The Choctaw Indians
The Choctaw of Louisiana are the most widely dispersed group, the East Baton Rouge Parish community representing principally mixed-blood Choctaw descendants now living in an urban setting. The other relict Choctaw groups represent eighteenth-century bands that moved into the present state under Spanish dominion.
The largest contemporary Choctaw populations are descended from eighteenth-century Choctaw settlements in Rapides Parish and on the Ouachita River. These groups now compose the Jena Band of Choctaw and another, unrelated group, the Clifton community, In 1903 some of the Louisiana Choctaw joined members of their tribe living in Oklahoma.
Although most Louisiana Choctaw have been conservative, only the Jena Band has retained the language and traditional Choctaw crafts. Their old religion continued as an intact unit to the 1940s.
They make good use of a tribal center funded by a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a tribal recreation facility. The Clifton community operates a recreation area for its youth and, depending on the availability of grant funds, a tribal center or office. Both groups feature tribal organizations with elected officials.
Today, many Indians work in industrial areas, on offshore oil rigs, on crew boats, as farmers, and as loggers. A few are college graduates, and though they share in Louisiana's lamentably high dropout rate, more and more are finishing high school. Still, incomes remain low, and the tribes suffer from years of exclusion from schools or , as in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, from a poorly developed tripartite school system.
The Choctaw displaced some native tribes, such as the Adai west of Natchitoches, and moved into the empty lands along the Ouachita River, on Catahoula Prairie, along Bayou Nezpique, and south of Bayou Boeuf near Indian Creek at Woodworth and Glenmora. By 1807, they were known to be scattered across present-day north Louisiana from the Ouachita River to the Sabine.
The Lipan Apache, or Connechi, who had been introduced by the French and Spanish as slaves, became well established near Natchitoches among the Hispanic and Choctaw families at Spanish Lake, along the Sabine River, and among the free people of color near Cane River.
A large new Indian population had begun to develop in south-western Louisiana in the mid-nineteenth century. Apparently, immigrants from the Carolinas and Georgia sought areas where there were Indian or mixed Indian and black-and-white families.
Today, these early Carolinians and Georgians would nearly all be from families bearing surnames and associated with the nontribal groups in those states with the strongest Indian identities, such as the lumbee, Haliwa, and Westoes. These were the people who came to be identified as "Red Bones." That pejorative evidently came from the West Indies, where Red Ibo was a label for any mixture of races. According to Joey Dillard, a recognized authority on black English, the West Indian term, pronounced "Reddy Bone," may well have been pronounced "Red Bone" in Louisiana and the Carolinas.
Both Indians and Red Bones long have been marginal to the plantation areas of Louisiana. The Indian settlements were in the swamps, pine woods, and marshes, and their closest non-Indian neighbors most often were white yeoman farmers, Acadians, and Scotch-Irish, who owned no slaves. If Indians lived near a plantation, the owner became their patron, offering them credit and protection from exploitation, at least by others. In exchange, they were required to hunt, entertain guests with ball games and dances, make baskets, tan hides, and perform other services that might, on occasion, include the recovery of runaway slaves.
The Choctaw became the most widespread Indian population in Louisiana. Small groups of them were to be found in the Florida parishes, on lower Bayou Lafourche, from the Chicot settlement to the banks of the upper Calcaieu River in central Louisiana, in the Bayou Boeuf drainage, and scattered across the hills of northern Lousiana from the Ouachita River to the Sabine. They had villages on Bayou Nezpique and the German Coast along the Mississippi. Gradually, they filled the Florida parishes.
During the half-century from 1780 to 1830, the Choctaw prospered and grew, even at the expense of other tribes like the Adai and Biloxi, until Choctaw became nearly synonymous with Indian in much of Louisiana. Their influence had been almost universal among the southeastern tribes for years by the time the Treaty of Choctaw Removal, in effect from 1828 to 1835, had been signed with the federal government.
The Choctaw had become so entrenched that those offered a chance to leave refused to go, and some of the eminent Louisiana chiefs, like Tuscahoma, who had signed the early Hopewell Treaty in Mississippi, declined to move their constituents to the newly designated Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma. Dominique Rouquette, a friend of the Louisiana Choctaw, has left a lively description of the situations in 1850.
The Choctaw obstinately refuse to abandon the different parishes of Louisiana, where they are grouped in small family tribes, and live in rough huts in the vicinity of plantations, and hunt for the planters, who trade for the games they kill all they need: powder, lead, corn, woolen covers, etc. Their huts are generally [surrounded] by a fence. In this enclosure their families plant corn, pumpkins and potatoes, and raise chickens.
