Courtesy of Edward S. Curtis

Native Peoples of Louisiana

17:00 February 18, 2015
By: Emily Hingle

Before there was a debate about transplants invading and changing New Orleans, Native Americans had to contend with invading Europeans, wondering if they would trade with them or enslave them. The native people of Louisiana had a rather sophisticated way of life; they farmed, traded with tribes from all over North America and eventually co-existed with new races of people. Despite much hardship, there are still many Native Americans in our state who live a modern life with strong ties to their heritage.

In her book Louisiana’s Native Americans: A Mournful Memory, Written in Blood, Margot Soulé explores the story of Native Americans who may have been in Louisiana as early as 6000 B.C.E. Soulé explains, “Archaeological reports state that Poverty Point is the oldest civilization on the entire continent of North America. The sophisticated social and political lifestyle of Poverty Point was not confined to one town site. Numerous waterways connected villages to each other.” The federal government has a storied history in terms of their treatment of native peoples. Andrew Boxer states in his article “Native Americans and the Federal Government”: “There is no doubt that Native Americans suffered enormously at the hands of white Americans, but federal Indian policy was shaped as much by paternalism as by white greed.” Federal recognition provides tribes with a government-to-government relationship with the U.S. government while assisting tribes with essential services like education, health, land management and economic development. 

There are four federally recognized tribes in Louisiana: Chitimacha Tribe, Coushatta Tribe, Jena Band of Choctaw, and the Tunica-Biloxi. The Chitimacha have a reservation in Charenton on our eroding coastline. They were one of the most powerful tribes in the south, but a long war spearheaded by the influential pioneer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville forced most of the large tribe into slavery. The tribe’s chief signed a peace treaty in New Orleans in 1718. They have about 1300 members currently and their native language, Sitimaxa, is part of the Rosetta Stone program. 

Despite much hardship, there are still many Native Americans in our state who live a modern life with strong ties to their heritage.

The Coushatta stayed in between European-occupied lands and avoided scrutiny before about 300 members put down roots in their present-day home just north of Jennings in the 1880s. By 1935, they were receiving some government assistance, and then were cut off in the 1950s. They regained federal status in 1973. Today they number about 910 members, and own and operate the Coushatta Casino Resort. Their empire has grown into many businesses, including a hydroponic farming initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans and the Millworks, which creates custom furniture. The Coushatta have also protected their language with a digital archive called the Koasati Language Project, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Documenting Endangered Languages Grant. 

The Tunica, known for manufacturing and trading in salt, were not so lucky; they were hit hard by smallpox in the late 1600s. French missionaries attempted to convert them after the worst of the outbreak, but the tribe instead moved near present-day Angola in 1706; an Angola Prison inmate discovered remnants of this village in the 1970s. The Tunica helped Governor Galvez to push the British out of Baton Rouge in 1779. Along with the Biloxi and other tribes, they moved to where they are today just before the 1800s and were federally recognized in 1981. Leonard Charrier dug up their ancestors’ graves, which contained relics, in the 1960s. The tribe fought for custody of the treasure with the help of the state and eventually won it more than 10 years later. This incident led to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990. Today, the Tunica-Biloxi operate the Paragon Casino Resort and hold an annual Pow Wow. Their website says, “The pow wow is like watching the entire human history of the western hemisphere parade before your eyes. Singers and drummers representing a multitude of tribal cultures gather in dress and song, representing thousands of years of presence on these continents.” 

The Jena Band of Choctaw currently live northeast of Alexandria, but they originated in Mississippi and Alabama and migrated to Louisiana after the 1800s. One group of the tribe settled in Catahoula Parish. By 1910, the few Choctaw remaining were bartering with white locals, trading animal hides for goods and general labor, but lived a relatively isolated life. They were recognized by the state in the 1970s, and recognized federally in 1995. 

Ten tribes that have been unable to get federal status have been able to be recognized at the state level. The Governor’s Office on Indian Affairs helps these tribes to receive educational funding and scholarships. They include the United Houma Nation, Adai Caddo Tribe, Bayou Lafourche Band, Clifton Choctaw Tribe and Four Winds Tribe. Our state also has many unofficial tribes, including Atakapas-Ishak Nation, Canneci N’de Band of Lipan Apache, Chahta Tribe and Louisiana Choctaw Turtle Tribe.

The United Houma Nation boasts 17,000 members across 6 parishes. They explain the distance: “Although by land and road these communities are distant, they were historically very close by water. However, boat travel is no longer a viable option due to the effects of coastal erosion, which has left these waterways either nonexistent or impassable.” They have petitioned the government several times since the 1970s for federal recognition, but remain at a standstill. The criteria for federal recognition of Indian tribes are currently being reviewed by the governing body.  

You may be able to trace your heritage to the first European boats that arrived on the Mississippi or to the first Anglo-Americans who moved to the city after the Louisiana Purchase, but Native Americans have lived on and loved this land for so much longer.  


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