64 Parishes


An Indigenous name for the area most often known in English as New Orleans.


Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

Nanih Bvlbancha on the Lafitte Greenway in New Orleans. Photo by Erin Greenwald.

“Bulbancha” is an Indigenous name for the area known in English as New Orleans. It is a Choctaw word meaning, approximately, “the place of other languages” or “the place of foreign tongues.” The various spellings of the word correspond to different orthographies of its parent language or based on the way colonizers have heard the word. As such, Bulbancha may also be found as “Balbancha,” “Bạlbancha,” “Balba̱cha,” or “Bvlbancha.” The word has undergone a renaissance stemming from grassroots efforts to popularize it. These efforts began in 2014 as an act of Indigenous resistance to celebrations of the colonization of the area during the New Orleans Tricentennial.

Attestation and Meaning

Perhaps the first recorded version of the word in a European source appears at the base of Alexander De Batz’s 1735 artwork Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations. The version given there is “Balbahachas,” referring to the Mississippi River, and noting “St. Louis” (French) and “Misysipy” (a Frenchification of the Ojibwe) as alternate names for it. According to Choctaw linguist Jason Lewis, “Bulbancha” is a contraction of that longer phrase, which may be rendered in contemporary Mississippi Choctaw orthography as “balbáha a̱shah” or “speakers of foreign languages are there.” This convention fits with a common Indigenous naming practice. The area was used by dozens of Indigenous groups for trade and cultural interaction before and after European incursions in 1699, according to historian Elizabeth N. Ellis. As Indigenous cartographer Margaret Wickens Pearce notes, “The salient characteristics of a place, those qualities that clarify the situated identity of the place and distinguish it from other places,” are the hallmark of Indigenous place names. Knowing that an area had speakers of other languages would alert a traveler to what they might encounter there. In the Bulbancha of its namers, one might have encountered speakers of Chahta Anumpa, Uma, Biloxi, Sitimaxa, Ishakkoy, and Natchez, among others, with the Mobilian Trade Language being used for cross-cultural communication. One reason perhaps for the predominant term for the area being a Choctaw word is that Choctaw and Chickasaw languages were major contributors to Mobilian. The Choctaw lived, and continue to live, in the Bulbancha area. The Chickasaw word for the area is also “Bulbancha.”

Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, in his 1751–1753 Histoire de la Louisiane, states that “Balbancha” refers to the river itself, but the interactions from which the name derives happened on land. Sharp distinctions between land and water regionally would not necessarily conform to the landscape at the time or to Indigenous understandings of that landscape. According to geographer Nick Middleton, the very definition of a river, including what does or does not separate it from the surrounding landscape, is neither culturally universal nor unambiguous. William Read asserts (without evidence) that the phrase referred originally to the Mississippi River itself and only later to the colonial city of New Orleans, but that is unreasonable. The addition of a few African and European languages in the eighteenth century contributed to a pre-existing situation of linguistic diversity, but it did not create that situation anew.

In his 1880 book A Chahta Leksikon: Choctaw in English Definition for the Choctaw Academies and Schools, Choctaw Chief Kiliahote (Allen Wright), whose first language was Chahta Anumpa, gives “Bulbancha” as the word for New Orleans, with no reference to the river. That definition is repeated in missionary Cyrus Byington’s 1915 A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language, with the term given in a revised orthography as “Bạlbancha” and defined as “New Orleans; a place of foreign languages,” again with no reference to the river.

Names for the area did change in Indigenous languages after the founding of colonial New Orleans, but these names refer to the changing ethnic composition or burgeoning size of the city, reflecting a change in the area’s most defining features in Native minds. Accordingly, in Tunica, the name became “Tonrɔwahal’ukini,” meaning “the White Man Town,” a common sort of renaming of an area. For example, the Ishakkoy for an area of long-term habitation of the Ishak, known in English as Lafayette, Louisiana, became “Kíwilsh Nuņ,” meaning “the White Town.” White Settlement, Texas, derives its name from a similar designation among area Indigenous Peoples. The names recorded among Biloxi and Ishak People for the Bulbancha area also reflect a salient feature other than languages. The Biloxi for the area is recorded as “Tą Nithąąyą” and the Ishakkoy as “Nuņúsh,” both of which mean “the Big Town,” something that would not have been the case in precolonial times. There were large cities on the Mississippi River before Europeans arrived, but Bulbancha was not one of them.


In the run-up to the 2018 Tricentennial of New Orleans, an Indigenous counternarrative arose, beginning in 2014 and leading to the publication of the widely distributed zine Bulbancha Is Still a Place: Indigenous Culture from “New Orleans,” edited by Ozone504 (a nom de guerre) and Jeffery U. Darensbourg. The zine features visual art and writing by Indigenous People either from the area or with a background in the area. The editors and other area Indigenous People were featured on a public radio podcast episode with journalist Laine Kaplan-Levinson in 2018 entitled “New Orleans 300 // Bulbancha 3000.” Since that time the use of the word has increased. “Bulbancha” now appears on regalia worn by the Northside Skull and Bone Gang. It has appeared on festival shirts and numerous institutional land acknowledgments. Choctaw musician John DePriest has spearheaded a Bulbancha Bluegrass & Old Time Festival. Indigenous People in contemporary Bulbancha have founded a radio station, Bvlbancha Liberation Radio; the culture group Bvlbancha Collective; and the online media channel Bvlbancha Public Access. In 2024 the Nanih Bvlbancha mound, the first Indigenous mound constructed in Bulbancha in centuries, was built on the Lafitte Greenway. It was organized by Indigenous artists Ida Aronson, Tammy Greer, Jenna Mae, Ozone 504, Virginia Richard, and Monique Verdin and built with community participation as part of the Prospect New Orleans arts festival.