Native American Literature in Louisiana
Native American culture has influenced Louisiana for at least six thousand years. Today, Louisiana is home to four federally-recognized tribes: Chitimacha, Tunica-Biloxi, Coushatta, and the Jena Band of Choctaw.
Native American culture has been present in and influenced the place now known as Louisiana for at least six thousand years. Louisiana is still rich in native culture, as evidenced by four federally recognized tribes—the Chitimacha, Tunica-Biloxi, Coushatta, and the Jena Band of Choctaw—who call the state home. A number of other Native American groups are seeking recognition, such as the Houma, Caddo-Adai, Clifton Choctaw, Choctaw-Apache, and the Biloxi-Chitimacha Muskogean Confederation. Louisiana continues to be a site of creative exploration for Native American storytellers and writers, both inside and outside the state’s borders.
Native American Oral Traditions
Like much Native American literature, stories by and about Louisiana’s Indians are often rooted in oral traditions. One of the first academic explorations of Native American oral tradition and language in Louisiana is anthropologist Mary Haas’s 1950 publication, Tunica Texts. Haas’s work presents a variety of traditional Tunica stories that she transcribed from tribe member Sesostrie Youchigant, with whom she worked from 1933 until 1938. Tunica Texts includes not only sacred stories but also a variety of tales about animals, historical events, and personal/family memoirs. Youchigant describes the beginning of the Tunica peoples as an emergence “from (the mountain) ta’ma-ro’ha.” Today, the Tunica-Biloxi Singers and Legendkeepers–comprised of Donna Pierite and her children, Jean-Luc and Elisabeth–keep the oral tradition alive. They preserve the tribe’s language by performing a repertoire of animal stories, instructional narratives, and songs such as the “Tunica Double Head Dance Song” and the “Tunica Alligator Dance Song.”
Members of the Chitimacha tribe are also working to preserve their traditional stories. One example is the inclusion of excerpts from oral traditions such as the Earthdiver narrative on the tribal website. For the Chitimacha, the world was created by the Great Spirit, who first made fish and shellfish to live in the world, a place covered entirely in water. He then told the crawfish to dive down below the water, bring up mud, and make the earth, after which the Great Spirit made man. The Great Spirit called the men and the land Chitimacha. Other stories on the Chitimacha website include “The Legend of the Bayou Teche,” “How Bayou Teche Came to Be,” “The First Canoe,” “How the Great Spirit Taught the Chitimacha to Make Canoes,” “The Little Bird That Could Talk,” and “How Wrens Once Spoke to the Chitimacha.”
Contemporary Literature by Louisiana Native Americans
Journalist and fiction writer Roger Emile Stouff is of Chitimacha and Cajun descent, the son of the last traditional Chitimacha chief, Nicholas Leonard Stouff Jr. Since 1982, he has been writing a column, “From the Other Side,” in the St. Mary and Franklin Banner-Tribune, which has received multiple awards from the Louisiana Press Association. Stouff is the author of two books, Native Waters: A Few Moments in a Small Wooden Boat (2005) and Chasing Thunderbirds (2007). Native Waters is a collection of newspaper columns published between 1998 and 2004, detailing his experiences as a fly fisherman and boat builder with humor and care; he also explores Native Americans’ experiences living on their traditional lands. The memoir begins in January with the Chitimacha creation story and ends in December with the “the never ceasing, eternal rise and fall of water.” Stouff’s short story collection Chasing Thunderbirds draws on both the author’s Chitimacha heritage and stories of the macabre. This combination of influences is notable throughout the collection, particularly in the title story “Chasing Thunderbirds” and its follow-up “Silver Warriors,” whose themes cycle around giant, mythic birds that precede the dark and rumbling clouds of real and metaphoric storms.
