Prelude to Louisiana, 1698, Part IV

To summarize the New Orleans “Indian Question” then, in the first twenty years of the eighteenth century, today’s city and its metropolitan area were populated by several small groups or “tribes” of Natives mostly speaking dialects of Choctaw. The Quinipissa and/or the Acolapissa (probably one and the same) definitely lived on Bayou St. John before 1700. By 1718, the Bayougoula had absorbed the Mougoulascha; while the Chaouacha, and the Ouascha had either become extinct or been absorbed as well. The Tangipahoa and the Tchoupitoulas also were gone or had merged with the Bayougoula. Since all of these groups were related in one way or another, it is probable that the original New Orleans Indians can be called the Quinipissa Group with another kin group to the west called the Chitimacha. In the two decades between the founding of Louisiana (1699) and the building of New Orleans (1718), these groups had been reduced by warfare, slave raids, and disease. Regarding the other tribes of Louisiana, those not native to the New Orleans area but who remain in Louisiana today, some Choctaw had migrated south to the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain during the French colonial period. The main body of the Choctaw nation remained in north central Mississippi, with the Creek immediately to their south and east and the Chickasaw east and north of both groups. The Tunica essentially stayed in their original homeland around the confluence of the Red and the Mississippi, later to be joined by their kinsmen, the Biloxi. The Houma moved west from the “baton rouge” on the Mississippi to lower Bayou LaFourche, where they live today.

The Houma, the Tunica-Biloxi, as well as the actual Choctaws, had been trading with the French at Biloxi and Mobile for nearly twenty years by the time New Orleans was established. The Indians of Louisiana and New Orleans were a crucial, if not essential, part of the French colonial experience. Indeed, it is safe to say that without the Native Americans along the lower Mississippi and the bayous, there would have been no French colonial Louisiana. Over the course of those first formative decades, Bienville and other government officials sent their soldiers to winter among the Natives because they could not afford to feed them. Indian trade goods, especially deerskins and tobacco, formed a vital component of the exports to France during these years (Usner, passim). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the American Indian contribution to the emergent Creole culture must not be overlooked – the food. Beyond sheer survival, the Louisiana Natives provided the French settlers with some of the ingredients that would become essential to Creole cuisine. By far, the most famous is sassafras, or to be more precise, ground sassafras leaves. Called in Louisiana, file’ or gumbo file’ (pronounced fee-lay), the spice gives its particular flavor and thickening properties to Creole cuisine’s signature dish, Gumbo, either seafood or poultry. Other culinary contributions include the vast array of game and varied ways to prepare it. They introduced the French to the “Three Sisters” of Native agriculture – corn, squash, and beans (including the red kidney beans) – and how to grow them together for the best yield. No Creole menu would be complete without the immeasurable varieties of Louisiana seafood. The placement of New Orleans, a virtual island between fresh, brackish, and salty sea water gave the Creoles, through the Indians, access to a huge selection of finfish, shellfish, and edible crustaceans. Another universal symbol of the Louisiana menu, the red crawfish, was the totem animal of the Houma Indians. {“1718: The Cookbook of the Petticoat Rebellion” provides a great selection of recipes and historical data and trivia on this fascinating and flavorful topic}.

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