Bel Abbey: Koasati Stories
Elton, Jefferson Davis Parish
Introduced by C. Renée Harvison and Maida Owens
Excerpt from Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana
North of Elton off of Highway 190, about three miles down a country road, lies the Koasati (or Coushatta) community. The Koasati are one of Louisiana's larger Native American groups, numbering about four hundred persons. Their ties to Louisiana date back to the late eighteenth century, when the tribe came from Alabama and crossed the Mississippi River to settle in villages near the present Arkansas-Louisiana border. By the middle of the nineteenth century they had made several settlements in Louisiana and Texas. Today the Koasati are concentrated in an area near Beaumont, in East Texas, and in Southwest Louisiana near Elton, in Allen Parish. Although long and close contacts with European Americans have influenced their culture significantly, the Koasati still strongly retain many of their native traditions, including their foodways, crafts, native tongue, and stories.
Bel Abbey was one who clearly maintained his identity, but not at the expense of separating himself or his family from outsiders. Until his death on January 21, 1992, Bel and his family shared their culture with anyone willing to watch and listen. They participated in several of the state's festivals and worked closely with the Louisiana Folklife Program. Two of Bel's daughters, Myrna Wilson and Marjorie Batisse, continue to make two popular Koasati dishes, frybread and corn soup, and to demonstrate their basketry. Bel demonstrated the woodworking skills he learned from his elders by making blowguns (used to shoot birds and small game) for adults and toys for children. He said that the toys he made helped him relate to the children. "I enjoy to play with the children," Bel said. "I like it." And both the children and their parents enjoyed him as well. He was a soft-spoken, gentle man with a warm demeanor that touched people and drew them to him.
Often, once Bel had caught his audience's attention with a toy or other woodcraft he was making, he would tell them a story. He said, "That's what the important thing [is], the stories. A lot of people like the stories." Because his native language was not English but Koasati, his English was awkward at times. But neither Bel nor his audience let this language gap prevent the enjoyment of his stories. Just as he learned woodworking from the older people, Bel learned many stories from his elders, who he said would get together and tell each other tales. He said that as a boy he would stay near them and listen all the time. It is from them that he learned the traditional animal tales, such as the turtle and the trickster rabbit running a race, the bear teaching the Indians about resin's medicinal qualities, and how the Indians first met Europeans. Bel also told his own personal experience hunting stories, in which he nearly always mixed human and animal characters, with the animals outsmarting the human, namely, Bel. Before his age slowed him down, he frequently hunted and fished. During these outings he tangled with many creatures of the forest, including ducks, owls, rabbits, and even lost cows.
At the conclusion of each of his tales, whether a traditional Koasati story or one of his own, Bel always said, tafhiyám, and then spit in order to avert evil. The belief is if a story is not concluded in that manner, the teller will get a humpback or crooked back. "You'll have something coming up your humpback or something wrong," Bel explained. "You've got to say tafhiyám and you've got to spit one time."
Bel was born in 1916 in the Koasati community near Elton, where he lived his life, out in the country. Behind his house on the other side of a large field are the woods to which he often referred in his hunting stories. He worked with students at Tulane University in New Orleans, the University of Southwestern Louisiana in Lafayette, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. He also participated at the Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. Bel continued to give demonstrations at festivals across Louisiana. In 1991, he completed an apprenticeship with his nephew Timothy Langley, in which he taught Timothy his traditional skills and stories. Bel was glad that his nephew wanted to learn from him because he felt it important to hand down the Koasati ways; as he said, "how we get it, where we get it, how they do it, the way they used to do." Perhaps, like Bel, Timothy will, in turn, continue to share his special culture with interested outsiders.
Notes to the Teacher: Bel Abbey's tales represent the lore of the Koasati (sometimes called Coushatta) people, who began migrating from what is now Alabama to Louisiana territory in 1763, as the French colonists withdrew from Alabama and the English came to occupy it. The Koasati preferred French neighbors to English neighbors; as a consequence, on their current reservation near Elton, bordering Cajun settlements, many Koasati speak French and bear French surnames. Howard N. Martin (1966; 1977) presents myths and historical narratives collected from the related Coushatta peoples of East Texas. Notes are provided by Geoffrey Kimball (GK) and Carl Lindahl (CL).
On his father's side, Bel Abbey belonged to the family from which Koasati chiefs were elected; his mother's side was notable for its traditional doctors and ritual specialists. He and his wife of nearly forty-five years, Nora Williams (1920-1984), had three daughters (the sex of child more highly valued by the Koasati) and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He worried about his descendants' commitment to their Koasati heritage and language, and he occasionally gathered them together to speak to them about the importance of their culture.
Bel Abbey was in the first generation to be Christian from childhood, but he absorbed much of traditional Koasati culture from his mother, his maternal uncles, and grandparents, who were only superficially Christianized. He received little Western education, primarily a few years at the Congregational Church school; he only learned to write English while in the army during World War II. Nonetheless, he learned a great deal from his relatives, especially in regard to traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering activities; and he bent his natural curiosity and keen sense of observation to learning about the natural world. Three features that deeply colored his personality were a solid pragmatism, a respect for truth, and a skepticism concerning things that cannot be tested by the senses. Thus, though he enjoyed traditional tales, he was highly suspicious about their veracity. When telling any kind of traditional narrative, he always gave a warning introduction to the effect that the tale to follow was something that he heard, the truth of which he could not attest (GK).