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By Mary Frances Morgan
In connection with the National commemoration of our Bicentennial Celebration, the Covington Business and Professional Women are preparing a number of articles to honor certain women of St Tammany Parish who came a long way before that was the thing expected of women.
All of the women selected were born at the turn of the century or long before that tune. They were chosen because, although their contributions were not always spectacular, they were individual and were sufficient to show the dawning of the role women were destined to achieve later with not nearly so many social psychological and environmental drawbacks.
Even at the dawning of the new century, life was rugged in America, and woman's place in society was almost entirely devoted to helping her husband or family managing her home with minimal conveniences and tending to the work involved in bringing up her children.
The earliest inhabitants of our area were the Indians. One of the two last remaining settlements of Choctaw Indians In America is Lacombe, Louisiana, and the last full blooded Choctaw in Lacombe was Mathilde Johnson.
Sanville and Mathilde Johnson
Born Mathilde Fauvre in January of 1895, the daughter of Mathilde Santa Louis and Simon Faurve, she married Sanville Johnson while still a young girl. If not a pioneer In the sense of having been here with the earliest Indians who settled along the shores Lake Pontchartrain; she was a pioneer in the transition from her Indian heritage to the American way of Iife.
Indians were already living in the area of Lake Pontchartrain 1776, the Tangipahoa tribe, the Acolappissa and the Choctaw were all practically the same people. More than a hundred Choctaw remained in the vicinity of Bayou Lacombe, Bayou Castine and the Tchefuncte River until 1902 when by act of Congress, they were persuaded to move to the Indian Territory and receive an allotment of land.
The family of Mathilde Faurve chose to remain In their own beautiful bit of wooded area back of the Lacombe highway where a scattering of log cabins knit them together in a social unit all their own. Close by were small chapels, quaint cemeteries and the softly rolling land destined to become home sites and vacation retreats for well-to-do New Orleans families.
Sanville and Mathilde Johnson
(Photos by Ron Barthet)
(Photos by Ron Barthet)
The original home of Mathilde and Sanville Johnson was a log cabin snugly set in a picturesque piece of farmland. But the home they later built is a sturdy four room cement block house where Sanville lives today, at age 81 and where they spent much of their lifetime together.
Here, where we visited Sanville Johnson on a sunny October morning, we found the blending of the two traditions vividly in evidence. About the neat home were to be found a shining new stove and an assortment of older furnishings, religious objects and statues.
Pictures of their parents with the strong, rugged features of the Choctaw race, hung on the living room wall and framed there, among the .pictures, and proudly displayed is a letter from Lady Bird Johnson thanking Mathilde for a hand woven basket which she stated would be put to immediate use in the LBJ ranch in Texas.
While Sanville worked as a carpenter and in sawmills and nearby shipyards, Mathilde tended her home and used her spare time to make Fele and weave traditional Choctaw tote and vegetable baskets and cobweb brooms. Together, she and Sanville would travel by horseback and later by wagon into Lacombe and on to Covington and sometimes Slidell, to sell their wares.
Gradually Mathilde, who was always ready to share her secrets with aspiring young people from the new world about her, acquired a certain reputation for the authenticity of her craft. People from New Orleans came to Lacombe,bought and later placed her handicraft in the market places of the French Quarter.
The Choctaw were very fond of bright and gaudy colors, as is evidenced by their beads, belts, baskets and other crafts. The earth colors tended to predominate in their pottery, and a recent exhibit of Indian artifacts was held in the First National Bank in Lacombe. Included among the items on display were recipe books describing the preparation of early Indian dishes, bright beaded belts, quaint Indian dolls, and a pewter pitcher made in 1900. There was a photograph of Mathilde, seated on her front steps, her mother nearby an a swing, both weaving their baskets, several of which were also on display.
Although Mathilde, earlier in her life, dealt in other crafts, she came to rely largely on her basket weaving not only to satisfy her artistic urge but to add to the family Income. The best baskets, Sanville tells you, were originally made of narrow strips of cane ( Arundinaris Macrosperma ) which gradually gave place to the type Mathilde fashioned from the stems of palmetto, which grows so plentifully along the nearby bayous. She used brilliant aniline dyes blended with the more subdued native colors. The colors preferred by the Choctaw down through the years and used by Mathilde in weaving her baskets were yellow, red and black or dark brown. The pack basket has a rectangular bottom while the top flares on two sides.
This particular type of basket was made by Mathilde In natural colored cane, with no dyes used. Among other baskets she wove were the elbow shaped tote baskets, pointed baskets and covered market baskets.
Early in her weaving days Mathilde made oval baskets to hang on the wall. Many of these can still be found in homes throughout Louisiana and are used for dried arrangements and hung on doors at Thanksgiving.
Up until the time that Sanville and Mathilde were married, about 1914, many of the ancient Choctaw customs still prevailed despite the influence of European exposure and the work of Christians (largely Catholic) missionaries among them.
The few remaining Indians scattered In small homes among the mossy oaks and whispering pines of Lacombe recall little if any of the original tribal organization and customs. A number of superstitions linger faintly, some having to do with the moon seasons and eclipses and the spirits of their ancestors buried In nearby cemeteries.
The games and war dances, however, have vanished. The once tribal rituals, the duck dance and the snake dance are mostly faded memories, although the 'Man Dance' (Namena Hitkla) and the Tick Dance (Shantene Kitkla) were still part of life among the Choctaws of Lacombe as recently as 1910 or 1915. The dance ground was in the pine wood a short distance north of the Sanville Johnson home.
Sanville's memory of the practices of this people does not include the large variety of plants used in the treatment of various ailments. "Dr. Paine of Mandeville was our family doctor," Sanville told us, while fashioning a box in the large yard behind his home. "He never failed our people," he recalled. "If he couldn't bet through by buggy, he would come to us on horseback."
He remembered, too, a midwife by the name of Sally Octave, who ministered to the women of the village. But during his early years, the old Indian customs prevailing at the turn of the century for marriage, death and burial and mourning, were absorbed into the Christian practices which replaced them.
Had Mathilde and Sanville Johnson borne a family, their sons and daughters would have crossed the threshold of a new century of living In Louisiana and preserved the remnants of a proud tradition, carrying the banner of their pioneering ancestors into whatever tomorrow holds for America.
But the body of Mathilde Fauvre Johnson, the last full-blooded Choctaw woman, lies under the rnoss-shrouded oaks in a quaint cemetery In Lacombe, and Sanville Johnson, who answers many questions with "She would have remembered," goes about his quiet days much like he did in all the yesterdays in the old home and on the grounds surrounding it, shaping what trinkets his heart desires, or napping in the shade -while two kittens doze on the steps - and history moves on to a new tomorrow.