This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit
African American Material Culture in Cemetery Trees by Rolonda Teal
Hello. Can y’all hear me? Okay, great. All right, I’m going to be talking to you today about African American material culture that is starting to appear in landscape. Today I’m going to be talking about the cemeteries, but also at historic sites and other places. I’m going to present who I think is responsible for leaving this new material culture. I’m finding that there’s not a whole lot out there about this right now, so if there are some of you here in the audience today that can help me with this, please see me after this. Okay, thank you.
Okay, I want to begin with a little bit of background as to why I think this organization, or these groups of people, form that are leaving this material culture. I think that we should start with the 1960’s and 70’s. This time I think was a turbulent time in American history. It was a time in which Americans began to question. We questioned what our values, what our morals truly were versus what we said they were. It was at this time that we had the Vietnam conflict and we’re beginning to see images of soldiers being brought back home wounded. We begin to see a sub culture develop in American society that did not believe anymore, did not see the necessity of it. You have a little fraction that forms.
It was also the time of the Civil Rights movement and as African Americans, people of color, they began to question their role in American society. How do we fit in? It was at this time that you will see many African Americans begin to adapt African names, go to the continent, etc. You have subgroups form even within the Civil Rights movement. You have a group of the peaceful Martin Luther King type followers, and then you had the black power movements. There are different groups developing even within that. It is also at this time that we see the development of the feminist movement. Women at this time were questioning, what is our place in society? Did we have a right to have equal pay and equal accessibility to jobs? Within the feminist movement, just as within the Civil Rights movement during the Vietnam conflict, you have a subgroup that develops.
This subgroup becomes known somewhat as a Womanist perspective. This term is being credited to Alice Walker from her book ‘In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens’ and she also deals with it a little bit in ‘The Color Purple’. This is how she defines it. It was a term that was created specifically for minority women. She goes into a very long definition and I only gave you part of it. The bottom line, if you wanted to summarize it here, is the concept of Womanist allows black women, minority women, to claim their place in history and religion and culture. It is this group that is beginning to leave this material culture on the landscape.
From this … Now, Walker defines this term in the 1970’s. By the 1980’s we have the development of Womanist theology. This is a group of women who are concerned with interpretation of the Bible from a woman’s perspective. You have Womanist secularism; they are not religious, but spiritual. They are creating their own religions, if you will. I’m going to use as a case study New Nazareth Cemetery which is located in Natchitoches Parish, that’s the highlighted area here in black. The cemetery and church formed like many rural cemeteries do, right after the emancipation of slaves. They started on the plantation and they actually took the church building and took it down river by barge and replaced it. The church is not there, but the cemetery is still there. That’s where we’re going to focus efforts.
As you can see it’s just a simple little rural cemetery, typical of Louisiana cemetery. You have above ground crypts as well as some interred in the ground. I’m giving this aerial view really to show within the circular area here is where the cemetery is. This path here is a part of Little River, so it runs along the eastern boundary of the cemetery. I show you this to show how isolated … If you notice there are no homes, there is nothing around it. I think that it is this isolation that helps to promote this ritual type aspect that we’ll see.
This is … Looking at the cemetery, if you’re going inside, I’m actually standing on the side by the river looking at these two trees. I’m going to refer to them as Tree One and Tree Two. Just couldn’t come up with anything more creative. The trees are approximately 15-20 feet in distance and I put the arrows there to show you that it is here that we find the artifact in Tree One and right about here that we find it in Tree Two. I’m going to show you what the artifacts are. Here’s Tree One. I’m out doing a cemetery service investigation … I don’t know why this is doing that, but anyway … On the service and investigation and this is what I see when I look up in one of the trees. Here at the top there’s a part of it sticking out, the tree has already begun to cover it, and then at the bottom you have another portion sticking out.
I look and I realize closer now … This is from the top so you can see it just a little bit better, you can see its wand. Here, next on the tree is what looked to be some carbons. When I looked at that more closely, I concluded that the initials were D.E.M. Now, as I looked around I didn’t see anything in the cemetery that had the same initials. It might’ve been done by the person who actually left it. We don’t know. I’m going to show you this bottom section here a little bit better. If you’ll notice, this is like a black burlap. It’s been wrapped in twine. We have nails coming out here, this is even a safety pin. Can you see it? A little bit? Safety pin and then nails stuck throughout it. Naturally, I’m crazy, I’m curious, I’m like, “Okay, we have this in one tree. Is there another example here in the cemetery in the second tree?”
