Louisiana a rich mosaic of native cultures
Native Americans had been living on the land undisturbed, except for occasional fights with each other, for thousands of years when the first Europeans arrived.
They came to Louisiana at first as nomads, perhaps 10,000 years ago, following the prehistoric animals that supplied them with food, fur, and sinew. By historic times, they had settled into six culturally distinct and important nations: Attakapas, Caddo, Tunica, Natchez, Muskhogean, and Chitimacha.
The Attakapas lived in southwest and south central Louisiana and were probably the least developed of the Indian nations in Louisiana. They generally avoided Europeans, which didn’t bother the Europeans, since the word “Attakapas” was commonly believed to mean “man-eaters” and they were regarded as cannibals. By the time of European settlement, the Attakapas tribe had diminished to only a few thousand individuals in villages along the Vermilion, Mermentau, and Calcasieu rivers in southern Louisiana.
The first European explorers to visit northwest Louisiana in 1700 found Caddo Indians who had lived in the area so long that they considered it their place of origin. They lived a settled existence in villages built on bluffs overlooking the Red River and its tributaries and were probably more advanced than any of the other Native American nations in Louisiana. The Caddo were apparently in contact with Plains and other Indian tribes and were the first of the Louisiana tribes to use horses. They lived in grass homes that looked much like beehives.
Tunica Indians lived in northeast Louisiana, with territory extending into what is today Arkansas and Mississippi. In 1706, after conflicts with the Chickasaw and Alibamu Indians, the Tunicas moved to lands held by the Houma tribe. Three years later, they turned on their hosts and killed many of them. The Tunicas were then attacked by the Natchez, who killed many Tunica. By the time of white settlement of the region, there were fewer than 1,000 Tunica left in Louisiana.
The Natchez, who lived in north central Louisiana, were also highly developed, with a complex social structure. They followed a religion based upon a supreme being represented by the sun and had a great love of warfare. The Natchez people lived in homes built by timber held together by mortar made from moss and mud, much like the bousillage that would be adapted many years later by Acadian home builders in south Louisiana.
The warlike Natchez resisted European encroachment, and an early Natchez massacre of European settlers was one of the reasons that much of Louisiana outside of protected settlements such as New Orleans and Fort St. Jean (Natchitoches) remained unexplored and unsettled for many years.
Several branches of the Muskhogean nation lived to the south of the Natchez, the most prominent being the Houma and the Bayougoula. Most of the Muskhogean tribes lived east of the Mississippi River in what are now Mississippi and Alabama.
The Chitimacha lived in southern Louisiana west of the Mississippi, with their major settlements along Bayou Plaquemine, Grand River, and Bayou Teche. Most of the Chitimacha lived near water and lived by fishing. They also planted crops such as corn and sweet potatoes, and very early on were noted by Europeans for their elaborate basketry.
The Coushatta Indians were not native to Louisiana. They lived in Georgia and Alabama and came to Louisiana in the late 1700s as Americans began to encroach upon their native lands. Neighboring Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek Indians lived outside what is now Louisiana but visited the state to hunt, and were also instrumental at various times as French, British, and, later, Americans intrigued against each other and sought allies among the Native Americans.
In some instances, these Native Americans welcomed commerce with Europeans. In most instances, they became reluctant allies, if they allied themselves at all. As historian Alexander De Conde points out:
“The Europeans came; they explored; they settled. They made good their claims to the land because they had the power to enforce them. … As Tattooed Serpent, a war chief of the Natchez Indians put it, ‘Why did the French come into our country? We did not go to seek them.’”
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.