A Promise from the Sun: The Tunica-Biloxi Indians of Louisiana
Tunica-Biloxi history is closely intertwined with the history of Louisiana. French and Spanish colonial governments depended on the Tunica for trade, diplomacy with other tribes, and as a barrier against British encroachment. The Spanish conquistador, Hernando de Soto, may have visited the ancestral Tunica town of Quizquiz in 1541, according to some archeologists. But the first documented contact with the Tunica Tribe was with French colonists in Louisiana. The tribe had shifted its location to a site
near the mouth of the Yazoo River by 1694, when the French Jesuits established a mission under Father Antoine Daivon. As the southernmost Indian nation to oppose the English, the Tunica cultivated a relationship with France as early as 1699. Hatred of the English-inspired and English-armed Chickasaw slave traders brought the French and Tunica together and prompted the Tunica to move their village from the Yazoo River basin halfway to New Orleans.
Biloxis inhabited the Pascagoula River region of the Gulf Coast of Mississippi when French explorers first encountered them in 1699. Before this time, there is no definitive written record of Biloxis, at least not under the name “Biloxi.” However, documents from the Juan Pardo expedition into the Appalachian Highlands from 1566-1568 mention meeting with 18 indigenous rulers in the town called Xuala by the earlier de Soto expedition (1539-43) and Joara by the Pardo expedition. One of these rulers was identified by the Pardo expedition as “Atuqui,” which appears to be the Biloxi word atuki, meaning ‘raccoon’. It thus appears that the Pardo expedition encountered a Biloxi ruler, King Atuki, among those indigenous leaders who congregated with Pardo in Joara. This evidence indicates that the Spanish most likely encountered Biloxis about 130 years before the well-documented French encounter with them along the Gulf Coast in 1699.
By establishing themselves opposite the juncture of the Red and Mississippi rivers, the Tunica afforded their community a commanding position on trade routes between the two river valleys and New Orleans. The Grand Tunica Village provided a buffer between the French and the Natchez and served later as French headquarters during the long Natchez wars. As participants in the Pontiac rebellion, the Tunica concluded their alliance with France by attacking an English settlement party in 1764, shortly after France had lost its North American colonies.
Retaliation by Britain against the Tunica and allied tribes made the transfer of loyalty from France to Spain a convenient one. The Tunica favored the Spanish for their promise to honor previous agreements established between France and the Indian nations. When Spain sided with the colonists in the American Revolution in the fall of 1779, Tunica warriors fought side by side with Spanish Governor Bernardo de Galvez, attacking British posts at Manchac and Baton Rouge. Following the battles, Galvez invited the Tunica and their Biloxi and Ofo allies to settle on the Avoyelles Prairie, the area surrounding present-day Marksville, Louisiana.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the United States committed itself to a policy of protecting Indian land and rights, but, in reality, it disregarded the smaller Louisiana tribes in order to appease discontent among former French and Spanish colonists. Once afforded respect and protection by Spain as a sovereign nation, the Tunica lost their land to French settlers who registered the land as “unoccupied” so that they could make fraudulent claims to it. John Sibley’s 1806 report provided the United States government with questionable data, which dismissed most Louisiana tribes as insignificant remnants
Suffering the fate of other southern tribes, the Tunica, in small numbers on small tracts of land, were of no concern to the federal government and posed little obstacle to the expanding frontier. The government, therefore, felt no pressure to recognize them or formally deal with them through treaties. The eagerness of the United States to recoup the cost of Louisiana, coupled with its ignorance and disregard for the smaller tribes, worked against the Tunica. Thus, the Tunica escaped the removal policy of the 1830’s and 40’s and kept their village on the Avoyelles prairie.
An opportunity for the Tunica to reclaim their land arose in 1844 when Celestin Moreau charged five of the tribe’s old women with trespassing. The case of Moreau vs. Valentin, et. al, brought the brunt of court costs to Moreau and allowed the Tunica a fair hearing. There was enough evidence for the court to rule in the Tunica’s favor, removing Moreau from the land and awarding monetary damages. However, the case dragged on and in 1848 an arrangement was made, giving Moreau clear title to 586 acres and leaving the Tunica with a 132-acre tract. As a result, the United States government had no involvement in the establishment of the reservation.
As the Tunica village entered a new century, its economy continued much as it had before. The land yielded game for hunting and fishing and was farmed mostly for subsistence. Some cotton, garden crops and chickens provided a small income. Indians also harvested pecans, which were in abundance on the reservation and brought a small profit. Primarily for personal consumption, corn furnished a staple for the tribe and became an important part of the traditional culture through celebrations and tribal rituals. Beautiful split-cane baskets woven by the women of the village became well known in the surrounding communities and were sold at grocery stores and along the road. Some families farmed land outside the reservation earning money to build houses and purchase items unavailable on the reservation.
The plunge in the cotton market in 1919 made sharecropping an uncertain prospect and pushed the Tunica and other rural inhabitants toward wage-earning jobs. One major source of income was the lumber industry, which had been important to central Louisiana economy since the coming of the railroad in the 1880s. When sawmills started to close and move to southwest Louisiana and Texas, Tunica families followed in search of work. The departure of families from this area was a new experience for the community marking an era of decline in traditional culture.
Beginning with tribal leader Sesostrie Youchigant in 1911, the Tunica village maintained a rather formal system of electing their chief. It was at this time that the tribe began recording the elections in the parish courthouse. Youchigant resigned in 1921, making way for the election of Ernest Pierite as chief and Eli Barbry, Youchigant’s half brother, as subchief. During Pierite’s time as chief, the Tunicas and Biloxis formally joined. On October 9, 1924, the Biloxis recognized Eli Barbry as the leader and authorized him to bring about a union of the Biloxis with the Tunicas.
