Hot Creole

Multiculturalism limping but still kicking in Louisiana

By: Cheré Dastugue Coen

The descendants of Louisiana’s Canary Islanders, known locally as Los Islenos, wondered seven months after Hurricane Katrina if they’d be able to hold the annual spring celebration of their culture again. For one thing, their museum in St. Bernard Parish had been damaged by the storm, and members residing in that parish had been displaced.

But the cultural organization offered a festival behind the parish government buildings in Chalmette, near to where the Battle of New Orleans took place nearly two centuries before. Then they waited to see if people would come. “We get 30,000 to 40,000 people usually,” said Dorothy Benge, president of Los Islenos. “That year [2006], we got a lot more.”

This year, the people returned, with local Islenos showing visiting volunteers and AmeriCorps workers how to shuck oysters.

“Our heritage is alive and well, and we intend to preserve it,” Benge said.

Traditional celebrations have been ongoing at New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood, despite setbacks from the storm. The Backstreet Cultural Museum has reopened, displaying dozens of Mardi Gras Indian costumes for the modest fee of $5. Visitors get a personalized tour from Museum Director Sylvestor Francis, who explains the history and culture of the African-Americans who started parading as Indians on Mardi Gras day to honor their early connections with American Indians. It takes a year to create one of the magnificent costumes, Francis explained, and once worn, they cannot be worn again at Carnival.

At the Louisiana State Museum Cabildo in Jackson Square, visitors can see how a variety of cultures mixing in the Crescent City and throughout the state have helped form the unique culture that prevails. Immigrants arrived in New Orleans from not only the mother country of France, but Germany, Ireland, Spain and Italy. Natives of the the state were Choctaw, Houma, Chitimacha and other tribes. Many of the slaves brought into Louisiana came by way of Haiti after the Haitian revolution, bringing with them the practice of voodoo. Today, voodoo practitioners perform authentic rituals a far cry from the Hollywood portrayal and daily tours explain the religion’s history.

“During the Spanish period was this influx of immigrants that makes Louisiana so interesting today,” said Charles D. Chamberlain III, Louisiana State Museum historian.

In the suburb of Kenner, 30 minutes from downtown New Orleans, is the Cannes Brulee Native American Village of Rivertown, a collection of museums nestled in the bend of the Mississippi. Guest artists appear at Cannes Brulee from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on Saturdays, demonstrating everything from the split river cane basketry of the state’s Chitamacha tribe to the four-strand braid palmetto basketry of the Houmas.

This summer, the Essence Music Festival, featuring Beyonce, Lionel Richie and Mary J. Blige, among other big-name African-American entertainers, will be held July 5-7 in the Louisiana Superdome.

The 14th annual Creole Heritage Celebration & Expo will be held in October in Natchitoches to honor the descendants of the native-born of colonial Louisiana. Sponsored by the Creole Heritage Center of Louisiana’s Northwestern State University, the national event consists of workshops, family reunions, award ceremonies and tours of the area’s historical landmarks, most of which were established by Creoles of color, including plantations.

“Creole is hot,” said Janet Colson, assistant director of the center. “And we have become the national voice for everything Creole.”


The Backstreet Cultural Museum
1116 St. Claude
New Orleans, LA 70116
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Cannes Brulee Native American Village
at Rivertown in Kenner

Creole Heritage Center
Northwestern State University
Natchitoches, LA 71497

Essence Music Festival

The Louisiana State Museum Cabildo
Jackson Square
New Orleans, LA

Poverty Point