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African American Material Culture in Cemetery Trees

Rolonda Teal
Co-Founder of Cultural Lore

Tree 1: Notice the nails holding the pacquet in place in the tree and the cloth surrounding objects placed inside.

Tree 1: Notice the nails holding the pacquet in place in the tree and the cloth surrounding objects placed inside.

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.

Tree 1: This is the bottom portion of the paquet and is believed to represent the female spirit.

Tree 1: This is the bottom portion of the paquet and is believed to represent the female spirit.

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.

Tree 2: This smaller paquet is decorated in brightly colored cloth and was placed less than 15 feet from Tree 1.

Tree 2: This smaller paquet is decorated in brightly colored cloth and was placed less than 15 feet from Tree 1.

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?

Tree 2: Just as in Tree 1, this object is held in place with nails and vines that have begun to consume the pacquet.

Tree 2: Just as in Tree 1, this object is held in place with nails and vines that have begun to consume the pacquet.

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.

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National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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