Meanwhile, living conditions in rural Louisiana worsened. As early as 1922, Barbry started making inquiries to the Department of the Interior concerning ownership of their land. Barbry’s political activism moved somewhat beyond his role as subchief, as he attempted the unification of the Tunicas with “the Biloxi tribe” (meaning the Indian Creek settlement) and the Jena Choctaw. His pan-tribal efforts continued with the Coushatta of Allen Parish in 1924 and the Chitimacha of St. Mary Parish in 1925. Notarized documents naming Barbry chief of these groups stated that the tribes were coming together “for the purpose of union of the people of our race, to promote our welfare and to secure for ourselves and our descendant’s educational and religious training, to the end of our becoming better citizens of this American Nation…” All of these documents were signed by the various tribes except for the Chitimacha, who refused to join the alliance and sought their own aid.
Allotment and forced assimilation continued to be hallmarks of United States Indian Policy until 1934 when President Roosevelt’s new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, began a comparatively enlightened “Indian New Deal.” Collier thought Indian culture should be preserved as it provided an example of healthy organic societies in which people were motivated by shared obligations. By authoring the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Collier brought the allotment program to an end, extended indefinitely the period of trusteeship over Indian land, established the basis for democratic tribal governments, and confirmed the rights of tribes to greater control over their destinies.
Under pressure in the Depression Era, the Tunica had no choice but to seek aid and recognition from the federal government. Community resources were mobilized and money was raised from the village and its extension in Texas to send tribal leaders to meet with BIA officials. In September 1938, Chief Eli Barbry, Sam Barbry, Clarence Jackson, and Subchief Horace Pierite, Sr. drove to Washington in a Model T Ford accompanied by Joseph Vilmarrette, a local parish official. The delegation promptly identified themselves by separate tribal affiliation. They met with BIA officials to discuss their situation and explain the problem of the diminishing Marksville land and sought to press a claim for lost lands. They wanted aid to improve economic conditions and educational opportunities, so that the Texas families could return.
As a result of Chief Barbry’s efforts and recommendations from anthropologist Frank Speck, Ruth Underhill of the BIA’s education department visited the village a month after the delegation’s visit. Citing discrimination, Ms. Underhill reported that the young people were anxious to move to Texas, where economic and educational opportunities were better, and noted that much of the migration had already occurred. The Tunica-Biloxi decided to stay on their land near Marksville.
The government maintained their policy of disregard and neglect toward the Tunica-Biloxi. Other Indians faced the same problem as members of unrecognized bands or tribes were also excluded from the benefits of the Reorganization Act. Pressure from the Tunica-Biloxi and their political constituency in Congress motivated the BIA to at least acknowledge the tribe’s existence and to investigate their claims. Twentieth century documentation of the Tunica-Biloxi was finally updated by the government and provided the first step whereby federal recognition was eventually accomplished.
The death of Sesostrie Youchigant in the 1940’s marked the decline in use of the Tunica language and the fading of many traditions. Dispersion of tribal members and the necessity to leave the reservation for work resulted in an abandonment of traditional ways and adoption of non-Indian customs. Assimilation certainly took its toll on what was once a large and thriving society. The strength of this community weathered the tide of racism, discrimination, and cultural suppression. The tenacity of the Tunica-Biloxi did not allow total annihilation of language, religion, or tradition. Their culture lives on in its members and the memories of elders of all tribal factions: sometimes in bits and pieces, and sometimes in the minute threads of everyday existence.
After a period of political dormancy, Chief Joseph Alcide Pierite took up the activist torch in the late 1960s. He helped organize a pan-tribal organization similar to those in other regions of the United States and brought the Tunica-Biloxi question to the national stage. Indian activism gained widespread attention in the 1970’s throughout the country and provided the political boost needed to get the Tunica-Biloxi federal recognition. Chairman Earl J. Barbry, Sr., completed the cycle begun by his grandfather ushering his people into a new era of political sovereignty and economic stability with federal recognition in 1981.
Avoyelles Parish was among the poorest in Louisiana, with an unemployment rate higher than state and national averages. When the Tunica-Biloxi opened Grand Casino Avoyelles (now Paragon Casino Resort) in June 1994, they triggered a multi-million dollar infusion of cash that profoundly transformed the local economy. Tribal investments have created new jobs, promoted a higher standard of living, increased tourism, and breathed new life into the economic development of the region.
Cultural awareness and preservation is of paramount importance to the Tunica-Biloxi, as they strive to keep in touch with the old ways. The Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Educational Resources Center (CERC) preserves treasures from the 18th century providing a glimpse of tribal life at that time and impact from European contact. The CERC building is part of the Tribe’s long range commitment to broaden the cultural, artistic and educational offerings to its members and the surrounding communities. CERC includes a museum exhibit hall, conservation and restoration laboratory, gift shop, library, auditorium, classrooms, distance learning center, meeting rooms and tribal government offices. Traditions of crafts, music, folklore and dance are shared at the annual inter-tribal pow wow and dance competition. The Language and Culture Revitalization Program has made traditional songs and stories accessible to tribal children and has reminded tribal adults of the importance of preserving their heritage language and traditional lifeways. The continued use of language and lifeway traditions strengthens cultural identity and keeps the Tunica-Biloxi connected as a tribal nation.
A once declining tribal nation is being restored, as Tunica-Biloxi people return to their home land and reclaim their rightful place, both culturally and economically. Opportunities for employment, training and education continue to bring families back to the reservation. New generations are taking up the mantle of responsibility for business, government and community leadership. They face the rigors of self-rule and daily challenges to tribal sovereignty, while honoring the Tunica-Biloxi motto: “Cherishing our past and building for our future.”