64 Parishes

Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana

The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is the largest of three federally recognized Coushatta tribal governments.

Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana

Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Lorena Langley stands by her craft table at the 1978 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in this photograph by Michael P. Smith.

The Coushatta of Louisiana (also known as Koasati in their native language) is the largest of three federally recognized Coushatta tribal governments. The Coushatta have historically been allied with the Alabama tribe: by 1686 the two cultures had established villages near the junction of the Alabama, Coosa, and Tallapoosa Rivers (in present-day Wetumpka, Alabama). Gradually pushed off their land by colonial expansion, the Coushatta migrated to Louisiana in the 1760s. Many members continued on to Texas, but a small group remained behind, inhabiting Indian Village near the town now known as Kinder in Allen Parish. Despite repeated attacks on their culture, language, and land, the Louisiana Coushatta tribe has maintained its identity and status as a sovereign nation. Today, the Coushatta boasts 875 members, with thirty-one percent of them residing outside of Louisiana. The tribe owns 685 acres of federally designated land and operates a successful casino resort that opened in 1995.

 The Mississippian Period

Coushatta Indians originated in the Mississippian Period (AD 900 to 1600), one of several eras that archaeologists use to study Native Americans history in present-day southeastern and midwestern United States. Civilizations of this period generally organized their social and political worlds into chiefdoms: hierarchical, centralized societies consisting of numerous towns and villages that were controlled by a hereditary chief or elite group. Historically, Coushattas were part of the Coste chiefdom. Based on Bussell Island in the Little Tennessee River in present-day Tennessee, the Coste chiefdom was closely affiliated with the larger and powerful Coosa paramount chiefdom, which controlled territory from eastern Tennessee to east-central Alabama.

The Coste members established large, sedentary communities near riverbanks or on large islands. Supported by an agricultural economy, they often cultivated corn, hunted game animals, and gathered wild plants and fruits. Coste dwellings circled an open-air ceremonial court, public buildings, and other community structures that were placed atop earthen mounds. Recent archaeological studies have linked the Coste (Coushatta) and Moundville (Alabama) chiefdoms, suggesting common ancestral origins in western Tennessee as early as AD 1050.

The Coste briefly encountered Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto on July 1, 1540. De Soto and his men devastated many towns, took slaves, and spread European diseases to which the Coushattas and other Native Americans had no immunity. This loss of life left many groups vulnerable to attack from the Chickasaws to the west and the Cherokees to the north and east. Decades later, Coushatta survivors scattered and began leaving their ancient homeland to escape these calamities. In their migration, the Coushattas needed allies and merged with another remnant people, the Alabama. By 1686 Spanish explorer Marcos Delgado noted that Alabama and Coushatta refugees had established towns and villages along protective bluffs where the Alabama, Coosa, and Tallapoosa Rivers converged.

The Colonial Era

By 1700 the Coushattas and Alabamas had built a prosperous, tightly knit community based on intermarriage between the two groups. They presented a united front when, in the first half of the eighteenth century, the English and French began building colonies in the Southeast. Their strategic location at the river junction proved to be a source of strength as they negotiated with Europeans interested in trade. In 1717 the townspeople demonstrated their importance in the Southeast by inviting the French to build a trading post and fort (known as Fort Toulouse) in the heart of their territory. As members of the garrison married native women, the Coushattas and Alabamas established extensive kinship ties with the French.

During the French and Indian War (1754–1763), also known as the Seven Years’ War, the Coushattas attempted to remain neutral and play off the European rivalries. Their long-standing connection to the French, however, led many members of the tribe to support the French cause. When the British won the war, the French lost control of Louisiana (which was ceded to Spain) and abandoned their 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. The war chief from the town of Coosada, Tamatlé Mingo, led eighty Coushatta and Alabama men and women to Manchac, a profitable trading center, and established a temporary settlement north of New Orleans.

By the end of the eighteenth century, many of the remaining Coushattas migrated west to Spanish Louisiana when their leader, Red Shoes, reportedly opposed an ongoing war with the Chickasaws. Increased hostilities with Anglo Americans encroaching on their territory added to their motivations for leaving. In 1793 Red Shoes informed Spanish officials that his warriors had engaged in a war with the Americans, apparently because of land disputes.

Red Shoes and his tribe first established a village on Bayou Chicot in the Opelousas district around 1795. Then, in 1801, approximately two hundred men and their families moved to the east bank of the Sabine River, eighty miles southwest of the American trading post at Natchitoches. A few Coushatta families who had remained on Bayou Chicot soon joined the Alabama village on the Red River in Caddo territory, further integrating the two peoples. Another Coushatta village of approximately four hundred and fifty men (not including their families), led by the chief Pia Mingo, relocated from the Mississippi Territory to the Sabine River, where they lived in detached settlements near Red Shoes’s village. In 1805 the Alabama and Coushatta population in Spanish Louisiana numbered 1,650.

 The Coushatta after the Louisiana Purchase

After the United States purchased Louisiana from France in 1803, American expansion into the West was inevitable. Conflict between the new settlers and the Native Americans quickly ensued, especially when it came to land rights. After repeated attacks and encroachment onto their lands, a group of Coushattas, led by Pia Mingo and Red Shoes, cut down their corn, packed their belongings, and headed west for Spanish territory. Their destination was the Trinity River, a region abounding with game and rich soil, surrounded by hilly prairies and forested plains. Although the majority of Coushattas, along with their Alabama kinspeople, migrated to eastern Texas by 1820, a small group remained near Caddo territory near present-day Shreveport. Probably under the protection of the Caddo Indians, these Coushattas numbered approximately three hundred fifty in 1822.

By 1850, however, encroaching Anglo American settlement forced many Caddos to join the Coushattas in eastern Texas. The few families that stayed behind escaped detection. These Coushattas maintained frequent contact with their kinspeople in Texas by traveling the Coushatta and Alabama Traces—open paths that connected Alabama and Coushatta villages between Louisiana and Texas. Intermarriage between the groups continued, as it does today. The Coushattas’ Indian Village, now known as Elton, remains in southwestern Louisiana, where they presently live.

The Coushattas are among the few Native American tribes to retain their spoken language, though its usage has steadily declined. It is estimated that only two hundred speakers remain. A joint project between the tribe, McNeese State University in Lake Charles, and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, was begun to preserve the Koasati language, and in 2007 the National Science Foundation awarded the tribe and the National Anthropological Archives a Documenting Endangered Languages grant to digitize more than 11,000 pages of Koasati manuscripts.

The Coushatta are also renowned for their basketry tradition, both in the cane-woven and longleaf pine-needle coiled styles. Unique to the tribe are pine-straw effigy baskets crafted into a wide range of animal shapes. Baskets and other woven artworks by Langley and Abbey families are highly sought after by collectors.

By the end of the nineteenth century, this community had begun to flourish, as it did throughout the twentieth century. In 1973 the Coushatta Indian Tribe of Louisiana received federal recognition, entitling it to federal protection of its reservation lands. In 1995 the Coushattas built a lucrative casino and resort north of Kinder in Allen Parish. Today the Coushattas continue to support a thriving community and have strengthened their resolve to revitalize their culture.

Other federally recognized Coushatta tribes are the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, with a reservation near Livingston, Texas; and the Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town in Wetumka, Oklahoma.