The women use a kind of cane, which they knew how to dye different colors, to make baskets: lottes [baskets carried on the back], vans [winnowing baskets] and sieves, from which they derived a good profit. They also sold medicinal plants which they gathered from the forests: Virginia snake-root, sage, plantain, tarragon, wild fruit, pommetes [medlars] blue bottle, persimmons, and scuppernongs; also roots of sequiena, sarsaparilla and sassafras. They also do a little training in ground turtles, which they find on the prairies. They dispose of these wares at the plantations, in country towns, and at New Orleans.
This description fits closely the people from the Florida parishes, Indian Creek, and Natchitoches, and even matches the oral traditions of aged contemporary Louisiana Choctaw. It could characterize other immigrants as well. There is some evidence that it describes most of the Louisiana Indians in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Rosa Jackson Pierite, a Choctaw-Biloxi from Indian Creek, has described how, in the 1920's, her mother and sisters put their baskets in a sheet, bundled it over a pole, and walked twelve miles from their homes near Indian Creek to Alexandria: "We spread them on street corners and sold them to passers-by." Rouquette has described a similar scene from nineteenth-century New Orleans.
Nothing is more interesting to the tourists than to see them [the Choctaw] wandering along the streets of La Reine du Sud (the Queen of the South), La Cite du Croissant (Crescent City) with their pauvres pacotilles (small, cheap wares), in their picturesque costumes, half savages and half civilized, followed by a number of children of all ages, half naked, and carrying on their backs a papoose snugly wrapped in the blanket, with which they envelope themselves, like a squirrel in moss.
Sometimes they squat in a circle, at the big market place, on the banks of the old river, patiently waiting with downcast eyes, for the chalandes [customers] who buy what they offer, more for the sake of charity than from necessity.
The nineteenth-century Indian population, dominated by Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Tunica, was relatively large and important. At some point after the Americans assumed control, these people apparently had been relegated to such ecological niches as swamps, marshes, and infertile pine woods, and the whites, with their black slaves and intensive agriculture, took over the rich alluvial bottomlands.
The Indians eventually became dependant on the market economy, Lead, powder, axes, firearms, and European-style clothing began to replace traditional technology and costumes. Some Indians like the Choctaw, rejected the white man's wages, identifying them. Decimated by disease and was, and fearful of slavery and of losing land and legal rights, the tribes slowly began to deal with the dominant whites in ways increasingly circumspect and guarded.
Artists such as basket makers were considered to be peddling, a low-status occupation in the eyes of non-Indians. Hunters were considered unreliable, almost objects of ridicule. Social contacts with non-Indians were largely restricted to practically momentary encounters, so the ball games, dances, and the sacred rituals of religion became matters of curiosity and sources of entertainment for white planters' families and friends. Offered removal to Indian Territory and an alternative way of life, most Indian people rejected the chance, not once but twice.
Apparently, the Indians took little interest in the Civil War. Most chose not to fight. They did not wish to defend slavery, which was repugnant to them, and they had no rights to defend, states' or other. A second Indian removal occurred when the Choctaw nation and others in Indian Territory became fearful that they would lose their lands to whites. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1900 began to seek Indians, especially full bloods, eligible for enrollment and tribal allotments in Oklahoma. Both government and private agents went to Louisiana and Mississippi to recruit emigrants, and soon to the Louisiana Indians were boarding steamboats.
The majority eventually returned to their homes in Louisiana, but some remained in Oklahoma, most near the former Choctaw nation. Once word of the twentieth-century removal had spread, even some of the conservative Mississippi Choctaw fled to Louisiana communities after seeing Choctaw in Scott and Newton counties loaded into boxcars.
By this time the Louisiana Indians had become "invisible people." Most simply kept to themselves and were either ignored or harassed by whites. Until 1925, minimum contact was the preferred approach in relations between Indians and whites. One by one, tribes have asserted themselves. Only since 1960 have some communities had recourse to outside aid and study.
The troubled immigrant tribes, gathered from far and wide, found homes in Louisiana. They are still there, living in company with descendants of people from many other parts of the world, who have given Louisiana its amazing mosaic of cultures.
The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana "From 1542 to the Present"
By: Fred B. Kniffen
Hiram F. Gregory
George A. Stokes