64 Parishes

Jena Band of Choctaw Indians

Ancestors of the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians avoided resettlement and remained in Louisiana following the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

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Jena Band of Choctaw Indians


Choctaw man, 1924.

What is the significance of Nanih Waiya to the Choctaw people?

According to the tribe’s oral history, the Choctaws moved into present-day Louisiana and Mississippi with the Chickasaws, another Native group with some cultural similarities. During the Mississippi Period, 1200 to 1700 CE, 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 as their tribal birthplace and spiritual center. On these fertile lands the Choctaws developed an economy based on hunting and farming and a society with complex cosmological and kinship systems.

Between the arrival of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto in 1540 and the return of European explorers in the late 1600s, the Choctaws became a unique cultural group. European diseases and natural stress factors had contributed to the decline of the Mississippi Period chiefdoms, which were larger social organizations dominated by a central authority. As the old social groups broke up, people joined together to create new tribal structures. The land these groups inhabited had previously served as a buffer zone between different Native tribes and was largely unoccupied. Political and cultural interaction among them led to the creation of a shared identity.

Why did French colonial forces seek alliances with the Choctaw?

In 1699 French colonial forces led by Pierre Le Moyne, sieur 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 people to maintain control of the Louisiana territory and to provide military support. Early French voyages established relationships with local tribes to gain access to the fur trade, supply the new colonial establishment with food, and discourage other European powers from expanding into the area.

By the early 1700s the English controlled the Atlantic seaboard and were expanding westward into the interior of North America. They, too, had established relationships with local Native groups, primarily for trade. In addition to furs, the English colonists wanted manpower, so they seized and enslaved Indigenous peoples. The Chickasaws, who occupied territory north of the Choctaws, allied themselves with the English and, beginning in the 1690s, orchestrated raids enslaving Choctaws as well as other tribes. These raids encouraged members of the Choctaw tribe to befriend the French as potential defenders against the Chickasaws and as sources of European trade goods, including guns. Responding to a Choctaw request for protection from raiders in 1702, Iberville sent Henri de Tonti to negotiate a truce, a peace that did not last long.

How did the Choctaws adapt to their changing circumstances in the eighteenth century?

By the eighteenth century the Choctaws had created a loosely organized political system 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. As trade with Europeans and Americans 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. The Choctaws became expert cattle and horse farmers, for example, and exchanged livestock 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 interacted more with the developing American economy. When the United States gained possession of the Mississippi Territory in 1798, for instance, government agents encouraged the Choctaws to grow cotton. However, the United States continued to expand its borders and increased pressure on Choctaw communities in Mississippi and Louisiana to give up their lands and move west.

How did various treaties made with the United States affect the Choctaws?

The Treaty of Doak’s Stand in 1820, in which the Choctaws exchanged some of their Mississippi homeland for land in Arkansas, resulted in a wave of relocation. This wave was followed by the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, which resulted in the United States removing a majority of the tribe to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma). This treaty was the first made after the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which led the federal government to negotiate with Native people, 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 migrations—was derived from a Choctaw chief’s words quoted in an Arkansas Gazette newspaper article. He called the journey “a trail of tears and death.”

While US forces removed most of the Choctaw Nation from its land, some Louisiana Choctaws successfully avoided resettlement to 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.

How did the Choctaw community develop and adapt to challenges in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

The 1880 census offers the first documentation of Choctaw families living in 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-Native peoples. The tight-knit 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.

More recently the Choctaw population in Catahoula and LaSalle Parishes has grown. 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. The tribe uses the casino’s revenues 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 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. 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.