Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana
The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is the largest of four federally recognized tribal governments in Louisiana.
KoKowassaatokom (We Are Koasati)
The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is one of four federally recognized tribal governments in Louisiana and one of three federally recognized Coushatta tribal governments. It is the only tribe comprised solely of Coushatta Indians (known as “Koasati” in their native language, which is also called Koasati). The Coushatta first encountered the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto (c. 1500–1542) when they lived on islands in the Tennessee River; DeSoto visited the Coushatta because they were proficient farmers who had an abundance of corn. By 1700 the Coushatta migrated southward to escape drought and the encroachment of European settlers and rival Indian nations. They established villages at the junction of the Alabama, Coosa, and Tallapoosa Rivers near present-day Coosada, Alabama, close to their Muskogean-speaking cousins, allying themselves politically with the Creek Confederacy. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the Coushatta increased their political power, rising in social and political prominence within the Creek Confederacy while still maintaining their unique identity, culture, and language.
Despite repeated attacks on their lands, homes, and culture, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana has consistently maintained its identity and status as a sovereign nation. Today, the tribe has approximately one thousand members and owns over 6,000 acres of land in Louisiana. The tribe also owns and operates a successful casino resort that opened in 1995 and has since become one of the largest private employers in Louisiana.
Naaksaamit Stamahilkato (How We Began)
Prior to European contact, the Coushatta and other southeastern tribes organized their social and political worlds into hierarchical, centralized societies consisting of numerous towns and villages that were controlled by a hereditary chief or elite group. Coushatta villages were closely affiliated with the large and powerful Muskogean-speaking Coosa paramount chiefdom (a large, regional multitiered political organization), which controlled territory from eastern Tennessee to east-central Alabama, and traded with other tribes throughout what is now the United States.
The Coushatta built large villages near riverbanks and on larger islands. They were proficient agriculturalists who often cultivated corn, hunted game animals, and supplemented their diet by gathering wild plants and fruits. Archaeologists have determined that Coushatta villages consisted of dwellings encircling an open-air ceremonial court, public buildings, and other community structures that were placed atop earthen mounds. Recent archaeological evidence has reinforced tribal oral traditions of their history prior to European contact by further clarifying the connection between the Coushatta and large southeastern ceremonial mound sites such as Moundville, Alabama.
The Colonial Era
The Coushatta faced continuing encroachment by Europeans and rival tribal nations in their Tennessee homelands. By 1700 the tribe had relocated to Alabama, where they established villages and allied themselves with the Muskogean-speaking tribes of the Creek Confederacy. Throughout the eighteenth century, the Coushatta used diplomacy to strengthen their alliances and strategic relationships with other tribal nations as well as the French, Spanish, and British colonial governments. The tribe remained neutral in conflicts such as the French and Indian War (1754–1763), although it established friendships and marriage alliances with the French at Fort Toulouse. When the British won the war, the French ceded control of Louisiana to Spain and abandoned their mainland North American colonies. Many of the French evacuated west, crossing the Mississippi River to live in Spanish Louisiana, and a group of Coushattas joined them, preferring to live in the region controlled by the French colonial government.
Despite the Creek Confederacy’s military and political strength, continued encroachment by settlers and colonial pressures prompted many more Coushattas to leave their Alabama villages in search of a permanent home. In 1797 approximately half of the remaining Coushattas migrated west to Spanish Louisiana led by the influential leader Mikko (Chief) Red Shoes over a decade before the start of the Creek Wars (1813–1814). Coushattas credit the wisdom and diplomacy of early leaders such as Mikko Red Shoes and Pahi Mikko (Grass Chief) for bringing the tribe through numerous perils, including war, forced removals, and assimilation campaigns. The wisdom and diplomacy of Mikko Red Shoes was extolled by Spanish officials, who accepted his offer to serve as an interpreter and help negotiate a lasting peace between the Caddo and Choctaw, noting, “His intentions are always for the pacification, the most grand concord, amity, and union possible with all the nations without exception.” Because of the actions of Mikko Red Shoes, Spanish officials recommended that the Coushatta receive assistance to settle in Spanish colonial territory during a time when other tribes were either denied admission or removed.
