The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana is the only tribe in Louisiana to still occupy a portion of their aboriginal homeland. The Chitimacha, according to oral history, “have always been here.” Unfortunately, over thousands of years the Chitimacha land base has significantly decreased. The Tribe’s lands once encompassed the entire Atchafalaya Basin, lands westward toward Lafayette, Louisiana, southward to the Gulf of Mexico and eastward to the New Orleans area. The Chitimacha Tribe currently maintains a reservation adjacent to the town of Charenton, in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana.
Based upon documentary evidence and upon information from tribal informants, a brief sketch of the Chitimacha Tribe prior to contact with Europeans can be constructed. The Chitimacha were arranged in a class system. This system was more rigid than the famous Natchez system, employing different forms of address, both polite and common. Clans also existed; the wolf, bear, dog, and lion clan were documented in the early 1900s. Clan membership was based on matrilineal descent.
The Chitimacha subsisted on maize, potatoes, and wild game. They preferred deer, alligator, and aquatic species. Hunting and fishing were accomplished with the aid of bone, stone, or garfish scale pointed arrows, or through the use of blow guns and wooden darts, as well as, nets and traps for fishing. The Chitimacha were prolific ceramics producers until about 200 years ago when those techniques were lost to history, however the designs are said to have been similar to those employed in basketry.
The crown jewel of the Chitimacha cultural tradition is river cane basketry, both single and double woven. According to tribal legend, basketry was taught to the Chitimacha by a deity and has been practiced by tribal families for thousands of years. There are at least 50 different design elements, which can be combined to create hundreds of different basket designs.
At the time of contact with European explorers and other non-indigenous populations, the Chitimacha were known as the most powerful tribe between Texas and Florida. Iberville, an early French explorer, encountered the Chitimacha and one of their subdivisions, the Washa along the shores of the Mississippi River in 1699. In 1706, as a response to slave raids and French aggressions, a group of Chitimacha killed St. Cosme, a priest and slave owner, and several members of his party, who were missionaries to the Natchez Tribe. Bienville responded to this by convincing other tribes to help them make war on the Chitimacha. This war lasted until 1718 when a Chitimacha Chief met Bienville in the fledgling city of New Orleans. A treaty establishing peace was signed and a ceremony was held, which ended the long war in which the majority of the tribal members were annihilated. In the twelve years of conflict, many Chitimacha were forced into slavery and were the most enslaved of any population in Louisiana during that time period.
As a result of the war, population centers located along Bayou Lafouche, then called the River of the Chitimacha, and those farther to the east, were pushed to the south and to the west.
Chitimacha retreated across the Atchafalaya Basin to population centers of their nation located along Grand Lake and the Bayou Teche. This area is where the tribe remains today.
After peace was established, the French and later the Spanish and American Governments officially recognized the integrity of the Chitimacha Tribe and its right to land ownership. After Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory, the Chitimacha lands, which were widely spread across what is today southern Louisiana, were provided protection through the Indian Nonintercourse Act, which has been codified as U.S.C. Title 25. However, the United States Government, anxious to distribute unclaimed lands, injudiciously processed land claims from the preceding French and Spanish Governments. In 1826, the Chitimacha claimed eighty arpents front and forty deep on either side of the Bayou Teche, totaling approximately 5440 acres when converted from arpents at the .85 conversation rate.
In 1846, the Chitimacha were forced to sue the Federal Government to confirm title to their lands. The lands claimed amounted to 1093.43 acres, already a loss of 4347 acres. This land base was further whittled away through sale by Eugenia Soulier Rouge, “chieftess”, and judgments against the Tribe for taxes owed to the state. By 1903, the remaining 470 acres held by the tribe were divided into portions of 4/9 and 5/9, with the Tribe retaining 261.54 acres or 5/9 of the total. This land was put into trust in 1916 for the beneficial use of the Chitimacha Tribe through the intervention of Sara McIlhenny, who was a friend of the Tribe and collector of their baskets, thus creating the Chitimacha Reservation. In recent years, the tribe has purchased an additional 701 acres in the vicinity of Charenton. The tribe now owns a total of 963 acres, approximately 445 of which are trust lands.
In 1916, the Chitimacha Tribe was federally recognized by the United States Government. During most of this time the tribe was governed in the traditional manner, by a Chief. However, on November 7, 1970, the General Council of the Chitimacha People voted to adopt a constitutional form of government, which was approved by the Secretary of the Interior on January 14, 1971 and has been in force since that time. The Chitimacha Tribal Constitution provides for residence on trust lands, membership criteria, and most importantly for governance of tribal affairs, though a five member Tribal Council. The chief executive of the Chitimacha tribe is the Tribal Chairman. The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana was the first Louisiana tribe to adopt a constitution.
In the last several decades the Chitimacha Tribe has excelled, from owning and operating an exceptional Tribal school and Early Learning Center to owning and operating an award winning gaming and entertainment complex, the first land based casino in Louisiana. Today the tribe has many enterprises, which include, Cypress Bayou Casino and Hotel, Raintree Market (a full service grocery market), Raintree Village (a master plan development property), Keta (a holding company), Tiya Support Services (a governmental contracting company), Colorado Professional Resources (a technical support company that supports U.S. Department of Defense agencies), and Tiya Construction Services (a construction entity). In addition, the tribal government has its own police department, fire department, health clinic, pharmacy, museum, cultural/historic preservation office, elderly assisted living facility, housing program, scholarship program, etc. Revenue has allowed the tribe to operate these programs and also to purchase land in the surrounding area, which at one time was held by the tribe. The tribe is the second largest employer in St. Mary Parish and contributes economically to the parish via tax revenue, which supports parish entities.
The Chitimacha still exert a strong presence. The tribe leads by example in intertribal organizations such as the United South and Eastern Tribes. They are constantly upgrading social and emergency services to tribal members and others in the vicinity of Charenton; and they are leaders in the preservation of cultural resources for future generations. The most recent, noteworthy preservation accomplishment is the completion of the Rosetta Stone Software language project which has enabled all interested tribal members to learn Sitimaxa, regardless of where they live. Tribal enrollment today is approximately 1,300, the majority live in Louisiana; others live in other states and around the globe.