HOUMA — Though known for the strong vein of Cajun culture that runs through it, Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes also host a small but vibrant community of American Indians.
In fact, the Terrebonne community of Houma is named for a local tribe that built a village called Chufuhuma or "Red House."
That village was on the site of modern-day Houma.
"We have a rich history here in southeast Louisiana, and we have survived through all the hardships, all of the challenges we have faced," said Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation.
The Houma tribe got its start further north, near Baton Rouge.
The capitol city's name, which translates to red stick, describes Houma Indian boundary markers encountered by French explorers trekking through Louisiana.
The Houma Indians were uprooted during colonial struggles and relocated to what's now Terrebonne in the 18th Century, ultimately migrating down the bayous.
Today, the United Houma Nation continues to live in the bayou communities, including Dulac, Montegut, Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles.
The tribe has an estimated 18,000 members known for handmade dolls and baskets.
Twice a year, the tribe's traditions take center stage during two powwows.
The first, the Calling of the Tribes, is held in March in Houma. The second, the Intertribal Powwow, is in September in Grand Bois. The events typically draw hundreds of American Indians and visitors from throughout the state.
Though their culture continues to flourish, the Houma Indians have experienced many hardships, including a lack of educational opportunities, the threat of coastal erosion and difficulty providing for their families, Dardar-Robichaux said.
"When you look at the history and you look at our struggles, it's amazing," she said.
The tribe's most recent struggle is a years-long attempt to gain federal recognition.
The United Houma Nation has secured state recognition, but the federal recognition that would enable the tribe to get money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for health, education and other social programs has eluded them.
Federal recognition would also allow the tribe to set aside and govern its own lands.
Vulnerable communities in Terrebonne traditionally occupied by local American Indians have been dealt repeated blows by recent hurricanes.
This year, Hurricane Gustav broke levees in Pointe-aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles and Hurricane Ike, which skirted the coastline two weeks later, flooded all the major bayou communities.
The 2005 hurricanes also dealt the tribe a terrible blow, impacting about 3,400 tribal members in New Orleans and another 3,400 in Terrebonne, Dardar-Robichaux said.
"Almost half our people were impacted by the hurricanes," she said. "We have worked hard to provide resources so our people can come home."
In May and June 1917, Harvard-trained anthropologist Dr. John R. Swanton was in coastal Louisiana, investigating the origins and language of several Indian groups, including those in Lafourche and neighboring Terrebonne.
“The first of these,” reported the journal of the Smithsonian in 1918, was “the mixed-blood Houma Indians in La Fourche parish and the eastern part of Terre Bonne.
“Dr. Swanton was accompanied and his work greatly facilitated by Mr. Ernest Coycault, a creole living in New Orleans and married to one of these Indians.” The party apparently traveled by boat.
“The brother-in-law of Mr. Coycault acted as pilot, guiding Dr. Swanton to all of the more important Indian settlements between New Orleans and Point au Chien, where the oldest Houma town in the region is said to have been situated until destroyed by three huge waves from the Gulf about 1909.”
Swanton represented the Bureau of American Ethnology. “A few notes, relating chiefly to the material culture of the people, were made and a number of photographs were taken, but only a single expression in the old Houma language could be secured, and it is evident that the vocabulary obtained in 1907 from an old woman belonging to the western settlements of these Indians is all, relating to their language, that can now be expected from them.”
Years of contact with other tribes and with French settlers had evidently eroded the original Houma language.
“Before setting out on this trip Dr. Swanton spent a few days in New Orleans examining some of the manuscripts belonging to the Louisiana Historical Society ... was able to add several items to his material on the history of the southeastern Indians.”
The report suggested a bit more success with a second regional tribe.
“After returning from the Houma (Indians), Dr. Swanton proceeded to Charenton, La., where he spent a few days revising some of his material on the Chitimacha language with Benjamin Paul, one of the four surviving speakers of this tongue and a man who had assisted him on previous visits.
“Although it was found that there was little new material to be had, Dr. Swanton secured some grammatical information of great value in fixing the proper position of Chitimacha among the languages of the region.”
The Houma Indians were also mentioned in “Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico,” published by Swanton in 1911.
“This tribe, when the French first descended the Mississippi, was located on high ground ... in the northern edge of West Feliciana Parish, La. The river at that time made a grand sweep to the westward in front of them to meet Red river, so that there were two Houma landing places, one below and another, the principal one, above the bend.”
But the Houma gradually moved southward. “The remnant of the tribe, mixed with other Indian peoples and white and Negro blood, now live along the coasts of Terre Bonne and La Fourche parishes, where they were visited by the writer in April, 1907, and the following facts learned regarding them:
“They occupy six settlements on as many bayous, and are principally engaged in hunting the otter, mink, and such other animals as occur in their country, and in fishing and gathering shellfish.
“During the sugar season some of them work on the plantations, especially at crushing, and some cattle are raised, particularly by Bob Verret, the leading man among them.
“Mr. Verret gave the following estimate of their population: On Point au Barree, 28 houses and 165 people; Lower Point au Chien, 36 houses and 160 people; Champs Charles, 13 houses and 117 people; Lower Bayou La Fourche, about 25 houses and 175 people; Bayou de Large, 12 to 14 houses and 84 to 98 people; Bayou Sale, below Bayou Grand Caillou, at least 25 houses and 175 people; total, 139 to 14l houses and 876 to 890 people.
“For Point au Barree and Point au Chien this was a house-by-house statement, and is nearly complete.
“According to tradition, moreover, these are the descendants of only a part of the ancient Houma. When they first came across from the Mississippi, it is said that they located near the city that bears their name (Houma), but, being driven out by the whites, moved to their present situation.
“Being followed down by the settlers, all except three families, or possibly bands, went back north about one hundred and twenty years ago and were never heard of again. The three families, which were known by the French names ‘Couteaux,’ ‘Billiout,’ and ‘Verdine,’ held their ground, and it is from them that all the Houma of Terre Bonne and La Fourche are descended.
“In spite of mixture with whites and Negroes, they form a distinct class of the population, and prefer to be called ‘Indians.’ The rate at which they have increased in recent years shows either that they have been protected by their isolation or that the mixture has chanced to be a very virile one.
“Although they call themselves ‘Houmas,’ or, rather ‘Homas,’ it has been intimated above that remains of several other tribes, such as the Bayogoula and Acolapissa. have been incorporated with them. To these must be added Biloxi and Chitimacha (pronounced by them ‘Sitimasha’), who were often introduced in the capacity of slaves, and probably the remnants of the Washa and Chawasha, besides individuals from a number of other Louisiana and Mississippi peoples.
“The family history of the writer’s oldest informant, Felicite Billiout, will serve to illustrate this tribal complexity. Her grandmother, whose Indian name was Xuyu’n, but who was baptized ‘Marion’ after her removal to Louisiana, was born in or near Mobile; her grandfather, Shulu-shumon, or, in French, Joseph Abbe, and more often called ‘Couteaux,’ was a Biloxi medal chief; and her mother ‘an Atakapa from Texas.’
“In addition, she said that Cherokee, Choctaw, and Alibamu had all married with her people. Among other tribes she had heard of the Chickasaw, Tallapoosa, and Tunica.
“Her grandmother, whom, she said, had moved successively to the Mississippi, ‘Tuckapaw canal,’ Bayou La Fourche, Houma, and the coast of Terre Bonne, was evidently among the Indians who migrated from the neighborhood of Mobile after 1764, in order not to remain under English rule.
“It is plain that remnants of all sorts of tribes joined the Houma before and at this period, though it is certain that most of these were Muskhogean, and that the Houma was always the dominating element.”