64 Parishes

Hands in Sacred Dirt

Documentary Photographer of the Year Jenny Ellerbe’s images of Native American mounds

Published: May 31, 2023
Last Updated: August 31, 2023

Hands in Sacred Dirt

Harrisonburg Mound in snow.

I am a self-taught photographer living in Monroe, Louisiana. Some of my first photographs, taken as a teenager, were of the bayou that meanders through my hometown. After returning to Louisiana from Connecticut in 1996, I began to follow that bayou with my camera, trying to understand what had drawn me back to a region with, seemingly, so little to offer to a thirty-something-year-old looking for something else, something more.

The windings of that bayou took me through groves of cypress trees and Spanish moss and led me to explore rural communities and the thousands of acres of farmland that surround them. I’ve walked up and down rows of squash, tomatoes, and okra while visiting with the farmers who tend them. Watched hand-picked corn become ready for the freezer and trailers of raw cotton become clean and compressed into bales. And sipped ice-cold Cokes while listening to the stories of shop owners in Holly Ridge, Bonita, and Start.

But it wasn’t until I was finally deposited on the ancient earthworks that are hidden all over this landscape that I finally felt all of my experiences nudge me into my own place in this story. While standing on the tops of the dirt mounds at Watson Brake (built 5000 years ago) and Poverty Point (built 3500 years ago) and Jordan Mounds (built 400 years ago), I began to feel part of a continuum, a timeline. I realized that it’s the land that endures, that remains permanent, that will, hopefully, outlive us all. And with that realization came both a sense of insignificance as well as a sense of responsibility. What will I do, during my blink of an eye’s worth of time, to honor those who were here before me and to help those who will come after? How can I help balance what we take from this land with what we give back? I struggle to answer those questions as I continue to document this region, continue to make a record of what I find and what is gifted to me. I look for artifacts of our ancient past as well as our present-day culture, sometimes finding both of those elements in the same frame.

I had no idea where my photographs would take me when I began this project and am still not sure why I had to return home, but I have come to love this land. Not the many horrors committed on its surface, not the lingering racism, the poverty, the bias and injustices, but the land itself. Its resilience. Its patience with us as we continue to bungle our way over it. And my questions have changed from “what can this place offer to me” to “what I can I give back to it?” What can my hands build with this sacred dirt? And yours? And ours?

Jenny Ellerbe is the 2023 LEH Documentary Photographer of the Year.

Venable Mound.

Shackleton Church Mound.

Balmoral Mound.

McGuffee Mound in snow.

Milky Way over Poverty Point Mound A.