Native American Literature about Louisiana
Louisiana has also inspired Native Americans writers outside the state’s boundaries. Prior to European colonialism, Louisiana’s vast waterways provided opportunities for trade between tribal groups. Exploration and settlement during Spanish, French, and US rule upset the way of life for all southeastern Native Americans. The well-known collection, She Had Some Horses, by Muscogee poet and musician Joy Harjo, contains the poem “New Orleans,” detailing the pain of dislocation from one’s tribal homelands. The poem focuses specifically on the removal of southeastern tribes via the “Trail of Tears” during the Jacksonian period. Harjo’s poem intertwines images of the city with historical references depicting Hernando de Soto’s misguided search for gold among indigenous peoples, who, as Harjo describes, “lived in earth towns,/ not gold,/ spun children, not gold.”
“Mother’s Only Daughter,” a poem by Oneida writer Roberta Hill, details a young Native American woman’s connection to Louisiana as she describes the powerful emotional effect a yam has on her mother. The food stirs her mother’s memories of the South, “the sultry streets/ of Natchitoches and Saddle Tree,” and the narrator suggests that only such reminiscences can assuage her mother’s “Choctaw hunger.” Yams are also a memory receptacle for the speaker, who, when she smells them, experiences “the full measure of [her] childhood.”
Another Native American writer who sets her creative works in Louisiana is Choctaw LeAnne Howe. Winner of the 2002 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, her novel Shell Shaker (2001) details the complex relationships between southeastern native peoples prior to European colonialism. One character, Koi Chitto, follows an ancient Choctaw trade route that brings him to the village of the Houmas, who he calls “his cousins,” and into the territory of the Attakapas, for whom he feels contempt. In addition to depicting historical relationships between Gulf Coast tribes, Shell Shaker portrays the eighteenth-century alliance between French colonial governor Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville and the Choctaw peoples. Howe’s 2005 work, Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose, winner of the 2006 Oklahoma Book Award for poetry, includes a story called “The Chaos of Angels,” which begins in New Orleans’s French Quarter and also features an appearance by Bienville. This piece, however, differs from the historical sections of Shell Shaker in that it ponders the possibilities of cross-cultural understanding through a bizarre and amusing conversation between Bienville and the narrator, a contemporary Choctaw writer. Howe’s 2007 novel, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story, contains the fascinating tale of a black Indian woman named Justina Maurepas, born in Avoyelles Parish in 1878. Like so many Louisianans, Maurepas is of mixed ancestry, descended from Native, African, and French ancestors, and is the love interest of the Choctaw protagonist, Hope Little Leader.
A more recent Native American novel set in Louisiana is The Last of the Ofos (2000) by Cherokee-Quapaw/Chickasaw author Geary Hobson, who was named the 2001 Fiction Writer of the Year by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. The novel is a fictional memoir of Thomas Darko, the imagined last member of the Mosopeleas (Ofos), a small tribe of the Mississippi delta. The Mosopeleas are overshadowed by their “more numerous Muskhogean and Tunican” neighbors. Darko’s inviting vernacular narrative begins with his birth in Sherrillton, Louisiana, in 1905 and describes his mixed Ofo, Tunica, Cajun, and French heritage. Hobson presents Darko’s tale as a series of exciting exploits, beginning with his career as a bootlegger, the formation his own gang, and, later, his services as a research subject for anthropologists at Smithsonian Institution. Meeting Native Americans from other tribes while living in Washington D.C., Darko’s comes to understand his situation as a Louisiana Indian much more clearly. He learns for the first time about treaties and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, leading to a painful realization about his own people: “I spect as far as the US government and the State of Louisiana was concerned we was all gone—or that we was all vanished, which was the word used that I have heard a lot about over the years.” Yet, masterfully reversing the myth of the “vanishing Indian,” Hobson dedicates his novel to Rosa Pierrette, the real “last of the Ofos” who died in 1915, and her descendants among the Tunica-Biloxi tribe “still residing in Louisiana.” Among them are Jean-Luc and Elisabeth Pierite, mentioned earlier as members of the Tunica-Biloxi Singers and Legendkeepers.
Louisiana literature begins with the stories of its native peoples. Whether ancient or contemporary, the literature of Native Americans continues to teach us about the state and the many cultural groups that have come to call it home.