aronson, a multimedia artist and member of the United Houma Nation who also works in Indigenous language restoration; Ozone 504, a social practice artist, radio engineer and DJ of Saponi, Monacan, and Lenni Lenape descent; Monique Verdin, a transdisciplinary artist, documentarian, and member of the United Houma Nation; and Dr. Tammy Greer, director of the Center for American Indian Research and Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi and a member of the United Houma Nation. 

I met with this collective to discuss the legacy of Indigenous earthenworks, the processes of constructing one in the past and present, and how Nanih Bvlbancha illuminates and uplifts contemporary Indigeneity.


What exactly is a Nanih?
Jenna Mae: Nanih comes from the Chahta (Choctaw) language, and it means hill or mountain. It’s used in several different southeastern Indigenous languages. Our ancestors used it to describe our monumental earthwork culture as a hill or a mountain.
Ida Aronson:  There were also different kinds of mounds. There were ceremonial mounds, there were burial mounds, there were mounds where important people would have lived in their houses. So we made this in the neutral ground as a monument both to our ancestors and our modern community, to say that we’re still here, that we’re still creating these things in a modern time, that we are not relegated to the past.
Ozone 504: There is beginning to be a movement among archaeologists to no longer use the term “mound” when describing these archaeological sites. You think of a mound just being kind of a pile of dirt, but these are monumental architectural works. Some archaeologists are trying to revive the use of the word pyramid, so we were debating around that; but it turns out that the word pyramid was also a word the ancient Greeks used to kind of make fun of Egyptian monumental architecture works (It was a reference to a Greek pastry). So in the midst of this conversation, we were like: Why are we trying to use words from European languages at all? Why don’t we use words from our own cultures? So that’s when we decided to revive the use of Nanih as the name.

Tell me about the genesis of the idea for Nanih Bvlbancha.
Monique Verdin: In around 2013, Dr. Greer, myself, my grandmother, and another elder went down to Shrimpers Row in Dulac. There’s a big old mound there. I want to say it’s around 1,500 years old. And there was a tropical storm that was out in the Gulf, it was spitting rain on us, and we had decided we were going to go meet at the mound for whatever reason. We had this really sweet wander around it, seeing these old trees and all this life, and really thinking about how in this time when we’re losing land at one of the most rapid rates on the planet, how these ancient mounds in the Delta that our ancestors built are still these high grounds where biodiversity is able to have a chance as everything around it is disappearing. For me, that mound visit, and just this curiosity for mounds, was where this project started.

I read that soil from all over the continent and across the world was used in constructing the Nanih. What’s the significance of that international focus?
JM: We put a call out to ask people to send soil from their lands, or from a special sacred place to them. One of the reasons for that is to honor the Mississippi River and to recognize that the flow of the river carried soil here to form the land that we live on now. And also to acknowledge that we’re losing land here in South Louisiana. We are the nation’s wetlands, and we’re losing land. We have a collective responsibility to do something about that, and so part of the call to send soil is an invitation to be a part of what’s happening here, and be a part of the changes that are needed here to protect our coasts.

What is bagasse, and why did you choose to include that in the building materials?
O504: The bagasse was donated by the Alma Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish. It’s a byproduct of sugar production; it’s what’s left of the sugarcane after they’ve squeezed all the sugar water out of it. So we’re tying that part of the history of Louisiana into the making of our earthwork.
MV: And Pointe Coupee Parish is the site of one of the earliest enslaved people uprisings dating back to the Poydras Plantation times. So I think about reimagining how these materials can be used as practices for liberation, as well as remembering how everything comes from somewhere.


photo by Hayden Legg


Tell me about the design and architecture of the mound. How did that come together?
O504: We had to have permits from the city, so we had to have an actual architect sign off on the blueprint. One of their suggestions was that we put a drain down the middle, but the way we ended up doing it was based on the resources that we had. We built an oyster shell chimney all the way through the middle of it up to the top, and the water drains through the heart of the mound and is directed through French drains to drain off into the field around it.
IA: There’s also a trench underneath the Nanih that is filled with more oyster shells, and that was covered with a layer of these woven palmetto mats that we made in community over the course of the January work days. So we had all these different community members creating pieces that we then put together in layers during the work days to create this unified drainage system.

How did the community work days go? What was the turnout like? What did it feel like for y’all to see people show up to contribute their time and energy to this project?
IA: We were putting out calls on social media and to our community through our own connections. They went great, we had different sections and areas that people could engage in. They could do some painting with Dr. Tammy, they could do weaving of the palmetto mats, they could come shift dirt, do some education. The third work day in January was huge, we probably had about 80, 90 people. There was a lot of rain in January too, but people were still showing up.
MV: On our biggest day, which was that 80-to-90-people day in January, Grow Dat Youth Farm showed up with a truck bed full of soil that they gathered through their composting and soil practices out in City Park, so they brought some of the farm to the Nanih.

