delta of the Mississippi River and the adjoining Atchafalaya
Basin of south-central Louisiana. According to their
tribal tradition, the boundary of the Chitimacha homeland
was originally defined by four sacred trees: the first
was at Maringouin, Louisiana; the second southeast
of New Orleans; another at the mouth of the Mississippi;
and the last a great cypress located in present-day
Cypremort Point State Park.
the four tribes associated with this group, the Washa
in 1699 had in a single village on Bayou Lafourche
in Assumption Parish, with the Chawasha just
to the south. However, hunters from either of these
tribes could be encountered as far south as the mouth
of the Mississippi River. With the exception of the
Yagenechito (apparently an eastern band of
the Chitimacha), the Chitimacha villages were
farther west near Grand Lake, lower Bayou Teche, or
the natural levees of the Atchafalaya Basin.
Chitimacha's name occurs regularly on the early French
maps of Louisiana. Grand Lake was once called Lac
des Chetimacha, and Bayou Lafourche was known either
as Lafourche des Chetimachas or La Rivire des Chetimachas.
The Chitimacha's attachment to their homeland has
proven to be unbelievably strong over the years. Although
forced to surrender almost all of their land to whites,
they are the only one of Louisiana's original tribes
that has retained a portion of their ancestral lands.
Most Chitimacha today still live on or near their
reservation at Charenton, Louisiana.
recognized in 1917 after many years of being ignored
by the United States government, the Chitimacha were,
until recently, the only tribe in Louisiana to achieve
federal status. However, their claim to being the
oldest tribe in Louisiana can be extended far beyond
the last hundred years. Their occupancy of the region
appears to be very ancient, and they may well be the
original residents of Louisiana. Human occupation
of the lower Mississippi Valley has been traced back
to 12,000 B.C., but the earliest artifacts found in
the Chitimacha's homeland are only 6,000 years old.
has been discovered thus far to indicate that the
first people to live in Louisiana were not the ancestors
of the Chitimacha. The Chitimacha themselves have
no memory of having lived anywhere else, and their
tradition simply states "We have always been here."
the French arrived in 1699, the Chitimacha, in combination
with their Chawasha, Washa, and Yagenechito allies,
were probably the most powerful tribe on the Gulf
Coast west of Florida. Politically, the Chitimacha
were organized into a confederacy of approximately
15 semi-autonomous villages whose central authority
was vested with a Grand Chief who lived at the main
village near Charenton, Louisiana. Surrounded by a
natural fortress of swamps and rivers, the Chitimacha
were virtually invulnerable to an attack or invasion
by their neighbors.
were fairly large (averaging more than 500 people)
and were located along the natural levees of streams
or lake shores. Fortification was usually unnecessary
since nature had already provided them with a natural
defense. Housing varied somewhat according to what
was available at the location: walls were a framework
of poles covered with either mud or palmetto leaves;
roofs were thatched or palmetto.
was the responsibility of the women and easily provided
the majority of the Chitimacha diet. Corn was introduced
into the southeast United States from Mesoamerica
sometime around 300 B.C.
pumpkins, melons and several varieties of squash were
also part of the bounty. The women supplemented this
by gathering wild fruits, vegetables, and nuts, while
the men provided meat from hunting (deer, buffalo,
turkey, alligator) and fishing.
huge shell middens discovered near former village
sites attest to a heavy dependence on shellfish.
the winter months, each village maintained an elevated
community granary to protect their dried corn from
rodents and other pests.
Beside the granary and chief's house, the typical
Chitimacha village had one other public building.
Unlike many neighboring tribes, the Chitimacha did
not have dedicated temples. Instead, their religious
ceremonies and public meetings were held in a building
that the French referred to as the "dance house."
were their primary means of transport. Size varied
according to purpose, but some Chitimacha canoes were
hollowed from huge cypress logs and could hold more
that 40 people.
utilizing cane arrows (a shaft without an arrowhead),
they also made good use of the blowgun and cane darts
for birds and other small game. Fishbones and garfish
scales were also effective substitutes as projectile
points. The Chitimacha (or more likely, the Washa
and Chawasha) also employed the atlatl (spear thrower)
long after its use had been abandoned by other tribes
in the region.
enhance their appearance, the Chitimacha flattened
the foreheads of their male children. Most men wore
their hair long, but there were occasional reports
of some of their warriors having a scalplock. With
the mild climate, male clothing was limited to a breechcloth
which allowed a display of their extensive tattooing
of the face, body, arms and legs. Women limited themselves
to a short skirt. Their hair was also worn long but
the Chitimacha were divided into matrilineal (descent
traced through the mother) totemic (named for an animal)
most distinctive characteristic of Chitimacha society
was their strict caste system of two ranked groups:
nobles and commoners. The separation between them
included the use of two distinct dialects with commoners
required to address nobles in the proper language.
The Chitimacha were unique among Native Americans
with their practice of strict endogamy (a person can
only marry someone from their own group). A noble
man or woman who married a commoner forfeited their
was divided along gender lines with most of the labor
falling to the women. Men usually held all the hereditary
chiefships. The Chitimacha were strict monogamists,
and women exercised considerable authority in the
tribe's day-to-day affairs. Many were healing shamans,
and some women ruled as Chitimacha queens. Men also
dominated the Chitimacha religion that the French
chose to describe as sun worship.
contact the Chitimacha built both effigy (animal shaped)
and platform (flat on top to accommodate a building)
mounds. However, this practice had been discontinued
by 1700. During the historic period, the Chitimacha
continued to use the simple burial mounds that still
dot the region.
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