Chitimacha

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Chitimacha
Tribal flag
Total population
900
Regions with significant populations
United States (Louisiana)
Languages
English, Cajun French, Chitimacha language (extinct)
Religion
Catholicism, other
"Two Chitimacha Indians", painting by François Bernard, 1870
Chitimacha

The Chitimacha (also known as Chetimachan) are a Native American federally recognized tribe that lives in the U.S. state of Louisiana, mainly on their reservation in St. Mary Parish near Charenton on Bayou Teche. They are the only indigenous people in the state who still control some of their original land. They currently number about 900 people.

They spoke the Chitimacha language, a dialect of Tunica, which was a language isolate. It is extinct, but the tribe is working to revitalize the language, and has started immersion classes. It has used revenues from gaming to promote education and cultural preservation, founding a tribal museum, historic preservation office, and cultural activities.

History

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Chitimacha Indians inhabited the Mississippi Delta area of South Central Louisiana. Tradition asserts that the boundary of the territory of the Chitmacha was marked by four prominent trees. The Chitimacha were divided into four sub tribes: the Chawasha, Chitimacha, Washa, and Yagenachito. Archaeological finds suggest that the Chitimacha and their ancestors have been living in Louisiana for perhaps 6,000 years. Prior to that they came from somewhere west of the Mississippi.

According to the Chitimacha, their name comes from the term Pantch Pinankanc, meaning ‘men altogether red,’ also meaning warrior. The name Chawasha is a Choctaw term for ‘Raccoon Place.’ Washa is also Choctaw and means ‘Hunting Pace.’ Yaganechito means ‘Big country.’ The Chitimacha spoke a dialect of the Tunica language, an isolate.

The Chitimacha established their villages in the midst of the numerous swamps, bayous, and rivers. Such locations provided a natural defense to enemy attack and made these villages almost impregnable. They did not fortify them. The villages were rather large, with an average of about 500 inhabitants. Dwellings were constructed from available resources. Typically the people built walls from a framework of poles and plastered them with mud or palmetto leaves. The roofs were thatched.1

The Chitimacha raised a variety of crops, and agricultural produce provided the mainstay of their diet. The women tended cultivation and the crops. They were skilled horticulturalists, raising numerous, distinct varieties of corn, beans and squash. Corn was the main crop, supplemented by beans, squash and melons. The women also gathered wild foods and nuts. The men hunted for such game as deer, turkey and alligator. They also caught fish. The people stored grain crops in an elevated winter granary to supplement hunting and fishing.1

Living by the waters, the Chitimacha made dugout canoes for transport. These vessels were constructed by carving out cypress logs. The largest could hold as many as forty people. To gain the stone they needed for fashioning arrowheads and tools, the people traded crops for stone with tribes to the north. They also developed such weapons as the blow gun and cane dart. They adapted fish bones to use as arrowheads.1

The Chitimacha were distinctive in their custom of flattening the foreheads of their male babies. Adult men would typically wear their hair long and loose. They were skilled practitioners of the art of tattooing, often covering their face, body, arms and legs with tattooed designs. Because of the hot and humid climate, the men generally wore only a breechcloth, and the women a short skirt.1

Like many Native American peoples, the Chitimacha had a matrilineal kinship system, with property and descent passed through the female lines. The hereditary male chiefs, who governed until early in the 20th century, came from the maternal lines. This system meant the tribe could absorb and acculturate other peoples, because children of Chitimacha women were considered to be members of the tribe. The Chitimacha were divided into a strict class system of nobles and commoners. They had such a distinction that the two classes spoke different dialects. Intermarriage between the classes was forbidden.1

Colonial period to 20th century

At the time of Columbus’ discovery of America, historians estimate the combined strength of the four groups was about 20,000. Although the Chitimacha were to have virtually no contact with Europeans for two more centuries, they suffered Eurasian infectious diseases contracted from other natives who had traded with them, such as measles, smallpox, and typhoid fever. They had no immunity to these diseases and suffered high fatalities in epidemics. By 1700, when the French began to colonize the Mississippi Valley, the number of Chitimacha had been dramatically reduced. Estimates are that at that time, the Chawasha had about 700 people, the Washa about 1400, the Chitimacha some 4,000; and about 3,000 for the Yagenichito.

The Chitimacha confederation occupied about fifteen villages at the time of French encounter at the beginning of the 18th century. The French described the villages as self-governing groups. A central governing authority was vested in the person of the Grand Chief.

Between the years 1706–18, the Chitimacha engaged in a long, bitter war with the French. The result was that the eastern Chitmacha were nearly wiped out. Those who survived were resettled by the French further north along the Mississippi River, in their current area. Disease had caused more deaths than warfare and ultimately defeated the people. Alcohol also took its toll. By 1784 the combined numbers of the tribes had fallen to just 180. In the early part of the 19th century, a small group was absorbed by the Houma of Louisiana.