Did the community turnout exceed your expectations?
O504: Most definitely. It’s been very inspiring. And part of the whole Prospect pad was, with all the removal of Confederate statues, particularly around New Orleans, this question of what is a public monument? What does it mean, and what communities aren’t represented in the monuments around here at all? I think to have that many people turn up for our workdays—Quechua people, Mayan people, Navajo people, Choctaw people, Lenape people—it was truly, incredibly inspirational. That is what a public monument should do, it should really energize people and make them excited. I was definitely blown away by the amount of support that we have gotten and continue to get for this project.
JM: I have a child in the New Orleans charter school system, and the education around Indigenous people here in the state and in the region is almost nonexistent. So we’re relegated to the past even in contemporary education. I know that my Indigenous child is not learning about his own culture in the school system, and other Indigenous children are not learning about themselves here. So to see a continued engagement at the mound, especially of the youth, is really heartwarming and hopeful and inspiring. I think people want to know more, but don’t know where or how to engage or ask questions and find out more about contemporary Indigenous realities. I’m really grateful that the Nanih can be a site for that kind of engagement.

Ida, I know you’re involved with the Houma Language Project. Tell me about that organization and its relation to Nanih Bvlbancha.
IA: The Houma language has been in slumber for probably over 100 years, and the Houma Language Project is working to revive it. It started in 2013, and in the past few years we’ve had a huge expansion of materials that are available for free online and learning modules that are all open for people to learn. The Houma Language Project has been super supportive of Nanih Bvlbancha. On one of the work days, myself and Jack Rittenberry [a linguist with the Houma Language Project] buried one of our original physical Houma Language dictionaries into the mound. This was an all-natural copy that Jack had made by hand, and we buried that into the mound for the posterity of both honoring our ancestors and honoring our modern reality.


photo by Brandon Keller


Were any other items or artifacts embedded in the mound?
IA: One of our Atakapa-Ishak community members wrote a poem in his language, and that was placed in the mound, so there’s multiple languages in the mound. There are woven palmetto mats and natural pigment art that were placed into the mound, so these feelings of welcoming and creation are imbued and embedded into the mound.
MV: In October of last year, Ida and I hosted a mini mound-making workshop at the Louisiana Children’s Museum, and those items, those creations that the young people made were also part of that foundational layer of the Nanih.

It’s interesting that Nanih Bvlbancha is at the same time a public artwork and a uniquely Indigenous cultural site. Who do you see it as being for, and what do you feel it means for different people?
IA: I think any time we can remind colonizers that we are still here and this is still our land is a worthy project. We get erased so often, not just from the state, but from this region and from this nation as a whole.
O504: While it is a project that’s open to everyone, it’s also very much an Indigenous-led project and very much for the upliftment of our people, but also the upliftment of everyone that lives in the Mississippi Delta. This is one of the cradles of civilization, and one of the reasons we’re kind of considered a dystopian backwater these days is because of the greed and recklessness that’s been imposed on top of this land. We would like to hopefully someday lead a way out of this dystopia.
MV: It’s not like we own this; it’s more that we are stewards of this, and it’s about remembering that and remembering that we need each other. Places of bio and cultural diversity are important, and Bvlbancha is that place. Indigenous people have never left. We are still here, and we have real solutions to offer in regards to how we can be more in balance with each other and the natural world around us.

So what does it mean to be building this mound today? How does Nanih Bvlbancha fit into the multi-millennia legacy that precedes it?
Dr. Tammy Greer: Part of the reason for building this mound was to elevate those other mounds, those ancient mounds that we have. And also, everyone comes from some Indigenous people somewhere. And what we’re saying with this mound is that Indigenous people were not at all backwards or ignorant; they were architects. These things have lasted longer than many of our levees have lasted. They were architects and construction workers and physicians and astronomers, because some of these mounds align with the constellations, which takes a lot of planning and knowledge and understanding. And the complicated way that we were having to negotiate for the placing of this mound was the same as we would have done back in the day. So this is telling our youth, and really the youth of all people, that your people, where you came from, your Indigeneity, there were some brilliant people there. We want to get back to looking at our ancestors that way. They were brilliant, and in a lot of ways the way they were living was sustainable. That’s where we need to go here. We need to get into that mindset again. We have put so much of ourselves into this mound, and now it’s time to celebrate that, to move forward, and to learn the lessons from all we’ve gathered from building this mound.


For more info, check out nanihbvlbancha.net and @nanihbvlbancha on Instagram.


Top photo, left to right: Dr. Tammy Greer, Monique Verdin, Ozone 504, and Jenna Mae. Not pictured: Ida Aronson. Photo by Hayden Legg.

 

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