A Land Called Louisiana: Indigenous peoples and the “settling” of our region

The Raging Pelican is an independent publication providing the people of South Louisiana and the Gulf Coast with a voice in reaction to the wholesale human & environmental slaughter perpetrated against us by government and industry.By M.G. Houzeau, The Raging Pelican, Écoulement no.2

Part I:  From Self-Sufficiency to Enslavement in the Market

This is the first article in a series on the historical interplay between the methods of exploitation introduced by Europeans in the Lower Mississippi Delta region and the resistance by indigenous communities to maintain their independence and an ethical relationship to the land and each other.


“Before the French came amongst us… we were men, content with what we had… We walked with boldness every road. But now… we go groping, afraid of meeting thorns, we walk like slaves, which we shall soon be, since the French already treat us as if we were such… Is not death preferable to slavery?” –Natchez elder at a War Council, 1730

With oil creeping into bayous over this past year, settling in the shallow loess bottoms in the chill of winter, we might stop to reflect on what this nutrient-rich landscape in the lower Mississippi region has seen over the centuries. Before oil spills, before the erosion from pipeline canals, before industry, before Cajun refugees and before European colonial settlement, what did this region look like? What happened here?

Contrary to the Eurocentric explorer and historian’s “New World,” which retroactively constructs the land as virgin territory in a genocidally patriarchal whitewashing fantasy, indigenous communities have lived in the lower Mississippi region for twelve to fourteen thousand years, according to projectile points found in northwest Louisiana. The Indian communities here enjoyed complex and various cultural, spiritual, artistic, economic, agricultural, medicinal and warring traditions.

Indian villages were mostly built along the Mississippi River, nearly every ten to twenty miles where there was firm ground. The Natchez, the Tunica, the Taensas, the Houma, the Chitimacha, and the Washa were on or near the river while the Atakapa occupied the region to the west now known as Bayou Teche.

The tribes regularly traded goods, which compensated for the “unequal geographic distribution of essential resources such as shell, flint, salt and choice bow wood.”[1] Produced goods such as the superior baskets of Chitimacha artisans also found their way into a process of exchange between the tribes. Though glass beads and conch shells were also exchanged, the great mass of goods was desired for their utility.

In the lower Mississippi region, in what is bordered today as Louisiana and Mississippi, the standard of living in the 17th century was high. It was, in fact, higher than that of the Europeans who came to settle in the area in the 18th century. This can be attributed to good house-building techniques, capable doctors, competent agricultural practices, excellent weapons for hunting and hooks for fishing, and a varied and bountiful food supply.

There was such an abundance of wild plant food– fruits, greens, fungi and nuts– that agriculture was actually resisted by tribes along the river until several centuries before the encounters with Europeans. The brackish bayous additionally provided crawfish, clams and oysters while the winter brought in migrating ducks, geese, passenger pigeons and birds of various stripes. The ready availability of protein, including the recent in-migration of large game like deer, bison and bears, provided for a balanced diet.

The Indians’ agriculture sites were often small, and conformed to the familiar triumvirate of beans, corn and squash that moved north from Mexico through to the eastern Indian tribes. Likewise the food preparation techniques and traditions were diverse and healthy as tribes always cooked raw meat, often cooked or fried food using bear’s oil, and constructed ovens for making bread from persimmons or corn. One tribe met by an early French colonist had forty-two methods of preparing corn, including sagamite, a thicker version of today’s grits.

As a sign of the Indians’ skill, intelligence and technology, modern anthropologists recognize that they “employed almost every method now commonly utilized in catching fish. Anglers took fish with hooks and lines, rabbit-vine hoop nets; cone-shaped traps made of wooden slats, trotlines, weirs, and spears used in shallow water.” From this testimony, one could see within it the possibility of reaching similar utilitarian technologies while staking out a different relationship to and respect for the land.

The Indian tribes near the end of the Mississippi– the Natchez, the Tunica, the Taensas, the Houma, the Chitimacha, the Washa and Atakapa– certainly were not passive receivers of European mercantile ingenuity. Starting in Natchez from 1705 and in New Orleans from 1718, Indian communities literally kept the French alive in the lower Mississippi Valley over the first several decades of French settlement. The French depended on Indian communities’ knowledge of the land’s plants and animals, as well as their abilities to hunt, fish, farm and make herbal medicines.

Due to their customs of gift-giving and pre-existing exchange networks, and prior knowledge of British-Indian trading to the east, Indian communities in the Lower Mississippi Valley were socially predisposed to welcome the French traders. Indian tribes would trade food for linens or metal goods like knives, axes and hoes.

The transfer of infectious diseases such as small pox, the measles and the common cold during trading decimated Indian populations. Before 1700, the estimate of Indians among the various tribes in the region numbered 100,000. By the 1760s, their population dwindled to 32,000. [2]

The economic integration transformed Indian communities, often creating new standards of living and a dependence on goods from the French. This dependence often led one Indian tribe to side with the French in a battle against a rival tribe in exchange for a material payoff. Certain goods, such as muskets, were attained with the thinking that only by having them could Indian tribes resist full integration or, more realistically, domination. In a spin on “keeping up with the Joneses’,” the Indians were forced to keep up with the French.

