Bulbancha is Still A Place: Indigenous Culture from New Orleans is a new collaborative Native zine under the umbrella of the POC Zine Project. Issue #1, The Tricentennial Issue, is jammed with art, essays, history, family lore, and poetry; but superb layout ensures it never feels overwhelming. If, like me, you aren’t very conversant with the indigenous history of our region (even if, like me, you’d sort of thought you were), reading Bulbancha is like being invited into a wide-ranging conversation full of new ideas, new words, new perspectives, and new voices.
“Contributing Editor-Who’s-Not-a-Chief ” Dr. Jeffery U. Darensbourg, a member of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas, kicks off the issue with a piece titled “Decolonizing the Tricentennial of New Orleans.” His essay firmly, unequivocally rejects the idea of New Orleans’ 300th anniversary—and even the name New Orleans. This bracing refusal carves out an immense psychogeographical space for the rest of the zine to unfold and expand into. As Darensbourg says, before the colonists tried to name this place, it was already a place… and it’s still a place. I spoke with Dr. Darensbourg about the zine and its ideas.
I loved your opening negation of not just the celebration of New Orleans’ founding, but the founding itself.
Aboriginal Australians have a big movement that’s been sometimes successful, to re-name places back to their original names. So I started thinking, especially with the Tricentennial… just because white people called this place New Orleans doesn’t mean it is. Let’s take one more step: why do we believe there is a place called New Orleans?
Alaina Comeaux, one of the writers in this issue, showed me a doctoral dissertation by Elizabeth Ellis, a Native woman who has a book coming out about the colonial history of New Orleans. From that I learned that there were only maybe 4,000 French people here when the socalled purchase happened. They didn’t actually control things; the French were just one of around 40 different groups, mostly indigenous, who came back and forth across this area with the tides or trade, following things to hunt or for warfare. And the people who were here before the French called this Bulbancha, meaning “place of many tongues.” That’s a much better name than “New Orleans,” which just honors some rich Europeans.
Historically, a lot of different groups came here to interact with other people, to trade or get something. It might not be their main center of power, but a place they passed through to try and get their business done. That, to me, is part of the actual spirit of this place. But, like many things in Louisiana, the indigenous center of it has been forgotten.
I’d never encountered the word “Bulbancha.” A while back I started seeing it in graffiti around town, but I didn’t know what it meant.
You’re never going to hear the Native names for a place if you don’t look for the Native people. That’s part of a stance for doing history: if you don’t go and look for the indigenous story, you’ll never find it.
I did eventually Google it, which is how I came across your zine.
When you look up Bulbancha now, you see people using various versions of it, spelled different ways since it’s just different orthographies of a nonEuropean language. But if you were to try five years ago, it would take you more like 15 minutes to find anything about it on Google.
An early Facebook page a couple of us had up, the Bulbancha Intertribal Association, suddenly started getting all these “join” requests from neoConfederates. It’s like, who are all these sketchy dudes with goatees? Well, somebody had painted “Bulbancha Forever” across the Jefferson Davis Memorial, and we were one of the only online mentions of the word, so they were trying to dox us.
Beyond just visibility, I felt the focus of this first issue was existential: “We exist here; we’re part of this history.”
If you look at our region’s Native traditions, it’s clear we had influence. In food, for example, and in music. When we think of New Orleans music we think of Congo Square. Congo Square was a Native dancing ground; the sign in Congo Square even says so. But are we supposed to believe that Native people danced there, and then Native and African people, and then mostly African people, and somehow those Native people had no influence on the music?
You mention in the zine that back when Rampart Street was an actual rampart, Native folks would camp just outside the walls.
Yeah, the Tremé used to be heavily saturated with Native people. Where are all those Native people now? They’re Louisiana’s Creole population. Creoles aren’t just European and African, they’re also Native. I’m Creole myself, and my family is a musical family in New Orleans; my great, great uncle Joe Darensbourg was one of the most famous jazz clarinetists from New Orleans.
If you look at Louisiana Creole people, some of them really look Native, which is no surprise. It’s just part of the mix here, you know? In 19th-century drawings of the French Market, there’s always Native people selling stuff, a Native presence.
How did you organize the contributors?
As I started working on the project and people heard about it, all these Natives came out of the woodwork. When people say “Indians” here, they mean like the Mardi Gras Indians, not the more traditional definition of members of indigenous nations, but there are quite a few Native people here. Some are from New Orleans, but everyone in the zine is somehow connected to the Gulf South, especially Louisiana. Some contributors are from Native groups outside of Louisiana but moved here, like Winter White Hat, a Lakota high school student. And the movement of indigenous groups through Bulbancha continues, including Native people from Honduras who came to rebuild after the storm. While many speak Spanish, some don’t speak any European languages very well, so now you might overhear conversations in K’iche’ or Garifuna.