I start looking around and sure enough, there it is … Well, let me show you the bottom section. I’m sorry, I’m out of line here. This is looking at the bottom of that. We have nails, stick pins, and here what can be taken as a cross or an X. I think it’s interesting. I was saying it could go either way. But I kind of like … Whoever did that poster back there on New Orleans. They showed Marie Lebeau’s crypt and they’re showing the X’s and they’re saying, are these X’s associated with Voodoo or are they X’s from graffiti? Well, this certainly is not graffiti. I’m going to say it’s associated with voodoo and that might be what’s happening there. We’re also seeing these X’s show up at various buildings on some of the plantation sites there in Natchitoches.
Okay. I look around. Here’s Tree Two. Notice this little piece right here. If you imagine the tree as having this little fork here, then it’s sitting right here. If you look at it more closely, what you’d find is it’s just like packet one, except that it’s more round and not elongated. It hasn’t been intentionally carved and placed in the tree. You have here the tip of a nail head. Again, a tip of a nail head. Look at it a little bit closer, you can see a tip of a nail head but also that the material has been placed in there and been there long enough until the branches there … I mean the vines are beginning to grow over the top. So when I look at Tree Two and I look at Tree One, it seems to me that it’s apparent that whoever placed these objects there meant for them to be eventually to be hid. To be covered by the tree. I begin to look to see where is this coming from. I’m in Louisiana, I naturally think voodoo, okay? I start looking and calling down to south Louisiana and no one has seen this before.
I start doing the research and sure enough, I find this book from anthropologist Alfred Metraux, he’s from … He’s a French anthropologist who had been studying in Haiti and he gave the closest description that I saw to match it. He said that these things were placed in trees at the opening of sacred places, particularly when you’re talking in voodoo and the various entities that are involved with that. That they are male and female, which helps to explain why there are two. The female one is rounded on the bottom and elongated at the top, which is kind of like what we saw in Tree One; the male one is more rounded. I said okay, that kind of makes sense. Great. It makes sense also that if you’re seeing it in Haiti, what we know about voodoo in Haiti is that it was carried across the Atlantic, through the voyages there connected with slavery. So in Haiti and in Louisiana the practice is known as voodoo, but if you go to other parts of the African diaspora we find that it is called Candomble in Brazil and other places. I conclude, great. We know that Haitian voodoo comes from Africa. Let’s see if we can find some examples of it there.
I just want to show you what one … This is a very elaborate, highly decorated artistic female effigy, if you will. It has the same basic shape. You have the roundness here, the elongated trunk, here it’s already being covered, and your tip portion sticking out. So I was like, okay. I know it’s that. Then I began to look into Africa. What portions of Africa is this practice coming from. It’s being used among several cultural groups: the Ewe, the Fon, the Ibo. Used what … They truly identify as pacquets. It’s used to protect the wares, it can contain several different items depending on what it’s being used for. I just want to show you which parts of Africa we’re talking about. We’re talking about among the Togo, Benin and Nigeria region, right up through here is where you’re finding these cultural groups that are using these pacquets. So that’s great. It explains the pacquets to some extent, but what’s different is that no description that I saw explained the use of nails with the pacquets. I stay in the same region and I try to see, can I find something that talks about nails and pacquets together?
Yes, I do. Right there in that region, the have what is known as nail fetishes in which the pacquets or whatever it is that is being combined is placed in such a way that the power of the energy from this is coming from a bulge of some sort, like a roundness, or from the stomach. Here is a very simple image. There is the pacquet in the bulge of the stomach and a much more elaborate one, and wow, there are the nails. If you do a close up … You can see right here, as well … You have the twine, the winding of the pacquet. You have the nails. We go in a little bit closer, you can see it, but this one seems to have been not so much on an individual level but to represent perhaps even a cultural group … I mean, a tribal group, or something like that … In that you have individual carbons of people. Whatever this was, it was meant to protect a large group instead of individuals.
Now I say okay, I know where the pacquet is coming from and here are the nails, it’s all coming from the same region. It still does not totally explain the tree thing, except for the one that Metraux saw in Haiti. Well, we know by the time these ancient African religions had arrived in Haiti they had already been … I don’t want to say corrupted … But yeah, corrupted to become something else. I wanted to see then, if what I was seeing in Louisiana, would be found in exactly the same way in Africa.
