Danny Lee Petrella is pictured here inside his home on Railroad Street in Mamou with his accordion. Like many other Choctaw descendents, Petrella has embraced the Cajun and Creole cultures while keeping alive his own native culture. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
A cultural gumbo
The several distinct cultures of South Louisiana such as Cajun, Creole, and African have come together to form one identity much like how different ingredients come together to form a gumbo. One of these lesser known cultures is even responsible for gumbo itself.
While okra gumbo came from Africa, the Choctaw Indians of the area were as much responsible for introducing gumbo to the French settlers. “There would be no gumbo filé because that was brought by the Choctaw,” said Choctaw descendant Danny Lee Petrella of Mamou. “Regular gumbo is a Choctaw thing, and there would also be no tasso because smoked meat was introduced by the Native Americans.”
Petrella explained that the practice of smoking meat “goes back to the beef jerky days that you see in the Cowboy movies.” He added, “Even before that, people dried meat and smoked it. They couldn’t freeze the meat because they didn’t have an ice box. Smoke was also the easiest way to preserve the meat because they didn’t have readily available salt over here.”
The practice of smoking meat remains huge in the area today, but, as Petrella explained, differs from how it was done by the Choctaw. He said, “People around here like to smoke with oak and hickory, but my grandpa and all the old people where we used to live used a lot of sweet gum and sassafras.”
Petrella was born in the area west of Mamou called Spring Prairie where there was a big Choctaw settlement. “It was called the Mamou Choctaw band,” he said. “The Town of Mamou was named after the old Chief Mamou. They have him dressed the wrong way on the big marble statue of him. It’s nice they did the statue, but they have him dressed as a plains Indian.”
According to Petrella, the Mamou Choctaw was part of the larger Choctaw tribe that mainly settled in present day Mississippi. Here locally, the tribe stretched between Bayou Nezpique and Spring Prairie and as far as Beaver Creek. The term “nezpique” was the French term used to describe the pierced noses of the Choctaw.
“There were a lot of Choctaw,” said Petrella, “and there still are. In Mississippi, there are over 50 thousand. A lot of people around here have Choctaw blood and don’t even know it. They call themselves Cherokee, but, guess what, the Cherokee didn’t settle around here.”
Choctaw and Cherokee are two of the five major Native American tribes that are located in the southeastern United States. The others are the Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole. As Petrella explained, these tribes were known as the five civilized tribes because they accepted Christianity. “The Southeastern tribes were pretty much all the same,” said Petrella. “They used a lot of cane because there were baskets before Tupperware. They had to have something to carry items with. They were even buried in a basket a lot of times.”
Besides using baskets, the Choctaw used a lot of gourds, which Petrella called “the earliest domesticated crop.” He added, “They have been around for a long time and have been found in caves. All of the native people and the old Cajuns used them to carry anything carryable. There were no Wal-Mart bags back then.”
The Choctaw in the area were also known for their grinding stones and arrowheads. In Petrella’s home is a huge rock that was found six feet under the ground. “It was a grinding stone,” he expressed. “It was used on two sides. I got that from a friend of mine in Oakdale who bought it from the old man who found it while they were drilling a well. That’s prehistoric.”
As far as Petrella’s collection of arrowheads, he said that he picked them up while the local woods were being clear cut and bulldozed. “The tree planters who plant the pine trees used to come get me when they would find some chips, and we’d go look,” he said.
Petrella explained that the arrowheads used by the local Choctaw were made out of petrified palm wood and chert. The chert came from gravel in the Turkey Creek area. The arrowheads were then attached to cane or wood and were used for anything from hunting, scraping, and cutting.
Petrella also owns a collection of black pots that “were introduced as a trade item.” The black pots represent the mingling of the Choctaw and French cultures of the area. Petrella added, “When you run out of people, (intermarriage) is going to happen.”
Besides collecting arrowheads and black pots, Petrella also makes his own Choctaw crafts such as blowguns and flutes. He said, “I’m doing my own cowhide work. I tan my own hides. I make drums. I make gumbo filé and baskets. I’m keeping the traditional native craft alive.”
He explained the process of making the simple pine needle baskets. “Those are simply made by coiling long leaf pine, but you have to continue with your stitching at the same time,” Petrella said. “It’s almost like making a quilt. I make split oak and river cane baskets from native Louisiana cane.”
“It can go days or weeks to make a basket depending on the skill of the craftsman,” he continued. “You don’t want to do that in a hurry because it’s not going to come out good.”
Petrella posts pictures of all of the items that he either collects or makes on his Mamou Choctaw Facebook page. “I like to show everything off, and I tell as much history as I know about it. There’s nobody around to teach it anymore. I want people to know that we Choctaw were here.”
Petrella’s lifestyle is a way of keeping the Choctaw culture alive. “It’s extremely important to do this because if you don’t have a history then you can’t have a future,” he stated. “You have to know your history.”
He concluded, “Everybody wants to be the same these days, but I say be different. Be yourself.”