A key ingredient in to enjoying the city of New Orleans and its people is understanding how it came to be this way.
Where would New Orleans be without historical interpretation and understanding? How does the city continue to pass down the lessons of the past with relevance to younger generations? What would happen if future generations had no knowledge of or connection to their roots and heritage?
In 2001, Recognizing Our Roots (ROR) was created at Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, and is one of only a handful of Youth Living History Programs in our National Parks System. ROR brings high school students from varied backgrounds and joins them in a common goal: to share the stories of the diverse men and women who united to defend the city of New Orleans from the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
Today, ROR participants learn about the War of 1812, The Battle of New Orleans, practice interpretive methods, and train in historic skills such as drills, musket firing, and outdoor cooking.
They portray La Coste’s Free Men of Color Battalion, Jamaican soldiers of the British West India Regiments, Carroll’s Tennessee Militia, Juzan’s Choctaw Volunteers, Free Women of Color, Choctaw Women, and Camp Followers at the Battle of New Orleans anniversary event. The large success of today’s program can be attributed to the creativity, care, hard work, and dedication of Ranger Patricia Gutierrez Corral, and her fellow Ranger, Nathan Hall.
Though already a good program that incorporated both young people and African-Americans in interpretive representations, Ranger Patricia noticed that there were a few more key aspects missing from the Recognizing Our Roots Program. When she took over leadership of the program in 2010, she decided to strive for excellence, and turned a good program into a great one!
She developed curriculum-based lesson plans, incorporated local field trips, brought in historians as guest speakers, and utilized multimedia and web-based technologies to make the subject matter relevant and exciting. The revamped program emphasized resource knowledge and critical thinking, as well as interpretive and living history skills.
Thirty students from 2 local high schools were selected for the program and were required to attend at least 80 % of the classes that take place from October through December and at least 2 of the hands-on training sessions.
In the spirit of incorporation and providing a truer reflection of the time, Ranger Patricia successfully incorporated young women into the ROR program. These young women participated alongside the young men and learned about the role of Camp Followers and Free Women of Color during the war. They received hands-on training in food safety, historic cooking skills and interpretation. Ranger Nathan Hall also added to the efforts of inclusivity by educating students about the diversity of the British troops in the battle, and providing students with the option to reflect that diversity by portraying those troops if they wish.
The program was updated again in 2013 to bring ROR to an even truer inclusive state. Ranger Patricia initiated partnerships with the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians to recruit Choctaw youth to portray Juzan’s Choctaw volunteers and women at the park’s annual commemoration of the Battle of New Orleans.
Nine Choctaw Indian youth and seven chaperones participated in lectures and lessons presented by park rangers in the New Orleans classrooms each week via Web-Ex teleconference. Together they learned the significance of the Battle of New Orleans to the United States, the role that Free Men of Color and the Choctaw tribes played in the battle, impacts that the war had on American Indian communities and free people of color, and about interpretation through the art of living history reenacting.
Choctaw Indian students came to Chalmette Battlefield prior to the anniversary event where they were outfitted in period clothing and necessary accoutrements and trained alongside their New Orleans and Chalmette counterparts in preparation for the commemoration in early January.
Today, the ROR is going strong! The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians sponsor more than 12 tribal youth as program participants, and the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians host a 2 day intensive training session by park rangers at their annual Choctaw Expo for their students.
New Orleans and Chalmette youth encourage other students to participate in the program and the returning students mentor the new participants, today, 8 high school graduates from New Orleans and Chalmette have continued as living history volunteers.
The program has received local recognition as a finalist for the Orleans Public Education Network Outstanding Community Partner Award, and Youth Living Historians have participated in the annual Isleño Fiesta, the Call to Arms programs on Jackson Square, and various other park programs. The program is showcased at the annual Zulu Lundi Gras Festival and fires a musket salute to the King of Zulu. Recently the Recognizing our Roots youth took their program on the road as they participated in the 200th anniversary of Horseshoe Bend, and the program is currently being considered as a model to implement the Kellogg Foundation’s Racial Equity Initiative, and, to top it all off, over the past six years the ROR participants have contributed over 9,000 volunteer hours to their National Parks!
In addition to all of the great awards and recognition the ROR program has already and will undoubtedly continue to receive, one aspect that should absolutely be highlighted as ROR’s key to success is the invaluable mentorship that the students receive by participating in this program. Not only are Ranger Patricia and Ranger Nathan devoting their time to teaching these students, but in doing so, they are also allowing them to openly and honestly address hard questions, and discuss topics such as racism, slavery, genocide, and gentrification. By helping their students understand the historical significance of our cultures’ and our past, they are better helping them understand and take pride in who they are today.
By taking their own time to drive across town to pick up students who need a ride to the ROR program, they are confirming to their students that their character, their culture, their being, plays a vital role in portraying the intricate story of New Orleans’ culture as a whole. Being fully devoted to the ROR program, taking the time to care about their students, and getting to know them as individuals has been a key ingredient to the program’s success. ROR serves not only as a great addition to the education community in New Orleans, but as a prime example of the goodness that our National Parks can bring to their local communities.
As Jean Lafitte NHP&P ventures into the Centennial Year, the Park brings with it the strong standing of the Recognizing Our Roots Program. ROR plans to continue its devotion to inclusiveness, and its legacy of going above and beyond to establish emotional and intellectual connections with a wide diversity of local youth.