I start looking to the trees, if you will, and here’s what I found. In several cultural groups there are sacred trees in Africa. In this particular drawing, which is artistic rendering from 1885, they were actually performing human sacrifices for the sacred tree. This man has been decapitated and the head placed here in the tree. This is one image. When I look further, there’s another. Here we don’t have the body still hanging, but you have an altar that has been left at the bottom of a tree and two skeletal heads. It’s almost, to me, representative of something that was designed to eventually be covered; to be hidden if it stayed there long enough.
The reason I say that, if we go to this next slide, this is a close up of that same picture. Here’s the nail going through the foot, maybe just to hold the body up but it does give me that connection with the iron, the metal, the tree, etc. If you notice right here above the top of the head, it’s almost as though the artist can see that it was designed to start to grow over the top. I think to eventually cover the head. Which is why you still see these two skeletal heads over here. If you look here, if you remember pacquet two, same kind of thing. It’s designed to grow eventually and cover it, is my thought on it. When I’m looking at the trees and all and I find this very current picture, this photograph was taken in 2005 of a sacred tree in Benin. Notice the protrusion here. Does that mean that something was actually placed in there and has been covered? I don’t know, but it gives us something to think about in terms of sacred trees and what may be placed inside of them.
I go back to the site three years later in 2006. At that time, Tree Two had been destroyed by lightning, fire. That wasn’t there, but it did leave me Tree One. I just wanted to see what the progress was at this time. As we can see, the initials were still there but they’re fading out, the D.E.M. We also began to see that this is unraveling and also being covered by the tree. Look at it closer, as you can see you barely see anything sticking out from here at the top anymore. If you look at the bottom portion of it, it’s begun to unravel, it’s faded out, the coloring is fading out. There’s that little safety pin that was there. The wrapping is coming loose and all, and I think that what is going to happen is that in time it’s either going to drop off completely or the tree was going to continue to grow and cover it.
I wanted to show you the difference, because here it is in 2006 and this is what that same portion up here at the top looked like in 2003. As you can see, it’s a lot more sticking out, you can see the heads of the nails much more clearly. All of this, three years later, has been sucked in completely except for this little piece of burlap cloth that is left over. Now, I’m contacting everybody in the world, Dr. [inaudible 15:26] sitting right here in the audience, to say, have you seen this showing up everywhere? Basically, no one had seen it. What they’re saying is that they’re seeing it in different forms. In other words, you might get to a grave site in a cemetery and find something at the headstone or buried slightly below the surface, but nothing quite this elaborate and certainly not in the trees. What that led me to conclude, to some extent, is that it’s not this great big religious thing going on. It’s not even a large group. This is almost like an isolated incident. That’s what led me to the next question, if that’s the case, who is leaving these types of materials?
I do a little more investigation and I come up with this Womanist spirituality or spiritualist group. Typically these people who are involved in this are over 40, highly educated, usually involved in politics, etc. etc. What they are beginning to do, is that they are beginning to combine various religions. Christianity, ancient African worship, goddess worship, all of these things and creating their own form of spirituality, getting away from typical Christianity as we see it here. When I return again three years later in 2009, so January of this year, I go back to look at the site and this is what is left. It has been intentionally destroyed. If you look at it from 2006 where it was almost completely covered, the items that were there, this is what is left. It looked like it had been carved out purposely, perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps somebody just didn’t want it there anymore. I did speak with the people who are aware of the cemetery and they’re saying what happened. They found it, they called the police, the police came out said a Satanic cult had done it and they left it alone. The police and the people.
I don’t believe it was anybody associated with the church that took that out, which brings up these concerns. How do we go about identifying this new material culture that’s beginning to show up? How do we teach people about it within the cemeteries as well and also testing techniques, because I had hoped when I got there earlier this year that it would have been completely covered. I was prepared to conduct some tests, how would we know if something has been buried in the tree? It wasn’t there anymore, so we couldn’t do the testing. In conclusion, there’s no way for me to say emphatically that this was left by a African American, by a Womanist or anything. I have to believe of course that African Americans and African American cemetery in a very isolated region. What it helped me to see, even though I can’t say that emphatically, is that I started looking at other things that were happening there in the Parish.