The project’s sponsor is Daniela Capistrano, who operates the POC Zine Project. She asked me to make a zine out of all the stuff I rant to her about over lunch—Native stuff. I was mostly responsible for gathering the team. A huge contributor was a guy who goes by Ozone504. We met several years ago at a talk I gave at Jazz Fest about Black Indians.
The zine looks great, as a physical object. The overall production is killer.
We got Antenna Gallery to print it; I would recommend them to anyone. Ozone did all this design, the layout, and graphic elements. Some images artists donated to us to use, some he had around. He designed it and laid it out the old-school way: scissors and a photocopier. This was a punk-rock undertaking. Ozone504 and I are both, you know, aging punk rockers who stand at the back of shows, although I might be getting a little old to be at the show at all. Any money we make from this is just going towards reprints or eventually, once we cover all the reprinting, to buy some Native books for the New Orleans Public Library. No one’s getting paid.
Was it hard to decide what to include and what to cut?
A lot of great stuff didn’t make it in this issue. Oh man, some good stuff got left out. There’ll be more issues. Our focus is always going to be New Orleans and to a wider extent Louisiana Native culture, which includes Cajun and Creole culture… because those are both mixed populations, as much as even some members of those populations don’t acknowledge their Native heritage. Cajuns especially.
There are some Acadian identitarians out there I feel sure don’t fancy themselves “mixed.”
I used to be the genealogy librarian at the Lafayette Public Library, and I can tell you: you start looking at Cajun genealogy, there’s a lot of non-white people in there. A lot.
At the risk of getting way outside my lane, Cajun self-identification as white always interested me considering they’ve been treated, as a people, in ways colonial powers treat non-whites… territorial dispossession, cultural genocide…
They’re not considered white in Canada. Those Acadians aren’t white; they’re Métis people. That’s what Canada calls their mixed Native European population, Métis. It’s very much part of the Canadian Acadian experience. And you know, there’s been Mi’kmaq-Cajun events in Louisiana, and events where people in Louisiana have gone up to Canada for those sorts of things. One of the first images we have of someone labeled “Acadian” is a guy whose face looks like he came straight out of Breaux Bridge, and he’s dressed in entirely Mi’kmaq regalia.
I mean, I’m not going to speak for Cajuns, but when you look at them culturally, yeah, there’s French language, and there’s Catholicism, but man… a whole lot of that culture ain’t from France. One of the people who was a lion of cultural preservation of Acadian heritage in Louisiana, Warren Perrin, has a book where he gathered a lot of different historians to talk about this [Acadie Then and Now: A People’s History]. The academic literature spells it out: Cajuns are a mixed people. And that’s fine; segregation is over. It’s time for people to reclaim their Native heritage and all their other heritages.
[pullquote]”The people who were here before the French called this Bulbancha, meaning “place of many tongues.” That’s a much better name than “New Orleans,” which just honors some rich Europeans.”[/pullquote]
Because there’s so little knowledge of our region’s Native history, do you sometimes find you’re asked to speak for the experiences of peoples and tribes not your own?
Native cultures can be as different as European cultures; but just as European cultures have similarities, Native cultures have similarities. I don’t like to speak for Native people in general, but I can sometimes tell people they’re hearing Native voices I don’t consider very traditional, such as self-hating Natives who are slavishly attached to certain European political or religious ideals. With those I can say: that’s not very traditionally Native.
My tribe, the Atakapa-Ishak, has its own tendencies, like being anarchically organized with decentralized power. That’s how we were before the colonial invasion and that’s kind of how we are now, too. Other tribes have big hierarchies and the equivalent almost of civil service, even in the pre-colonial period.
I think in the United States people still often think of Indians in the movies, based on like the Lakota who were only finally colonized in the late 19th century, hundreds of years after my tribe was. People want to dress like Indians for Halloween, and I’m wondering why they’re not wearing like, flannel shirts and work boots and cowboy hats, you know? At least get the outfit right. People don’t necessarily think of Indians being into death metal and rap music and country music and all the other things I associate with my family and the other Native people I know.
The first powwow I ever went to was Narragansett, and the majority of the tribe present had African heritage. I was surprised, and it made me realize I had a lot of really stale, narrow preconceptions around “Native people.”
Africanness doesn’t negate Native heritage! People tend to allow someone who is Native and white to still be Native, but there are a lot of famous African Natives who people forget are Native, like Jimi Hendrix and the civil rights pioneer Mildred Loving. Crispus Attucks, the first casualty in the American Revolution, had a Native parent. One of the original accounts of the massacre says, “An Indian was killed.”
