What happens when you cross a cougar with a bear? Common among many Native American peoples is the idea of totems, or the expression of animal characteristics in humans.
The cougar’s strength and agility, for example, is associated with balance- not only of mind, body and spirit but also of the judicious use of power. The bear, with his hibernating nature, is likened to deep introspection and awareness. Lipan Apache tribal council member Kugr Goodbear is a young Kreol with these qualities that seem to emanate from his aura without him even speaking a word.
On a recent steamy, full moonlit evening, in concert were all of the sounds you’d expect from the place where the Louisiana prairie meets the bayou. Cicadas, frogs, crickets and owls were joined by any number of flying things that happen to zip by your ear on what felt like the downbeat: a syncopated cacophony, an ancient song dating to the dawn of civilization. It became eerily appaent that these ethereal sounds form the inspiration for the Creole music referred to as Zydeco. This Native Creole music provided the aptly placed soundtrack to Kugr’s telling of the Lipan Apache’s emer gence story whose title roughly translates to “Naissance of the Killer-of-Enemies.”
C’ande (Lipan for “hello”). “People as we know them today weren’t the first people, you know,” Kugr articulated in the slurred staccato indicative of Native speak clearly stemming from much time spent with the elders of his people.
“In the beginning, all the winds, waters, lands, stones and trees were all people speaking one language…and even before the beginning, at the time-before-time, all of the people were down in the lower world where only darkness existed…”
His story goes on to tell how the first Lipan came to settle in their homeland in what is today southeast Texas. It continues with har rowing tales of heroes battling enemies both in human and spiritual form. With Kugr’s telling of these stories, it is clear that he is a deeply spiritual person and he internalizes them on many levels: as entertainment, as oral history, as symbolism, but most importantly, as an integral part of who he is. “That’s kinda what it means to be Creole…to say something once and have it be received by totally different people, yet the central message remains the same.”
Kugr is the youngest member of the Canneci band of the Lipan Apache council, a responsibility he feels inadequate to assume yet does so with humility and a confident eye toward tradition. “When the elders asked me to join the council, I was speechless for a while…then I realized that it must be this way for some reason and I began to accept it.”
The Lipan have a long history of inter action with not only the Spanish but Tarahuamara, Yaqui and other Native American peoples from Northern Mexico.
“In fact, the Lipan Apache language – that we still speak by the way – is an eastern dialect of Apache whose lands span parts of California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.”
How the Lipan got to Louisiana and began their influence on what it means to be a Louisiana Creole is a story that is eerily similar to that of the African influence on La Creolité. “The White Man had already arrived in the form of Spaniards and the Lipan were on more or less cordial terms with them though still maintaining a cautious distrust of these foreigners.”
The arrival, how ever, of the ‘Spaniards of the East’ (aka the French) changed this dynamic forever as the Nortenos (a confederation of Northern Texas tribes: Comanche, Caddo and Wichita) aligned with these new White Men.
“After losing a war, thousands upon thousands of Lipan were taken into slavery in Louisiana.”
At this point, the slave trade with Africa had just begun and the phenotypic similarity to these Africans more than likely facilitated this process of enslavement of the Lipan.
“The Lipan are historically noted as being of a brown or copper complexion and having all different types of hair. When sent to the Louisiana Territory, the Lipan were dispersed as far away as Missouri. Some were even traded as far as North Carolina. A large band, however, settled around the area between Lafayette and Breaux Bridge.”
This is quite literally where the Louisiana prairie meets the swamps and is indicative of the border lands where the Lipan tend to reside: the last places where people are.
After losing a war, thousands upon thousands of Lipan were taken into slavery in Louisiana.
Our conversation continued later on a trip to Baton Rouge in search of documentation of Kugr’s people’s land holdings at the time of Louisiana statehood. A goal for the people is to obtain federal recognition of the tribe by the US Government. This would entitle them to essentially operate their own country.
“People tend to think that tribes seek recognition for the purpose of the money and building casinos. We just want to be autonomous and we’re historically a fighting people; just these days, fighting takes different forms. We adapt.”
The ensuing conversation went everywhere from waste-to-energy power plants to a Native American University. These are clearly not the kind of Indians of the old western movies.
On the long bridge that traverses the Atchafalaya swamp, Kugr shared his thoughts on the role of the native in Louisiana’s Creole melting pot. Clearly emotional yet jovial about the current state of affairs, Kugr proclaimed,
“To us, Creoles are Spanishspeaking brown folk. People around here are so anti-Mexican (and thus anti-Spanish-speaking) because of being so pro-Cajun or pro French Creole that they fail to see the truth of the matter that a kind of Creole people were here all along and the pigeon jargon that they spoke was the dominant trade language from here to the Appalachians and the Atlantic Ocean. This was the case well into the 20th Century.”
To us, Creoles are Spanishspeaking brown folk. People around here are so anti- Mexican (and thus anti- Spanish-speaking) because of being so pro-Cajun or pro French Creole.
This trading tradition was facilitated by the Mississippi River and its numerous tributaries. Kugr is keenly aware of this as he is one of the last Lipan fluent in the traditional form of bead making, examples of which he proudly dons.
“Each individual bead has a spirit, story and power and most of them don’t even come from around here. This was very much like a currency to us – what we traded with other tribes in exchange for the excess food and furs we had.”
The beadwork is impeccable and the vividness of the colours matches the fractal-like patterns with an ability to catch and hold the eye. Kugr markets his creations under the brand NAIZHAN, “our kind.”
There is clearly much that can be learned by taking an honest look at our past. The influence of the Native on the Louisiana Creole narrative is unmistakable once people begin to realize that today there are still “Indians literally in the back yard.” So, what do y ou get when you cross a cougar with a bear? Whatever it is, one might not want to be on the wrong side when it feels threatened.