By Roger Emile Stouff
Awakening to thunder from a late afternoon nap, flashes of brilliant lightning lanced through the windows, burning my eyes with white magic.
There were massive black storm clouds outside the window when I peeked through the curtains. Though there was no place I needed to go, I put on my shoes, grabbed my keys and went to the truck, feeling the need to chase the storm.
Author Sherman Alexie once noted that some children aren’t really children at all, they are pillars of fire which burn everything they touch; and there are some children who are pillars of ash, and fall apart if you touch them. I am a child of the storm. Born in the eye of a 1964 hurricane, I am a child of wind, and of water.
Across the miles along the road of my life, I have always chased storms. I feel an affinity with them, some kinship which trembles and sparks in air charged by the lightning. So not really knowing where I would go, I chased the storm broiling to the north, and the road led me to the Atchafalaya Basin Protection Levee, which I crossed and found myself on the southern shore of Grande Lake.
Ama’tpan na’mu. Beneath my feet, the broken white clamshell was like bleached bone. It stretched out for half a mile to the east and west, a fingernail of raised mound deposited here a basketful at a time by my ancestors. This was Ama’tpan na’mu, a very large village which looked out over part of Sheti, that great series of interconnected lakes from which we took our name in kinship.
I parked the truck away from the attendant’s shack, for today this is a boat landing, bulldozed at some point in the early part of the century so that fisherman could launch into Grande Lake here. I can still walk along the edge and find bits of broken pottery, some plain, some ornate. When I was a child, I would stand here with my father and we couldn’t see the other side of Grande Lake, but decades of man’s tampering with nature have taken their toll, and the northern bank is now easily visible. Grande Lake is but a shadow of its former self. Much like the people who share its ancestral name.
Over that now-near treeline of cypress and willows, a blackness as absolute as midnight churned and spit silver fire at the earth. The bolts found some ground below, discharged into the swampy watersways beyond. It was here, on Ama’tpan na’mu, that an entire village stared in amazement as a Spanish ship sailed up Grande Lake, having entered the Atchafalaya River from the Gulf of Mexico and made their way north. These were no mere Spanish colonists, no priests and missionaries: These were Conquistadors, set upon their mission by God, they supposed.
We call it The Beach now. It rather looks, from a distance, like a white sandy beach, until closer examination reveals the crushed and compacted clamshell. The clam species rangia was abundant when these lakes were sometimes brackish, and Chitimacha would feast on them, using the discarded shells as a sort of building material, a pre-historic concrete as it were. It kept their feet out of the mud in Louisiana’s frequent rains, provided a stable base for erecting palmetto huts, and the stark whiteness of it was a pristine backdrop to easily see a big, black water moccasin snake slithering up on the children.
Overhead, silver warriors throw spears from inside the black clouds, spears which turn into jagged, spectacular lightning bolts. The crash of them is created by a thunderbird, lurking somewhere in those same billows, beating its wings like a gargantuan raptor. There is no rain. I watch the lightning, not a second goes by without a magnificent blast of power, pitched down by silver-faced dead.
When the galleons arrived on Grande Lake and approached Ama’tpan na’mu, the na’ta of the village refused them. He forbade them to come ashore. If I look beyond the scattered wreckage of old oil drums lashed together as buoys, derelict boat trailers and assorted metal and wooden junk, I can nearly see small children, their faces stricken with amazement, looking out at these huge wooden vessels with their great sails, the strange, iron-clad men upon them, their faces so pale and bearded. I can see the na’ta, standing firm in his protection of a single village among dozens in the nation. What might have gone through his mind? Surely he could not have imagined that he was the first to witness the end, those who would, with the passing of time, reduce his thriving nation from tens of thousands to a handful of survivors numbering less than one hundred.
If I follow the village shell bank by boat, as I did last spring, to the east away from the ramp, there are shallows in which huge redears gather for a short few days each year. I chased them with the rod, they were fat and bold. They had come from the few remaining depths of Grande Lake to make their spawning nests in the hard shell shallows of Ama’tpan na’mu, where nearly five hundred years ago, the village na’ta refused the Spanish, and steel was brandished, cold and glistening white, like the lightning bolts crashing and crackling with power out across the lake.
It saddens me, sometimes, that we do not know his name, that na’ta, the chief of the village of Ama’tpan na’mu who stood, surely afraid and uncertain of his actions, against their blades. But the Spanish were beaten back, forced to leave, and they made their way down the lake and river, accosted by Chitimacha warriors all along the way as the alarm was sounded from village to village. Eventually they reached the safety of the Gulf of Mexico, and that first tragic encounter ended.
Traveling northwest by boat, I can enter the terribly shallow waters of Cok’tangi, “pond lily worship place,” which the Spanish called Grande Avoille Cove. The levee intersects it now, and its other half to the south is a favorite spot for fishing bream and bass in the spring, though in the summer its shallow waters are too hot to support much of a fish population. If I travel southeast, around Taylor’s Point and into the river proper, I can traverse the entire Atchafalaya basin with its winding oilfield canals, natural bayous, hidden ponds and pools.
But lighting is flashing everywhere, and thunder is resonating, trembling the clamshell mound. The storm is moving just north of me, to the southwest, and skirting the edge of the lake. I can see gray rain coming. Soon it will fall and Ama’tpan na’mu will glisten under it. A chief, when the word na’ta was no longer used, is buried somewhere on this mound, forbidden interment in Christian cemeteries during the mid-1800s, for after the Spanish retreated that fateful day, they made alliances with another tribe far to the east, and returned in force. The first chapter in the demise of the people of the lake was written in the war that followed.
Ama’tpan na’mu was long dead, its people scattered and decimated, when the Union army landed here to assault rebel troops stationed in Franklin in what would become known as the Battle of Irish Bend, just a skirmish by most reckonings, but a part of local history and folklore. Irish Bend is Oku’nkiskin, “old man’s shoulder,” a steep twist of Bayou Teche to the southeast.
The storm is passing, carrying its spears of lightning and silver warriors with it. Clearing skies behind, peeking sunshine and scattered rain. I am reminded that I have not fished this side of the levee since last year. Perhaps I’ll bring the boat some weekend soon, put it over into Grande Lake from the shell beach of Ama’tpan na’mu. I have probably missed the big redears, what we here call chinquapin, but there are still bream and bass moving along the canals and through the cypress.
I start the truck and head for home, leaving the old village behind, white and still. I make my way home, to T’kasi’tunshki, which the French named Charenton. As I am climbing the road which crosses the levee, in the rearview mirror I can almost see, in the gray misting of rain augmented by a few shining sunbeams far behind, massive, parchment-colored sails, mahogany bows, glistening swords, and one steadfast man standing at the water’s edge on Ama’tpan na’mu. His name is forgotten, but his courage will live on in the hearts of some long after the storms have passed.
Roger Emile Stouff is the Managing Editor of the St. Mary & Franklin Banner-Tribune. He was narrator and co-writer of the Louisiana Public Broadcasting documentary “Native Waters: A Chitimacha Recollection” based on his memoirs. He is also the author of the acclaimed “Lawson’s Peak” series of novels, including a mystery series.