Some of the first enslaved Indians in the region were the outcome of an incident that started with British frontiersmen and allied Indian tribes upriver and to the east. When the British attacked the Tunicas in 1706, the Tunicas retreated south past present-day northwest Louisiana, pushing the Taensas and Houma tribes further south. The Houma moved near present-day Donaldsonville in Bayou Lafourche, while the Taensas found refuge in the Bayogoula tribe. The Taensas quickly turned on their hosts, killing many Bayogoula and capturing some Chitimacha further downriver. The Chitimacha blamed these disruptions of Indian tribe networks on the French, and assassinated a priest who was out with an exploring party. Retribution was swift: the French drove many Chitimachas deep into Bayou Lafourche while dozens were enslaved.

However, Indians resisted the condition of slavery strongly by constantly deserting. Sometimes they would return to their original tribes and at other times they would join African runaways in the cypress swamps away from the river toward Lake Pontchartrain, in small groups called maroon communities. The French soon found enslaved Indians to be a greater risk than benefit because of the Indians’ knowledge of the land and potential to create resistance networks between Indian tribes and the people enslaved on plantations.

These early plantations of tobacco and indigo were decidedly small-scale compared to the incarnations of cotton and sugar plantations to come later in the 18th century. Enslaved Africans and Indians were allowed a considerable amount of movement in the early French colony. Enslaved people could grow their own food and go to market in New Orleans to sell both their owners’ food and their own. Punishments for disobedience were as harsh as at later plantations, but coordinated dissent had greater possibilities. Maroon communities of runaway slaves were one such real possibility. They had their own small agricultural plots and means of making crafts, like weaving baskets, and often traded with or gave items to the enslaved to sell at market.

The demands of the European markets, however, and the behavior they engendered, increasingly affected wildlife and land in the region. In a sign of things to come, a 1705 French hunting party killed twenty-three bison, nearly a bison per person.

The most egregious manipulation of Indian custom by Europeans was that of the deerskin trade. Before the arrival of French settlers– or British settlers to the east– Indians consumed or used the entire deer, including its tongue, brain, heart and skeleton, which was made into hooks and other tools. The Choctaws, located east of the Mississippi, had a chief who even “regulated” the hunting of deer. These checks on the wasting of animal life started to degrade with the influence of European hide traders in the 1720s. Between 1720 and 1780, an average of fifty thousand deerskins a year were traded from Indians to French traders in the lower Mississippi Valley. The hide trade incorporated the Indians into the world market economy and encouraged the depletion of game reserves, thus pulling them further from their agricultural traditions.

But not all destructive elements of the Indians’ world can be attributed to the arrival of European settlers, as hierarchy persisted in varying degrees in different Indian tribes. In warrior-centric tribes like the Natchez and the Chitimacha, hierarchies of decision-making and types of labor were prevalent. The Chief and other higher ranks abstained from manual labor, instead organizing lesser chiefs and completing religious duties. In smaller clans, political power was more diffuse, but women were still almost universally excluded from powerful positions except as herbalists.

The warriors of Natchez, after eight years of watching land being granted outside the French’s Fort Rosalie for agricultural purposes, in 1730 revolted against this encroachment on their hunting grounds. The organized violent revolt was the final expression of more common small-scale raids of cattle taken from the new settlers.

An elder at a War Council in 1730 urged his warrior peers with a reminder of who the Natchez had been in the recent past. “Before the French came amongst us… we were men, content with what we had… We walked with boldness every road. But now… we go groping, afraid of meeting thorns, we walk like slaves, which we shall soon be, since the French already treat us as if we were such… Is not death preferable to slavery?”

The Natchez successfully surprised and massacred the French at Fort Rosalie, marching downriver with the aid of the newly liberated Africans from the fort and surrounding plantations. The French authorities in New Orleans countered quickly, hiring local Free People of Color, enslaved people and allied Indian tribes along with French soldiers and citizens to amass an overwhelming force with higher-quality weaponry. These forces killed the Natchez in large numbers, and many Natchez fled into the swamps to escape enslavement.

Throughout Louisiana colonial history, the French followed this pattern of extending privileges and benefits to enslaved people, free people of color and allied Indian tribes to destroy those folks courageous enough to resist the unambiguous exploitation of ancestral lands. Rather than “divide and conquer,” one could also call it “freedom or death.” Those who accepted the French benefits were no longer truly free, but instead dependent on French ways, French laws, and the new extractive relationship to the land.

[1] Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana, p.207

[2] The loss is not entirely contributable to disease because, as we shall see, there are also the aftereffects of armed resistance to consider.

RESOURCES

Kniffen, Fred, Hiram Gregory and George Stokes. The Historic Indian Tribes of
Louisiana: from 1542 to the Present
. Lousiana State University Press: Baton
Rouge, 1987.

Usner, Daniel Jr. Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: the Lower Missisissippi Valley before 1783. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 1992.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Africans in Colonial Louisiana. LSU: Baton Rouge, 1992.

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