When a city has as much history as New Orleans, it can be easy to get swept up in the dramatic parts. From the yearly fight against yellow fever epidemics to the French Quarter burning twice, too often we forget that hundreds of small events added up to create the ones everybody remembers. We also tend to forget the people who were here before New Orleans became New Orleans. Or, for that matter, before Louisiana became Louisiana.
But the people who don’t forget are the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana.
Native Americans have lived in what would become the State of Louisiana for more than 6,000 years. In that time, they transitioned from constantly being on the move as hunters and gatherers into being the cultivators of hundreds of different strains and varieties of crops. One of those bands of people was the Chitimacha.
Their name translates as ‘men altogether red,’ which is their term for warrior. Split into four main groups, Chawasha, Chitimacha, Washa, and Yagenachito, the combined tribe’s population was believed to be upwards of 20,000. They worked together well and by the time of European contact, the Chitimacha were the most powerful tribe from Texas to Florida.
When the French arrived and claimed the Mississippi River and all of Louisiana for King Louis XIV, they encountered native tribes who weren’t ready to give up their homes for a land and a King they had no interest in or loyalty to. Unable to come to terms with each other, the Chitimacha found themselves in a 12 year war with France.
The fighting was brutal and France proved to have deadlier weapons and more strategic alliances. Being the most powerful tribe had created many enemies for the Chitimacha and other tribes were happy to help the French defeat them. At the end of the conflict, France split up the remaining tribe and sent them away from the New Orleans colony. But that was only after the majority of the Chitimacha had been killed or enslaved by their enemies. In fact, so many Chitimacha were captured, they were the most enslaved population during that time period.
Today, the Chitimacha are one of only four Federally recognized tribes in Louisiana. They’re also the only Louisiana tribe to live on a section of their original homeland, a reservation near Charenton in St. Mary Parish. Since 1916, the tribe has been able to add to their 455 acres of federal land held in trust and now also own over 500 acres near Bayou Teche. The tribe claims 1300 members today and is famous worldwide for their river cane basketry.