Someone brought this in to the Tennaquis State University. It was found in a house there. What we know about the house after I did the research was that this house had been owned by a black woman. This was inside. This is known as some people would call it a nackenzie doll or a soul catcher. It’s designed that when a person is deceased, the spirit goes inside of the container, every orifice is closed so you can see that at one time there were pins all the way across. You got the door knobs to seal the ears, something to cover the eyes so that the spirit stays inside. Also in that very same home, there were various snakes. Dried snake skins, plastic snakes, all this kind of stuff hanging on the walls. We know somebody else is there doing some things too and these were on totally opposite ends of the Parish. Then also as I was conducting the research I ran into this group, they’re known as Zion Trinity and they’re from New Orleans region. This is a group of women who don’t necessarily identify as Womanists, but they’re leaving an altar … This is one that was done for an album cover … But give you a story in conclusion to go along with this.
Sula who is located here on the left is a fifth generation descendant of Marie Torres Poinquan, who is a legendary figure in Natchitoches. And when I took her to where her great great great great great grandmother lived. Did I get five in there? When I took her to that site, she and the other women, what they did when we got there, is they immediately went into a set of prayers. They left candles, incense, fruit, liquor, and tobacco in honor of the ancestors, is what they were telling me they were doing. And it was like a little ceremony, maybe 15-20 minutes in duration.
I imagined myself as an anthropologist coming back through there a month later and I look on the ground and I see these candles, and these incense and this tobacco and this rum, and I’m going to think there was a party. Somebody left their stuff out here, you know they shouldn’t, some teenager or something like that. But actually what it is, is a part of material culture that started to develop from people who think like this group who combine … They’re actually a performance group … That combine Christianity and African religious songs together and they leave emblems like this. Even in the town they left something when I took them to meet somebody else.
What I’m really putting out here is that when we enter these cemeteries sites and even some of the older African American historic sites, when you run across things like that it’s not so much … I hit the wrong button … it’s not so much that somebody just left it there or dropped it or whatever or that they’re leaving it there intentionally, and that a lot more research needs to be done. If I can identify that one, I’m sure it’s not the only one, other things similar to that are going to start to emerge, and thank you.
In March of 2003 while conducting a surface investigation of New Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery grounds in Natchitoches Parish, some form of religious material culture was identified in two trees which were located on the eastern edge of the cemetery. The artifacts in the trees are believed to be pacquets, talismans, or fetishes which are designed to protect sacred spaces, the wearer, or to bring good or bad luck.
Traditionally, these types of artifacts and the religious beliefs associated with them held an international appeal. Examples of their use can be found in parts of West Africa, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil among other countries. The contents of the two trees at New Nazarene Cemetery appeared to match the description of a pacquet as described by anthropologist Alfred Metraux in Voodoo in Haiti (1974). According to Metraux, the Haitian pacquets were used in pairs to mark the entrance of a scared place. They are designed to represent both genders with the female pacquet having a slightly elongated top. Each pacquet can contain a mixture of herbs, blood, and animal bones. They are then wrapped in cloth and bound by string finally winding up in an incision in a tree that appears to be designed to completely cover the object over time. While pacquets, talismans, and fetishes are commonly and openly practiced in some regions of the globe, this is not the case in the northwestern portion of Louisiana. The inability to identify other examples of pacquets in the state suggests that this appearance was perhaps a lone incident and not necessarily part of an organized religious group. So who then placed two pacquets in the trees and for what reason?
This presentation will explore a trend by some African American feminists who have veered from traditional religions and are now creating their own form of spirituality which is largely based on a combination of various religions, including ancient African ones and Christianity. Trends such as these tend to create a gap in understanding African American material culture in cemeteries in the 21st century. The intended audience for this workshop is conservationists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and individuals with an interest in African American cemeteries and spiritual practices. Those who attend the workshop will gain some understanding as to why there is this development of combined religions being practiced by some African American feminist and how it affects the material culture at cemetery sites. There is no limit on the number of participants that can attend this presentation.
Rolonda Teal is an anthropologist with expertise in plantation systems and the African Diaspora. As the Co-Founder of Cultural Lore, an anthropological consulting agency, she has worked with numerous cultural groups, nonprofit organizations, and local and government entities in project planning and development, grant writing, and grass-roots organization.
Ms. Teal recently nominated Cammie G. Henry Research Center at Northwestern State University at Louisiana for inclusion on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program and the application was awarded. She published African Americans in Natchitoches Parish (2007), and has writings in The Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellions (2007), and Southern Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of the South (2002). Teal received her B.A. in Anthropology from Northwestern State University at Louisiana and her M.A. in Anthropology from the University of Houston.