Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

July 26th, 2003

Raintree
By Roger Emile Stouff

It's hard to write anything about fishing when one is not doing much of it.

The weather seems to be finally straightening out around here, but then, the old saying remains that if you don't like the weather in Louisiana, stick around a minute. This morning on the Internet when I pulled up the Weather Channel's local forecast, I was mystified to see the daily forecast illustrated with these bright yellow-orange round things. It took me several minutes to realize I was looking at cartoon suns. I hadn't seen one in so long, I had forgotten.

Though the chance of rain still lingers, sulking, there is a good chance that fishing weather is close. It takes, after the amount of rain we've had, a couple weeks for things to get right again, but the river is expected to begin falling this week, a sure sign of good things to come.

I had been checking out one of my favorite fishing spots between thunderstorms, or at least trying to. Once I took off under clear skies and the radar was clean as a whistle, but by the time I got to my fishing spot, the sky fell out. I barely made it home dry, and I pushed my boat to frightening limits. Didn't really matter. While at my fishing spot, I noted the water was remarkably similar to chocolate milk. With marshmallows.

So there's not been much to write about lately in the swamps, other than the rain. You'll note that I've resorted to conjuring up some non-fishing columns to fill the "Native Waters" which have fallen on me nearly every moment for two months now.

Puts me in mind, though, of our own story of the great flood.

There was a great deluge, of course, a historical marker of nearly every culture. To survive, my people built a giant clay pot to ride out the flood.

During their voyage, the Chitimacha occupants of the huge pot encountered two rattlesnakes who begged to be saved. The Indians refused, of course, for who wants to ride out a flood with two rattlesnakes in a clay pot?

But then a pact was reached: The snakes promised to never bite a Chitimacha ever again, and were allowed sanctuary from the flood. The rattlesnake became the Chitimacha's principal totem after that, and no known bites of a rattlesnake on one of my people has been recorded.

There is a similar story concerning the flounder. Because my people lived in the swamplands of Louisiana all the way down to the coast, we hunted and fished a broad area.

At some point in the distant pass, we caught the first flounder. Startled by its remarkable appearance, they set the fish free, though not really aware why. Not long afterwards, an old woman told the people she had been told by the Great Spirit the fish was sacred, and should never be eaten.

It was said that the flounder was sacred because both of its eyes faced upward, toward the Creator.

Sunday morning, a storm barreled through like a locomotive, throwing spears of lightning and pounding the earth with rumbling drums. Rain fell like it was the end of all things. I opened all the doors and windows of the house, letting the scent of it permeate the corners and ceilings, let the sizzle of lightning sink into the joists and timbers, let the noise shake its foundations.

There were four trees which marked the boundaries of the Chitimacha nation. It is not clear what three of them were, but the last was a cypress, and it was known as the Raintree.

It grew somewhere near St. Martinville, and in times of drought, my father's people would snap a limb from it, perform a brief ceremony, and submerge it into the bayou or lake. This invariably brought rain.

The ethnologist John R. Swanton, who visited here just after the turn of the 20th century, documented that in at least two non-Indian incidents, the Raintree was known to have held this power. Once, a barge tied off to it and broke a limb, which brought immediate rain. Another similar incident ended in the same results. My great-grandmother, Delphine, was reportedly the last person to utilize the Raintree's power.

In 1927, a photographer from Lafayette appeared unexpected at my grandparents' door. He had been directed there upon his first stop on the Reservation, since my grandfather was chief at the time. He told them, cautiously, that he was aware of the Raintree legend, and where it grew. He also learned that it had fallen, its roots undermined by the waterway which flowed alongside it.

Gathering his camera gear, he went and took a photograph. Back at his lab, he developed the negatives and made prints of them.

When he first laid eyes on the prints, he told my grandparents, he immediately took them and got in the car to come to Charenton. He had never been here before, didn't know who to talk to.

"This has to be with you," he told them, and gave my grandfather a print. I still have this photograph. It is grainy and the contrast poor. But if you look closely, perhaps through some trick of the light, you can discern the shapes in the ripples of the water. Hand in hand, several of them, dancing.

Perhaps it was merely that, a trick of the light. But the spirits there are clear, at least to me. They danced there, on the banks of that bayou, mourning and honoring the last of the great trees which marked the boundaries of a great nation.

The photographer, whose name is now lost to me, also collected a few limbs from the Raintree and gave them to my grandparents. They sit in a cypress case with a glass front I constructed. They are dry and safe as they were that day in 1927 when they were brought to us.

It was in 1927, you may be aware, that Louisiana experienced the worst flood in local history.

When it rains like this, I take out that old photograph and study it. Still it brings a chill to my spine.

And I wonder if somewhere, on some bayou near St. Martinville, some fragment, some tiny shred of power still exists where thick roots spidered down into the earth. If I knew where that spot was, I would visit there, present myself as the descended blood of the last one who touched and moved that power around her.

Deep in the earth, perhaps some remnant of the Raintree may remain, and spirits may still dance there, reflections cast by the waters, as is only fitting for those dancers who were known as Sheti'imasha, people of the lake.

Thank you for sharing my ramblings, and my waters. ~ Roger


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