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A Free Spirit

Vodou priestess, author and community leader, Sallie Ann Glassman

GREG MILES

When you think of the cultural fabric that makes up New Orleans, Sallie Ann Glassman could be seen as a spiritual seamstress behind it, embroidering and weaving the community with healing and positive energy. Glassman is a writer, artist, community spiritual leader, and ordained Vodou priestess. Along with a dedicated team of community-minded people, Glassman helped to spearhead the development of the New Orleans Healing Center, with the goal of providing unity and growth.

In addition to her work through the Healing Center, Glassman also leads public spiritual ceremonies throughout the year centered around New Orleans culture, nature, preservation and community. While not born in New Orleans, Glassman’s tireless work, and her dedication to her adopted home of more than 40 years have earned her a place in the tapestry of this city.

Many people have a clichéd idea of “voodoo.” In your words, describe Vodou? Vodou is a religion, a culture, and a way of experiencing life. It was born out of the conflicted encounter between African root traditions, European Catholicism, Native American practices and beliefs and Masonic mysticism and magic. It was carried on the backs of slaves to St Domingue and the Louisiana colony. At the core of Vodou is the belief that there is an invisible world of spirit within, beyond, and throughout the visible, physical world. That world is more beautiful, more powerful, and more full of potential and life than the visible world. Vodou continues to offer keys to freedom and power. Vodou ceremonies provide a technology for reaching into and interacting with the invisible.

How is Vodou important in the history of New Orleans? Vodou is an essential presence in the history and culture of New Orleans. Following the revolution in Saint Domingue, 10,000 Haitian refugees -- slaves, slave owners, free people of color - entered the port of New Orleans, doubling the population of the city and reaffirming the presence of Vodou in our culture. Slaves were allowed to congregate on Sundays in Congo Square for dances where the songs, rhythms and dance steps encoded Vodou meaning and knowledge. Vodou left its footprints all over the City’s culture: in the dance steps, beaded suits and chants of Mardi Gras Indians, in graveyard displays, the rhythms of jazz, the lyrics and call and response of the Blues, the cuisine, the symbols welded into wrought iron burglar bars, the resiliency and creativity of the people that allowed us to rebuild after Katrina. Some people think New Orleans has a European feel. I think it dances to an Afro-Caribbean beat.

How did you become ordained in Vodou practice? I am a Ukrainian-American Jewish vegan from nowhere, Maine, who went on a long journey to become a Vodou priestess. I was living in Kennebunkport, Maine in 1976 when my brother called to tell me he had been hired at Tulane. I thought Vodou and jazz would be interesting and got on a plane with my dog and my bird a month later. I had no idea that it was Spirit calling, but my second day in New Orleans I ran into a Vodou practitioner who started teaching me about the tradition. I was hooked.

Later, I was talking with my friend, Tina Girouard, in her kitchen about the possibility of going to Haiti to witness a ceremony in the temple she was president of that year. The phone rang; it was a mutual friend in Haiti calling to say that I should go and initiate. Not knowing any better at the time, I said, “sure!” I met my initiators, Edgard Jean-Louis and Silva Joseph, and was whisked away into a six day reclusion from the world, punctuated by some pretty intense rituals. I felt stripped of everything I used to identify myself emotionally, spiritually, physically and psychologically. I had to take up my power in order to get through. Edgard and the whole experience changed my life. I continue to learn what it means to be a Manbo -- a priestess of Vodou -- every day and hope that will always be the case.

Will you lead the Anbla Dlo Water Festival and what does it celebrate? The Anba Dlo Water Festival is morphing. Water does that. This year, because the water crisis has become so pressing, we will forego the annual Music and Art Festival. This change will favor a more serious Sixth Annual Anba Dlo “Beneath the Water Symposium,” followed by a community dinner discussion with scientists and environmentalists to explore bold solutions to the existential water crisis that we face in New Orleans. The Symposium will take place on October 26 at the New Orleans Healing Center.

Another important event is the Day of the Dead; how will you celebrate? The New Orleans Healing Center will partner with La Source Ancienne Ounfo (My Vodou Society) to host the First Annual Day of the Dead/Fed Gede Celebration and Ceremony on November 1. It has finally outgrown its original venue in Achade Meadows Peristil and will be expanded in the lobby of the New Orleans Healing Center. The festival will include a traditional All Souls/All Saints/Day of the Dead/Rara parade, a market, altars by local artists, a Ceremony to honor the dead and the Gede spirits, a pot luck supper, a procession to feed the dead, prayers for the dead from different traditions, praise names of the dead, and the passing of flame in their honor. In honoring the dead, we embrace the meaning of our own lives and open space for the next generations.


At a Glance

Occupation: Manbo Asogwe (High Priestess of Vodou)/Owner of Island of Salvation Botanica/Artist and Author/Co-founding Co-chairman of The New Orleans Healing Center Born: 12/14/54 in Maine. Education: I completed one entire semester at Columbia University! Went on to study fine art at The New Orleans Art Institute. Favorite Book: Just one??? I’m torn between War and Peace, Le Petit Prince and The Heart of Darkness. Favorite Movie: Apocalypse Now, Dr Zhivago, Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata. Just saw a terrific Tibetan Western, but I can’t remember the name of it. Favorite TV show: Deadwood. Favorite food: Artichokes. Favorite restaurant: Irene’s Cuisine.

 


 

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