It’s something you address in the zine—this particularly American formulation of race where if your heritage includes any amount of African, you get read or categorized Black.
My birth certificate is clear: I’m a negro. If someone 300 years from now, without a photo of me, saw that record, they’d say, “Oh, says here he was negro.” But looking at me, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind, you know? I get cops speaking to me in Spanish. People think I’m Latino or Lebanese. When I was in Jerusalem, people alternatingly thought I was Palestinian or Israeli. I’ve been to reserves—as they call reservations in Canada—and people thought I was part of the tribe. I’m part African, part Native, part European. I guess one thing that inspires this zine is a lifetime of people trying to define my ethnicity for me, and that’s true of a lot of other people, including others in the zine. It’s not that I am not Black, but I wish the state of Louisiana was more sensitive to the fact we have a lot of mixed peoples here; it’s essential to what Louisiana is. I wish more of the tourism or other industries would recognize the mixed heritage of Creole people as being something distinct. And Creole people have a lot of tribal background, tribal influences; sometimes tribal language. Some, like me, are members of a tribe. 500 years after the major beginning of the European invasion, there are so many people with mixed heritage.
Many heritages, many tongues.
Yeah, many tongues. I grew up mostly with English and French, but there are relatives of older generations I have living memory of (they’ve all walked on now) who spoke Kourí-Viní—Creole French, as people call it—and even some that still spoke a version of ChoctawMobilian, really older relatives.
My father’s mother, in Pointe Coupee Parish, when my cousins and I got sick she went off to the woods behind the farm and made medicine. Supposedly it was medicine; I just remember it being really greasy water we had to drink that she made out of some plants back in the woods. When someone was sick, she’d go to the woods. Native stuff. Another woman in Pointe Coupee Parish I have a photo of from 1905, when she was a little girl, and I remember her in the ‘70s—she still preferred cooking outside, and she chewed tobacco and smoked cigars. I mean… that’s Indian.
I’m already itching for issue two. What are your plans?
We’d like to explore more about food, music, sexuality—basically all the things people think about around New Orleans. Also environmental activism, because that’s very important here, and a lot of Native people are involved with it.
It seems like there’s been a resurgence in Native people in the media again. Joseph Makkos [who owns a sizeable archive of Times-Picayune newspapers] showed me a bunch of issues of the Picayune from the 19th Century. There were Native people on the front page all the time back then. War correspondents were talking about the Indian Wars, so it was in people’s consciousness that the U.S. was an empire, trying to conquer other nations and expand its land base. I feel like that got forgotten. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the major successful direct actions of the American Indian Movement got media attention; and at that point, Native people hadn’t been in the news for maybe 100 years. Now I feel like Native people are back into people’s consciousness again because of the Native stance and work on environmental catastrophe.
There’s long been this fairly fraught narrative, not just in the U.S. but globally, of indigenous people having some special relationship to nature.
Maybe it’s time to take a second look, then, at these so-called savage people who seem to be able to farm the same piece of land for thousands of years straight without depleting it. Who, in so many cases, manage to live sustainably in a way that everyone is fed and everyone can get medicine and everyone has housing and everyone is taken care of. Civilization, so-called, still hasn’t managed to do that. Here on the verge of environmental collapse, seems to me it bears repeating that there are other ways to live besides just burning through our entire world for short-term gain.
I grew up saturated with sentimental media depictions of Native peoples as these wise stewards of the natural world. And yet now when multiple tribes of indigenous peoples actually speak from that role, with a unified voice, oil companies and the state respond with violence and outlandish criminal charges.
It’s very frustrating. We see it right now with the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. In Louisiana we have brochures and commercials and everything about a beautiful, natural landscape and the food and culture that comes out of that landscape, and yet at the same time we spare no effort ensuring that same landscape is destroyed. We allow people to plow through and grind up ancient cypress trees for temporary gain, including for the pipeline. Have you ever seen a picture of an old cypress tree? A real one, the ones as big around as this room? They’re gone. There’s nothing sacred to these people—they’ll destroy it all if they can make a few million dollars. But once you wipe it out, it will never return. Not in the same way, not in any of our lifetimes. You know, I’m not opposed to oil. My father was a retired oil worker, as are a lot of my family and friends from New Orleans. But there has to be some concern for things that, once they’re gone, will never return to the way they were.
For more information on Bulbancha Is Still a Place, including ordering a copy, check out bulbanchaisstillaplace.org. Copies are also available at Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center.