American Indian re-enactors bring ancestors’ past to life

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2008

Every once in a while, Grayhawk Perkins likes to take a 300-year step backward.

A Houma-Choctaw American Indian and a member of the Muskee Nation, Perkins doesn’t just study the past — he is the living face of history.

Perkins calls himself a living historian, a re-enactor who costumes himself in historical Native American garb and acts out the everyday activities of Indians during the French colonial period, which includes speaking the native language. He lives in Baton Rouge but comes frequently to re-enactments in Natchez.

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His costume — shaped by research of historical pictures — is of an Indian who has had contact with Europeans, Perkins said.

“I do that Indian guy who has basically had contact with Europeans and is still 100 percent native but who definitely shows the mixing of the cultures,” he said.

He may wear Indian pants and shirts, but he will also mix it with French shoes and jackets, Perkins said.

“My jacket may be French, but it always has that native flair,” he said. “I may add trade silver to it, and you can see the native colors on it, with pieces of ribbon and beadwork to show that it’s a native jacket.”

After three decades of re-enacting, Perkins said he first became involved with the art after witnessing a painfully unsettling Indian portrayal.

“About 30 years ago, I went to an event and there were a lot of non-Indians portraying Indians, and it was degrading and embarrassing the way they were doing it,” he said.

And Perkins knew if he wanted to see something about his culture done correctly, he would have to do it himself.

“How can you complain about something if you’re not willing to do it yourself?” he said. “I knew about my culture and my history, and there’s a lot about doing living history, about doing it right and correct.”

So Perkins set out to find the right group to align himself with.

“I found a group at Chalmette, and these guys did everything right, right down to the right underwear,” he said.

But it wasn’t long before he started learning a lot of things, not just about history but also about himself.

“As I was doing this there was a lot I was learning that I didn’t even know,” he said. “As the research goes I learn more and more about who I am as I learn about my ancestors, how they dressed, how they ate and how they lived.”

Eventually, the appeal of re-enacting became more than academic — it became personal.

“I started portraying people who were in my family who lived during certain time periods,” he said.

That connection with his ancestral family takes Perkins backward, closer to his ancestral past.

“Speaking my language, living that time period, it’s a lot of work,” he said.

After a pause, he continued, “Every year I see myself becoming my grandfather.”

Occasionally, Perkins shifts from the French Colonial time period to later significant events in American Indian his history, including his portrayal of the 1830s Indian Removal Act.

The time periods he has chosen to depict were done so for educational purposes, he said.

“A lot of people don’t know about those time periods,” he said. “Why do what everyone else is doing?”

The same goes for Melodia White, a Houma Indian.

“I love to teach my culture,” she said. “People just don’t know that much about Indian culture. Not long ago, I had a little girl say to me, ‘I thought all the Indians were dead.’”

And for White, a St. Joseph resident, being an American Indian is a big deal.

“I didn’t always know I was an Indian, and from the time I was little I wanted to be an Indian,” she said.

Part of the confusion for many people, she said, is that not all American Indians look like the stereotype.

“For one thing, the Houma usually have curly hair,” she said.

Teaching her culture’s history not only includes wearing something that has to do with the culture every day, but re-enacting it so people can fully understand it, White said.

“I show how things like a bow and arrow are modern day things and how they evolved from a stick and a string,” she said.

When she re-enacts the day-to-day life of an Indian woman, White said she wears a dress with an apron.

“The women have a dress code similar to the plains Indians,” she said. “They would trade things for fabric. You wouldn’t think it was Native American — it looks more like a modern day thing. The women also wore bonnets.”

In White’s experience, the educational efforts of people like her and Perkins have paid off.

“People are more interested in the Native American culture today than in the 1960s, and more Native Americans are proud of their culture than in the 1960s,” she said.

A lot of older people in the Houma Nation try to hide their heritage because in the older days being an American Indian could have resulted in persecution, White said.

“My grandmother doesn’t feel like she is a Native American,” she said. “She feels she is French. A lot of older people don’t feel they are Indians because of past experience with degradation.”

But for White, being the face of her culture only makes sense and holds no shame.

“When someone asks me what makes me so proud of my culture, I respond, ‘What makes you so proud of your culture?’” she said. “It’s part of who I am.”