Lake Fausse Point, Louisiana

October 31st, 2004

Sacred Fires

I am on vacation this week from the newspaper. As you read this, I am hopefully fishing my head off.

For the past two years, my two weeks of vacation from the Banner-Tribune have been with my first cousin from Ft. Worth, Texas. I usually take a week in the spring and one in the fall.

Jim Ray Stouff is my father's brother's son. Uncle Ray died when I was about thirteen years old of cancer. He was 51. It was a tragedy in my life to lose him. Uncle Ray meant the world to me.

See, Jean Pierre Stouff came to American from France in 1845 to work as overseer for one of the largest plantation owners in this area, Martial Sorrell. His wife, Catherine, ran a general store outside of the Reservation that was sacked by the Union troops. I have a copy of her deposition before the U.S. courts claiming recompense after the Civil War, and I can tell you, she must have been a fiery woman because she gave Gen. Banks hell as his men took everything from the store. It was one of their sons, Octave Pierre, who married a Chitimacha princess named Delphine Arnis, my great-grandmother.

There were four brothers in my grandfather's family. He was Emile Anatole, and his brothers were Nicholas Leonard Stouff Sr., Octave Pierre Stouff Jr. and Frederick Stouff. There was a younger brother, David, who died at an early age, and a sister, Constance, who also died before she was a teen, of a fever.

Coming of age during the Depression, all the brothers left the Reservation in search of opportunity and freedom from oppression and prejudice. Three ended up in Ft. Worth, and one in California.

My true grandfather was Nicholas, evident of course because my father was Nicholas Jr. Here's why I consider Emile my grandfather: Emile and Nick, who were of course brothers, married two sisters, Oral and Faye Rogers. Oral and Nick had two boys, my dad and Uncle Ray. Emile and Faye had no children, probably due to him contracting polio as a child.

Nick and Oral were dead by the time I was born. Having no legal heir, Emile and Faye adopted my dad in court. Thus, they were the only grandparents I ever knew, though they were by blood my great-aunt and great-uncle.

Of the brothers, only Emile returned to the reservation. He was a general contractor, and did work on the Panama Canal. He came home to take over the family homestead, which is where I live now.

My father was born in Ft. Worth, and didn't come to the Rez until he was a young teen. He so fell in love with it that, after serving during World War II, he came back to Chitimacha and made it his home.

Emile was chief of the tribe, by blood. My father was the last bloodline chief and our first elected Tribal Chairman after he and four other tribal members wrote and adopted our Constitution and By-laws to obtain federal recognition.

I have always believed that Emile came back to the Rez because he was moved, almost coerced, to do so. Sacred fires are hard to resist, to deny.

My people came from Natchez. We were a branch of the Natchez Nation that split off from the main group due to some sort of division. But French writer L. Simone Du Pratz, while living with the Natchez in the early 1700s, noted that the Chitimacha and the Taensa were the only other tribes the Natchez considered brothers.

At Grand Village in the Natchez world, a flame was always kept burning. It was said that if the flame would be allowed to go cold, great doom would befall the tribe. Du Pratz writes that at one time the flame did go out, and such an uproar rose among the Natchez people that he himself feared the world was ending.

From Natchez we took our kinship, heirship and social customs. The leaders of our people were the Suns. My grandfather and my father were Suns. I make no such personal claim, because those days are past now.

I have always believed Emile and, later, my father, came back to Chitimacha because they knew, in their hearts, in their spirits, that the flame must be tended. In this they were forever dedicated and true. Sometimes, when the night is quiet and the sounds of the Reservation creep to me like spirits on fall breezes, I think that the fire out there somewhere keeps me here as well.

Jim Ray and his son, Christopher, will be joining me this week. Time was, the Texas Stouffs would make one pilgrimage to the Rez each year, and the Louisiana Stouffs w ould in turn visit Ft. Worth. After Uncle Ray died, and my grandfather, those visits slackened. Not long ago, though, Jim and I made the commitment to each other that we won't let that happen anymore.

Jim is about eighteen years my senior. I was born late, and an only child. When he comes here, and we fish together, he tells me stories from times before I was born, stories I can put on the pallet of the world I know and have yet to recall. He tells me he wants his children (he also has two daughters) to experience the Rez and the Atchafalaya Basin. Chris has already fallen in love with the basin after his first visit in the spring.

We are going to chase bass, sac-au-lait and bluegill. We are also going to head for the marsh in search of redfish and speckled trout. I am hopeful we will have a grand time this week. Jim fishes the fly rod along with spin tackle. When he was a boy and the Texas Stouffs were visiting, my father handed Jim a fiberglass fly rod.

"See what you can do with that, boy," my dad said. After a few minutes of sparse lawn casting instruction, they took off fishing. Jim learned to cast and caught a few fish with the borrowed rod.

When it was time for them to go, as they were packing the car, dad handed Jim the rod. "Take that home and see what you can do with it over there, boy," he said. Jim still fishes that rod today.

Uncle Ray gave me my first pocketknife. I wish I still had it, but I lost it somewhere decades ago.

There's going to be a lot of fishing this week. But most of all, there's going to be a reunion of the Stouffs, yet again. It's good to come back to where it all began, in that little cottage by the bayou where generations fanned out in search of freedom. That their descendants will come back, fish with me in my in our native waters, gives me hope that the fire out there somewhere still burns hot and brilliant. ~ Roger

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