Agricultural proficiency, hunting skill, and the trade of cultural items such as baskets continued to sustain the Coushatta economy throughout the nineteenth century as the tribe moved within the Neutral Territory between Louisiana and Texas—settling along the Red River and then on to the Sabine, Trinity, and Calcasieu Rivers before finally reaching their present location along Bayou Blue in the 1880s. At each stage of their journey, Coushattas maintained frequent contact with their kinspeople in Alabama, Texas, and later Oklahoma by traveling the Coushatta and Alabama Traces—open paths that connected Alibamo (Alabama) and Coushatta villages between Louisiana and Texas. Alliances and intermarriage between the groups continued, as it does today.
Iistilkakonaamilaho (We Will Remain)
In the 1880s the Coushatta used the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed citizens to receive up to 160 acres of public land for a small registration fee, to establish their own community at Bayou Blue, three miles north of Elton, Louisiana, where the tribe remains today. The twentieth century brought new challenges to Coushatta tribal leaders, who were desperate to improve living conditions within the community despite receiving no funding or support from the federal government as a result of their unilateral decision to terminate the Coushatta’s status as a federal Indian tribe.
Relying on their traditional diplomacy and alliance-building skills, leaders of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana succeeded in getting limited federal funding for health care and education in the 1930s. This relief was short lived, however, as services to the Coushatta were summarily discontinued when they were unilaterally terminated without congressional approval or legislation in 1953. Once again facing abject poverty, community members came together to form the Coushatta Indians of Allen Parish in 1965 and create a trading post to sell their traditional and highly collectable rivercane and pine-needle baskets. Coushatta tribal leaders continued to build political alliances and petition the Indian Health Service to reinstate healthcare services for tribal members. These efforts came to fruition in 1972, the same year that the Louisiana Legislature granted the Coushatta state-level recognition. The following year on June 27, 1973, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana was formally granted federal re-recognition by the Department of the Interior. Ernest Sickey, who was instrumental in leading many of the re-recognition efforts, became the first tribal chairman of the re-recognized Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana. The tribe is governed by a five-person elected tribal council headed by a tribal chairman. Each council member serves a four-year term; terms are staggered with tribal elections held every two years.
Federal recognition opened many more avenues for the tribe to pursue economic self-sufficiency. Chief among these pursuits is the Coushatta Casino Resort, a gaming and hospitality enterprise that opened in 1995 in Kinder, Louisiana, and which is now among the largest private employers in the state. Smaller tribal enterprises include health, educational, social, and cultural programs that are influential in southwest Louisiana. The modern-day Coushatta Tribe owns over 5,000 acres of land in Allen Parish and more than 1,000 acres in nearby parishes. The tribe utilizes this land for housing, crawfish and rice farming, the development of non-gaming business ventures, and buildings for tribal government such as fire, police, and health departments. Hundreds of years of uncertainty and migration have culminated in self-sufficiency for the Coushatta Tribe entering the 21st century.
The Coushatta still maintain a matrilineal clan system, a cultural practice regulating marriage patterns and kinship relationships that dates back centuries or longer. Clan membership also provides a mechanism for ensuring shared governance across the tribal community. Existing Coushatta clans are Fiito (Turkey), Icho (Deer), Kawanasi (Bobcat), Kowi (Panther), Nokko (Beaver), and Takchaiha (Daddy Longlegs). The Coushatta are also the only tribe in Louisiana to retain their native language as a first language spoken within the community, although Koasati usage continues to steadily decline. In 2007 the Coushatta Tribe began a comprehensive Koasati language-documentation and revitalization project, funded by a National Science Foundation Documenting Endangered Language grant and in partnership with McNeese State University and the College of William and Mary. Through these efforts, the tribe has digitized more than 11,000 pages of Koasati manuscripts, created a multimedia dictionary and tribal archives, and developed numerous Koasati teaching resources. In recent years, the Coushatta have developed summer heritage camps for tribal youth, immersion language classes for adults, an immersion pre-school, and Language Nests where parents and infants are immersed to naturally produce Koasati first-language speakers—all of which have successfully strengthened spoken Koasati within the tribal community.
The Coushatta are still renowned for their basketry tradition, both in woven rivercane and coiled longleaf pine-needle styles. The Coushatta are particularly renowned for their longleaf pine needle effigy baskets, which are woven into every shape and size. Coushatta effigy baskets are highly prized and sought after by museums and collectors throughout the United States. As with language revitalization efforts, the tribe actively promotes the continuation of its famed basketry traditions through classes and workshops. Several younger tribal members have become proficient weavers, and some promote the art form through online marketing and sales.
Other federally recognized tribes with Coushatta members include the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, with a reservation near Livingston, Texas; the Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town in Wetumka, Oklahoma, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.