The 1718 treaty that saved a native Louisiana tribe
For 12 years, bitter, brutal war raged between the Chitimacha band of Native Americans and early French settlers in Louisiana, resulting in repeated raids and enslavement of prisoners on both sides — and, notably, exacerbated by the killing of the French priest and missionary Jean Francois Buisson de Saint-Cosme by a Chitimacha warrior. Then, in late 1718, a small band of Chitimacha made their way into the fledgling city of New Orleans. They weren’t there to make war, however. At the invitation of the French, who were eager to put an end to the bloody conflict, they were there to make peace. Meeting with Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville — who had founded the city earlier that year — they did just that, forging a truce and putting an ending a war that had nearly exterminated the tribe.
The Chitimacha today are a much smaller group than before European contact, but they have nonetheless endured. They are the only tribe in Louisiana to occupy a portion of their ancestral homeland, which they have occupied for an estimated 6,000 years. Today, the tribe maintains a reservation near Charenton in St. Mary Parish, where work is continuing to preserve their ancestral traditions. The Chitimacha also operate the Cypress Bayou Casino and Hotel.
- Before European arrival, the Chitimacha lands encompassed about one-third of present-day Louisiana, from west of Lafayette to east of New Orleans and south to the Gulf of Mexico. As part of their treaty with Bienville, their lands were considerably reduced.
- They were also the first Louisiana tribe to gain federal recognition. Currently, four tribes have federal recognition: the Chitimacha, Coushatta, Jena Band of Choctaw, and Tunica-Biloxi. In addition, state-recognized tribes include the United Houma Nation, the Addai-Caddo, the Biloxi-Chitimacha, the Clifton-Choctaw, the Choctaw-Apache and the Four Winds Tribe.
- The Chitimacha have long been known for their basketry, an art they have practiced for thousands of years.
- The Chitimacha were a led by a chief until November 1970, when they adopted a constitutional form of government. They are now run by an elected five-member tribal council headed by a tribal chairman.
- The tribal language is known as Sitimaxa (a variant of “Chitimacha”), which — while once almost lost — has been brought back from the brink thanks to the recordings of linguist Morris Swadesh and the Rosetta Stone language project.
- Many tribal elders also speak Cajun French, picked up through years of contact with their neighbors in south-central Louisiana.
- An estimated 1,300 people are members of the tribe today, the majority residing in Louisiana.
- In the early 20th century, the Chitimacha were in danger of losing the last of their land to settle tax debt. That’s when Sara McIllheny, a member of the family that makes Tabasco sauce, bought the last 260 acres of tribal land at a sheriff’s sale and transferred it back to the tribe.
The cultural influences on New Orleans are vast and far-reaching, including contributions from the Irish, Italians, Germans, African slaves, and, of course, the French and Spanish, just to name a few. Often overlooked, however, are the contributions of the region’s original inhabitants, whose role in the New Orleans history started at the very beginning, when Bienville founded the city on a longtime native portage point between the Mississippi River and coastal waters to the east. Today, it lives on in place names ranging from Abita and Amite to Ponchatoula and Tchoupitoulas, all borrowed from native tongues. More importantly, it is found in the faces of the native peoples who, through example, taught locals that most essential of traits found in residents of south Louisiana: a dogged determination to survive.