The Cultural Conservancy - “Traditional Foodways of Native America – Oral Histories of Native Food Revitalization” Audio Recording Project
Janie Verret Luster
Janie Verret Luster is a member of the United Houma Nation of Louisiana. She is the mother of four grown children and has a nine year old son at home in the community of Bayou DuLarge, Louisiana. Janie is a well-known Houma artist and basket weaver. She uses Spanish moss to make beautiful cured moss dolls. She uses the scales of the Alligator garfish to make unique artwork. Janie is responsible for reintroducing the Houma Half-Hitch method of basketry taught to her by the late Richard Conn, former Chief Curator of Native Arts, at the Denver Museum of Art. The Houma tribe is the only tribe in the nation that practices this technique. Applying the knowledge of the traditional drying methods and materials needed for plaiting palmetto, she studied baskets from museum collections and was able to recreate this basket technique. In keeping with tradition she passed on her basketry knowledge to her three daughters and currently teaches others in her tribe. Janie also lectures on how the Houma used herbal medicine. Janie presents her work at various venues including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Janie is a tribal and community advocate. Janie is the recipient of the United Houma Nation Cultural Preservation award (2002) and Louisiana Division of the Arts Folklife Fellowship award (2003). She has appeared in the following films and magazines: The Hidden Nation, Nick Paine's Exotic Kitchen, Loretta Barrett Oden's Seasoned with Spirit, John Folse's Louisiana Cooking Show, Louisiana Life Magazine 1999, Native Peoples 1999, and French magazine Geo 2006.
I’m Janie Verret Luster, and my tribe is the United Houma Nation of Louisiana, and I live down in a little community called Bayou DuLorge. The Houmas, as far as the location, start where the Mississippi and Red River meet around Baton Rouge area. In fact, Baton Rouge was named because of us, you know, Baton Rouge, “red stick.” That was, you know, our divining hunting grounds. And so as the European people, Cajun people came in, we were forced out and migrate more and more south to areas that other people didn’t want to be in. It turned out to be, you know, wonderful for us, you know, the hunting, the fishing – it was all there.
I can remember growing up, as a child, you know, we always had food on the table, you know. There was never a day that we didn’t have food. Mama had her garden, you know. There was the hunting that dad did, mom did too. So there was nothing, you know, never a day that we didn’t have something on the table. We lived in an area where you could only get to by water. We didn’t have a road.
So it was just a little community, you know, maybe four or five families there. We were rich. Rich in what we had. But when we started into the public school system, we found out we were poor. You know, by different standards, you know. But yet to us, we still are rich.
Our people always thought about the next harvest, you know. And that’s even like that with basket making. We always, you know, like I say, think about the future. But like I say, there was a lot of abuse as far as the fishing industry. That makes it hard, you know, for the younger generation, you know, even the elderly, they’re still doing it, to get out there. The other change is the salt water intrusion, you know. Gumbo, the main ingredients, you know, you have your shrimp or whatever you’re going to make a gumbo of. The filé, which is dried sassafras leaves. My mom saw the problem, you know, years ago, with the filé trees dying, you know, every time we would have a storm, salt water would come in and we saw a couple of trees gone. And all her trees ended up dying.
My mom passed away in 1998. I still have some of the filé that she made, and even though, you know, it’s aged, I take a pinch of it and every time I make filé I put a pinch. I do for my brothers and my children, you know, and pass that on.
There’s so much about the Louisiana cooking, the Cajun cooking, that you’d never hear anything about the Louisiana Indian cooking, you know. And that’s where all these others got their roots.
When I think of gumbo, I think of the ingredients that forms the gumbo. And we gave it to the non-Indian people, how to do this file for the gumbo,
You gather the leaves and you dry them, and that’s one of the things that with the Cajun people, they’re not as strict as we are. When they pick the leaves, they just go in there and put anything, you know, pick all the leaves. And with us, they have to be green, no brown spots or nothing on them, you know. And then we dry that in the sun, direct sun, and then after they dry, then we can take them, you know, take the little branches off and just take the leaf part and then you grind that up. And my mom would use a old fashioned hand meat grinder, and then she would sift it, you know, grind it up again.
It’s a traditional meal with us. We would have gumbo growing up two, three times a week. We weren’t poor in food, you know. There was always a meal there. It could have been a chicken gumbo, it could have been a seafood gumbo, it could have been just a shrimp gumbo. It was all there, you know. So like I say, and knowing that Louisiana is known for gumbo. I think by naming it that, it gives credit to our people.
So it’s passing on those traditions and not only passing it on, and knowing where the roots are, you know, how it came about that’s important to me.
One of the things that my mom did - I’ve never cooked it - but they would take a alligator garfish and salt it down and dry it, sun-dry it, and smoke it. And that, you know, way of preserving, they would keep that and use it in gumbo. Good eating.
Okra, in French, it’s called gumbo. Same way gumbo is spelled is how, you know, they pronounce it and call it, gumbo. And that came from the African American people from Africa that when they came across, the only thing they could bring with them was the seed of the okra in their hair. I didn’t like the okra gumbo. Mama would make it and I didn’t eat it. I got pregnant in 1976 for my first child and I craved okra gumbo.
I find that the younger generation are doing more fast food than good eating of home meals. I feel sorry for the younger parents that have three or four children growing up at this time, that they don’t really have the time, and, you know, their outlet is the fast food chains.
We have a lot of diabetes in our community also. But then again, you know, the plant knowledge, there were certain plants that you would use to combat diabetes. The loss of that knowledge and the convenience of the fast foods, the convenience of going to the modern day doctors is another thing that’s all playing into the health things, you know. My dad didn’t go to the doctor. He turned to the plants for his medicine. You know, you don’t see too many people doing that anymore. Alligator give not only food but the older people would eat that because it would help with arthritis.
The plants that we use as medicine, we can’t no longer find those, and so all the way around that’s one of the biggest things - is the coastal erosion and salt water intrusion. I don’t think the levies are the cure. Saving those islands that protect us, that should be protecting us. If they would rebuild those, I think, you know, it would not only be good for us in Louisiana, but for the whole country. And that’s what we say, they’re not just Louisiana’s wetlands, but, you know, America’s wetlands.
I realize living in such a prejudiced community that if we didn’t voice, we would have no voice.
United Houma Nation Home page: www.unitedhoumanation.org