Indigenous Peoples of Louisiana
For thousands of years, several indigenous tribes have inhabited the unceded territory that later became Louisiana after French colonization.. Before the first Europeans arrived, more than 40 distinct Native groups gathered, traded, followed fish and game, moved, and lived in this area. Tribes included the Chitimacha, Houma, Chawasha, Washa, Acolapissa, Tunica-Biloxi, Bayogoula, Natchez, Taensa, Atakapa-Ishak, and other groups. Bulbancha, the original name for the area, was and still is a layered, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural place.
Meaning “the place of many languages,” Bulbancha included what is now known as New Orleans. It is also spelled “Balbancha” and “Bvlbancha.” This land was and continues to be a gathering place for people from distinct Native groups. Members of some of those nations camped and traded on the high, dry ridge along Bayou St. John, which included the area that is now Congo Square and the nearby travel route called the Indian portage. Indigenous people traveled and traded along the portage between the Mississippi River and Bayou St. John. In the opposite direction, the portage ran from Bayou St. John to Lake Pontchartrain – thereby connecting the two major bodies of water.
The Native American guide who led the Le Moyne brothers, Iberville and Bienville, along with their crew into the area in 1699 took them along that old portage. They traveled from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Pontchartrain to Bayou St. John to the Mississippi River and the site where New Orleans would eventually become colonized in 1718. A historical marker that notes the occasion stands on Decatur Street across from present-day Jackson Square, named after Andrew Jackson who signed the Indian Removal Act that later resulted in the Trail of Tears.
Archeological excavations in the French Quarter, along Bayou St. John, and in the Tremé neighborhood only blocks from Congo Square, have identified multiple Native American camping sites. Some Indigenous people held corn festivals in the vicinity of Congo Square. The festivals, which were religious in nature, were celebrated in the first play written and performed in Louisiana.
Indigenous people of various tribes and groups continue to live in Bulbancha and Louisiana today, practicing traditional crafts such as basket weaving and beading, living with the land, having ceremony, growing Native foods, playing music, making herbal medicines, and maintaining deep cultural ties to their traditions and ancestors. Native people continue to struggle for sovereignty, recognition, and land rights as forced assimilation, federal and state government control over status and land loss from the exploitation and extraction from the oil and gas industry threaten their existence and their lands.
Alison McCrary (ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ, Cherokee Nation) is a mediator, facilitator, strategist, social justice movement lawyer, and spiritual director
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