Around Louisiana: Greater New Orleans

Grave transgressions

I can’t imagine the mindset of a person who would rob a grave –– skulking into areas blackened by night to break not only hallowed ground but also the Seventh (if you’re Catholic or Lutheran) Commandment and stealing after poking around the remains. It conjures up visions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark stories or of Val Lewton’s dark little movie gem, The Body Snatcher. But in the Slidell area, for the Chahta Indians, part of the Tchefuncte Nation that lived on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain for thousands of years, grave robbing is no mere work of fiction. In a report filed by Adam Duvernay of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Elwin Green Gillum, aka Chief Warhorse, spoke of the ongoing vandalism of American Indian graves found at the Parker and Green cemeteries near Airport Road in Slidell. Thousands of members of the Tchefuncte Nation are buried there along with American Indian artifacts that are regularly snatched from the site and sold on the black market. Beads, clothing, treasures and even the bones of the deceased are being grabbed. According to Warhorse, these despicable crimes have been going on for decades, posing the big question:  Where in the hell are the police, the president of St. Tammany Parish and others just downright outraged enough to do something to prevent this desecration? This is a precious piece of American heritage made no less important by being merely obscure.

“The graves I am taking care of are the last of our old people,” said Warhorse.

The area was once filled with traditional burial mounds, but persistent grave robbing caused the tribe to lay concrete slabs over the mounds during the 1970s. Still, signs of damage to the concrete are visible. At the powwow held in June of this year, the tribal elders levied a $10 tax on members to finance restoration as well as to protect the vulnerable cemeteries.

Warhorse’s own personal travels across the country and her visits with anthropologists have revealed to her the hot demand on the market for American Indian artifacts. Many of the buyers represent universities and museums.

Joseph Yarbrough, president of the Fort Pike Foundation, who is working with Warhorse, observed the damage to the stone tombs and unearthed bones. He and Warhorse share the opinion the thievery can be attributed to local teenagers and amateur treasure- hunters. Although staunch federal laws prohibit any American citizen from performing such reckless digs, Warhorse reports that the Chahta Indians are on their own when it comes to protecting their sacred ground. She has come upon teenagers recreating in the cemeteries at night and then discovered damaged graves the morning after; when she reports teenage drug and alcohol use in the cemetery to the local law enforcement, the patrols sweep by only briefly. Warhorse has many documents that chronicle her family’s history on the Northshore, but because the Chahta are not a federally recognized tribe, they do not qualify for assistance. In the meantime, invaluable artifacts belonging to remnants of a beloved heritage provide ill-gotten gains that line the pockets of thieves to whom nothing is sacred.
Night lights

If you believe the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain is the only hotbed of supernatural activity in the Greater New Orleans area, lift your head from that bouquet of voodoo herbs, drop that mojo bag and head for the Causeway. Veer left once you’ve crossed Lake Pontchartrain, and head to the tiny town of Madisonville.

The Madisonville Lighthouse juts skyward on a small tongue of land lapping up water at the mouth of the Tchefuncte River. Built in 1838, it lies 3 miles south of Lake Pontchartrain. Inside the spectral-white conical structure, 45 steps wind upward to eventually reveal a breathtaking view of the lake and surrounding countryside. Fifty years after it was built, a violent storm wiped out surrounding buildings, but the lighthouse and keeper’s cottage somehow managed to remain intact. The years brought many keepers who climbed the spiral staircase to light the beam that stabbed through the dark over murky waters. The first keeper was Benjamin Thurston, who planted an oak that is supposedly still in the National Tree Register. When the dazzling daylight display of sun playing over water fades into the photographic negative of night, the Madisonville Lighthouse is said to reveal its true colors.

Stunned security guards have reportedly placed calls to local police because they see strange glowing lights bouncing through the air as they make their way up the stairs. The last lighthouse keeper left in 1935, and no one has been allowed in the structure after dark. The supernatural light show extends to the outdoors;

unexplained lights have bobbed around the foot of the building and surrounding bushes and hovered on the shore of the night-blackened river. Boaters enjoying the tranquil nocturnal waters of the river have seen red lights glowing like fire in the upstairs windows of the lighthouse while others who are moored on lazy summer nights hear children’s laughter coming from the empty foot of the lighthouse base.

Daytime visitors have encountered a shadowy gentlemen standing at the window who fits the known descriptions of Thurston, the first keeper. And the forbidding figure of another keeper also seems to keep his watch in the tower and has been encountered there at night. Electronic voice phenomena recordings made by one lone vigil keeper (who bolted in terror after one such encounter) caught the sound of growling and disembodied voices. Trick or treat, anyone?