African American Material Culture in Cemetery Trees
Co-Founder of Cultural Lore
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.