Jena Band of Choctaw Indians
The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians is one of four Louisiana tribes recognized by the federal government and one of fifteen recognized by the state.
The Jena Band of Choctaw Indians is one of four Louisiana tribes recognized by the federal government and one of fifteen recognized by the state. In 2011 the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians reported 284 members. The modern tribe comprises descendants of the historic Choctaw Nation, who coalesced after the collapse of the Mississippian chiefdoms in the early sixteenth century. Though much of the tribe’s history took place in present-day eastern Mississippi, Choctaw people began arriving in Louisiana in the 1770s, many searching for better hunting grounds. Despite repeated attempts by the United States to force them from their land, members of the tribe continue to inhabit parts of Catahoula and LaSalle Parishes in the east-central part of the state.
The Emergence of the Choctaw Nation
According to the tribe’s oral history, the Choctaws moved to this area with the Chickasaws, another Native group with some cultural similarities. During the Mississippian Period, the Chickasaws split from the Choctaws and continued their migration, while the Choctaws stopped and settled at Nanih Waiya, an earthen mound located northeast of present-day Philadelphia, Mississippi. Tribal members identify Nanih Waiya, in central Mississippi, as their tribal birthplace and spiritual center. In these fertile lands, the Choctaws developed an economy based on hunting and farming, as well as a society with complex cosmological and matriarchal kinship systems.
During the period between Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s arrival in 1540 and the return of the European explorers in the late 1600s, the Choctaws emerged as a distinct cultural group. European diseases and natural stress factors had contributed to the decline of the Mississippian-era chiefdoms, which were social organizations dominated by a central authority. As the old polities fractured, fragmented groups joined to create new, less centralized tribal structures.
As part of this restructuring, “prairie people” from the Pearl River region, who were previously connected to the Moundville Chiefdom, moved to eastern Mississippi, where they encountered two groups once affiliated with the Bottle Creek Chiefdom—the Burial Urn people and a small group of Natchezean Indians from the abandoned chiefdom at Pearl Mounds. The land these groups inhabited had previously served as a buffer zone between Native American tribes and therefore was largely unoccupied. Political and cultural interaction among them led to the creation of a shared ethnic identity, even though there was no centralized political organization to formally unite them.
Relations with Europeans and Americans
In 1699 French colonial forces led by Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville arrived in the Gulf Coast region. Early interactions with explorers such as Iberville marked the beginning of the Choctaws’ colonial experience. The French needed alliances with Native Americans to maintain control of the Louisiana territory and to provide military support. Hence, these early voyagers established relationships with local tribes in order to gain access to the fur trade, supply the fledgling colonial establishment with food, and discourage other European powers from expanding into the area.
By this time, the English controlled the Atlantic seaboard and were expanding westward into the continent’s interior. They, too, had established relationships with local Native American groups, primarily for trade. In addition to furs, the English colonists wanted manpower, so they seized indigenous peoples as slaves. The Chickasaws, who occupied territory east of the Choctaws, allied themselves with the English and, beginning in the 1690s, orchestrated slave raids against the Choctaws as well as other tribes. These raids encouraged members of the Choctaw tribe to befriend French colonizers as potential defenders against the Chickasaws and as sources of European trade goods, including guns. Responding to a Choctaw request for protection from slave raiders in 1702, Iberville sent Henri de Tonti to negotiate a truce. While this peace did not last, it demonstrated how early colonial relationships could be mutually beneficial.
By the eighteenth century, traditional kinship systems and local governance had created a loosely organized political system among the Choctaws. This system was perhaps best described as a confederacy rather than a nation, but the experience of negotiating as a group with French, Spanish, and then American officials encouraged the Choctaws to see themselves as a single nation with a united political stature. As trade with European colonizers and American settlers increased throughout the 1700s, the Choctaws took advantage of new economic opportunities. While many continued to hunt and trade in furs as their primary source of income, others adopted American agricultural practices. The Choctaws became expert cattle and horse farmers, for example, and engaged in livestock exchange with French, Spanish, and English traders.
In the 1770s Choctaw hunting parties crossed the Mississippi River in search of better game, and many eventually settled in Louisiana. For the most part, the Choctaws who remained in Mississippi engaged more directly with the developing American market economy. When the United States gained possession of the Mississippi Territory in 1789, for instance, government agents encouraged the Choctaws to grow cotton.
US Expansion Leads to Dislocation
As the United States continued to expand its borders, however, Choctaw communities in Mississippi and Louisiana faced increased pressure to cede their lands and move west.
The Treaty of Doak’s Stand in 1820, in which the Choctaws ceded their Mississippi territory in exchange for a parcel of land in Arkansas, resulted in the first wave of relocation. This was followed by the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which allowed the United States to remove the remainder of the tribe to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma). This was the first treaty made after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the federal government to negotiate with Native Americans, exchanging tribal lands in the southeastern United States for specified areas of the Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. The “Trail of Tears”—the term that came to describe the suffering and death that resulted from the Indian Removal Act’s forced emigrations—was derived from a Choctaw chief’s words quoted in an Arkansas Gazette article. He called the journey “a trail of tears and death.”
While the bulk of the Choctaw Nation was thrust from its land, some Louisiana Choctaws successfully avoided resettlement to the government-controlled reservations; the ancestors of the Jena Band were among them. Many of these Choctaws eventually settled in present-day Catahoula and LaSalle Parishes.
The 1880 census offers the first documentation of Choctaw families living at Jena in Catahoula Parish, where members of the tribe continue to reside. During the remainder of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, members of this community had little contact with non-Indian peoples. The insular community they formed helped protect them from the racism and legal segregation they faced in broader Louisiana society. Beginning in 1932, the tribe had its own school, but it opened and closed several times during that decade due to funding problems. From the US entry into World War II until 1943, children of the Jena Band did not attend school, and it was not until 1946 that Choctaws were permitted to attend Louisiana public schools.
More recently, the Choctaw population in Catahoula and La Salle Parishes has grown, and these families have developed a politically and culturally unified tribe. In 1974 the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians held its first election to select a new tribal chief. The next year, the tribe was officially recognized by the State of Louisiana; it did not receive federal recognition until 1995. The Jena Choctaw Pines Casino opened in February 2013 in Dry Prong, southwest of the town of Jena. Revenue from the casino is used by the tribe to fund programs dedicated to the education and welfare of its members. The tribal leadership and community have worked to maintain a sense of Native American identity within their population and have promoted education in traditional Choctaw language and culture so that the Jena Band of Choctaw will remain a thriving people in contemporary Louisiana.