The arrival of Acadian refugees from Canada in their area in the late eighteenth century brought a further decline in the Chitimacha population, as new settlers grabbed land. Some members married Acadians and became acculturated to their community, including converting to Catholicism. Others absorbed Europeans into the Chitimacha. The Chitimacha in the mid-1800s sued the United States for confirmation of title to their Tribal land. This resulted in a governmental decree establishing an area of 1,062 acres in St. Mary Parish as Chitimacha land.2

Among their crafts, the women wove highly refined baskets out of river cane. They maintained a strict tradition of three colors, and continued to make baskets for sale into the twentieth century, which was an important part of their economy.3

20th century to present

The 1900 census recorded six families with 55 people, three of whom were full-bloods. In 1910 there were 69 Chitimacha recorded; they had 19 of their children attending (and boarding) at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.1 The tribe was under pressure in the early 20th century, and sometimes members were forced to sell land because they could not afford taxes. Sarah Avery McIlhenney, a local benefactor of the family that manufactured Tabasco,2 responded to a call for aid by Chitimacha women and purchased their last 260 acres of land at a sheriff's sale in 1915; then transferred it to the tribe. They ceded the land to the federal government to be held in trust as a reservation. McIlhenny encouraged Federal recognition of the Chitimacha,2 which the Department of Interior granted in 1917.

They were the first tribe in the state to be recognized.1 The tribe received some annuities and financial benefits for that recognition. But by 1930, the Chitimacha population had dropped to just 51 people.

General Douglas MacArthur meeting with Native American troops in 1943, including S/Sgt. Alvin J. Vilcan of Charenton, La., one of 70 surviving Chitimacha

Since that early 20th-century low, the population has increased as the people have recovered. Men began to work in the Louisiana oil fields as drillers and foremen. There are more than 900 enrolled Chitimacha. The 2000 census reported a resident population of 409 persons living on the Chitimacha Indian Reservation. Of these, 285 identified as solely of Native American ancestry.

The reservation is located at 29°53′02″N 91°31′52″W / 29.88389°N 91.53111°W / 29.88389; -91.53111 in the northern part of the community of Charenton, in St. Mary Parish on Bayou Teche. The Chitimacha are the only indigenous people in the state who still control some of their traditional land.4 It holds the Chitimacha Tribal School, sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The governing Tribal Council is involved in ongoing negotiations with the United States to obtain compensation for the land expropriations of the past.

With revenues derived from its gaming casino, the Chitimacha have purchased additional land to be held in trust for its reservation, and now control 1000 acres. It has established a casino, school, fish processing plant, and tribal museum on its reservation.1

The Chitimacha language has become extinct. Contemporary Chitimacha speak Cajun French and English. With revenues from gaming, the tribe has established cultural revitalization activities: a tribal historic preservation office, language immersion classes, a tribal museum, and a project to promote river cane regrowth on tribal lands for the weaving of traditional baskets.4

Government

The Chitimacha re-established their government under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Resisting efforts in the 1950s to terminate them under federal policy of the time, in 1971 they adopted a new written constitution.1 They have an elected representative government, with two-year terms for the five members of the Tribal Council, and the two at-large members.5

Membership

Like all federally recognized tribes, the Chitimacha establish their own rules for membership. According to the constitution, they require that members be able to document descent from a member on one of two official rolls:

In addition, a prospective member must be able to document having at least one-sixteenth (1/16) degree Chitimacha Indian ancestry (equivalent to one great-great-grandparent).5 Children of one-sixteenth (1/16) degree or more Chitimacha Indian blood born to any enrolled member since 1971 (and approval of the Constitution) are entitled to membership.5

Representation in other media

  • Native Waters: A Chitimacha Recollection 2011), documentary directed and produced by Laudun for Louisiana Public Broadcasting, winner of a 2012 Telly Award.

References

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Lee Sultzman, "Chitimacha History", accessed 18 October 2013
  2. ^ a b c "Chitimacha", Cajun Coast website, accessed 18 October 2013
  3. ^ Gregory, Hiram F. and Clarence H. Webb. 1975. "Chitimacha Basketry", Louisiana Archaeology 2:23-38
  4. ^ a b Dana Bowker Lee, "Louisiana Indians in the 21st Century", Louisiana Folklife, 18 October 2013
  5. ^ a b c "Constitution and Bylaws of the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana", Indian Law Library, accessed 18 October 2013

Further reading

  • Duggan, Betty J. 2000. "Revisiting Peabody Museum Collections and Chitimacha Basketry Revival", Symbols (Spring):18-22.
  • Gregory, Hiram F. 2006. "Asá: la Koasati Cane Basketry", In The Work of Tribal Hands: Southeastern Split Cane Basketry, edited by Dayna Bowker Lee and H.F. Gregory, pp. 115–134. Northwestern State University Press, Natchitoches, Louisiana.
  • Gregory, Hiram F. and Clarence H. Webb. 1975. "Chitimacha Basketry", Louisiana Archaeology 2:23-38.
  • Hoover, Herbert T. 1975. The Chitimacha People, Indian Tribal Series, Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Kniffen, Fred B., Hiram F. Gregory, and George A. Stokes. 1987. The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana from 1542 to the Present, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge.
  • Lee, Dana Bowker. 2006 "The Ties that Bind: Cane Basketry Traditions among the Chitimacha and Jena Band of Choctaw", In The Work of Tribal Hands: Southeastern Split Cane Basketry, edited by Dayna Bowker Lee and H.F. Gregory, pp. 43–72. Natchitoches, Louisiana: Northwestern State University Press

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