The Tunica tribe is one of only four Native American groups in Louisiana recognized by the federal government.
The Tunica tribe is one of only four Native American groups in Louisiana recognized by the federal government. Formally known as the Tunica-Biloxi tribe since 1981, the historical record of the Tunica begins with De Soto’s expedition of the sixteenth century and continues through periods of French, Spanish, British, and American occupation in the lower Mississippi Valley. The resilience of the Tunica to disease, warfare, displacement, and resettlement is a testament to the tribe’s collective ability to adapt to the social, cultural, and economic upheavals that came with more than four hundred years of colonial activity.
The Tunica in Colonial Louisiana
Historians generally agree that a group of Spanish explorers, under the leadership of Hernando de Soto, encountered the ancestors of the Tunica in the province of Quizquiz. Located in the Yazoo Basin of present-day northwestern Mississippi, the indigenous inhabitants of Quizquiz built mounds of the kind commonly found throughout the Mississippi Valley. They also impressed the Spanish with their military and agricultural capabilities. For reasons that are not entirely clear—though probably related to their temporary contact with the De Soto expedition and the long-term impact of disease and famine—the people of Quizquiz moved south to the confluence of the Yazoo and Mississippi Rivers some time during the late sixteenth century.
The French first made contact with the Tunica more than a century after the De Soto expedition, near the banks of the Lower Yazoo River. Members of the La Salle expeditions of the 1680s identified the Tunica as enemies of the Quapaw who resided on the Lower Arkansas River. The first recorded encounter between the French and Tunica occurred in 1698, when three Roman Catholic priests of the Foreign Mission—François Jolliet de Montigny, Jean François Buisson de St. Cosme, and Albert (aka Antoine) Davion—happened upon a group of Tunica villages. The missionaries described the Tunica as a peaceable, agricultural people with an elaborate religious system oriented around a major temple. Due to cultural and linguistic barriers, however, the Jesuit Jacques Gravier noted that the Tunica “are so close-mouthed as to all the mysteries of their religion that the missionary could not discover anything about it.” Davion established a mission among the Tunica in 1699, after which the priest of the Foreign Mission remained on and off until approximately 1720.
Several years after that contact, the Tunica migrated to the vicinity of the Red River-Mississippi River confluence after coming in conflict with the Chickasaw and English. They resettled among the Houma in an area known as Portage de la Croix (near present-day Angola, Louisiana). In 1706, the Tunica attacked their Houma hosts in an effort to develop closer diplomatic and trade relations with the French. In 1731, following the so-called Natchez revolt of 1729, a group of Natchez refugees attacked the main Tunica village, killing several chiefs and convincing the defeated tribe to migrate once again to a tributary of the Mississippi River that is known today as Tunica Bayou.
After the 1763 Treaty of Paris, the Tunica left the vicinity of Tunica Bayou after coming in conflict with British forces and allying with the new Spanish regime in New Orleans. They settled on the east side of the Mississippi River near Pointe Coupée in 1764, though no archaeological record remains because of river encroachment. Approximately twenty years later, the Tunica moved to the interior of Spanish Louisiana in present-day Avoyelles Parish. The Tunica’s main settlement has remained in Marksville, Louisiana, since the 1780s.
During the eighteenth century, the Tunica would settle less than one hundred miles from New Orleans (est. 1718) and become close trading partners and military allies of the French. The French, who so often experienced supply shortages, relied heavily upon the agriculturalist Tunica for salt, rice, and cattle. The French also looked to the Tunica for military support against rival native peoples such as the Natchez and the Chickasaw. Archaeological and ethnographic records clearly demonstrate a unique and extensive relationship between the French and Tunica during the French period of Louisiana history. The archival and archaeological record for the Spanish period is slight. The Tunica resided in what were probably temporary encampments within miles of Pointe Coupée, where the threat of displacement was always present due to the growing network of plantations along the Mississippi River.
After the Louisiana Purchase
The Tunica resided in the vicinity of Marksville during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Oral history suggests that the Avoyel welcomed the Tunica into their central-Louisiana community, after which members of the two tribes commonly intermarried. Priests of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and later the Diocese of Natchitoches (est. 1853) and the Diocese of Alexandria (est. 1910), regularly visited the Native peoples of Avoyelles Parish, though their chapel remained in a ramshackle state for much of the nineteenth century. During the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologist Robert Neitzel and Tunica Chief Joseph A. Pierite, Sr. unearthed Tunica burials dating to the nineteenth century. The excavations showed little sign of Christian adherence, thus demonstrating an extension of traditional Tunica lifeways at least to the Civil War and perhaps thereafter.
Following the Civil War, the Tunica lived in farming communities in and around Marksville. The Tunica made an official land claim during the 1890s, but Louisiana’s supreme court ruled against the Tunica on the grounds that the US Department of the Interior “had no knowledge of any land set apart for the Tunica or any other Indians for an Indian reservation.” In 1920, another state court ruling found “no official recognition that would segregate [the Tunica] from the rest of the population of the state.” In response to state and federal government rejection, as well as a decline in the number of self-identified people of Tunica descent, the Tunica merged with several other historical Louisiana tribes, including the Biloxi, Avoyel, Ofo, and Choctaw, in order to pool their political, cultural, and economic resources for future attempts at official recognition.
Legal Recognition and Economic Growth
The Tunica received considerable attention during the 1970s when Leonard Charrier, an amateur archaeologist, excavated thousands of burial objects associated with the Tunica Bayou settlement. Dubbed the “Tunica Treasure” but more formally referred to as the Trudeau site, Jeffrey Brain and a team of professional archaeologists conducted extensive excavations in 1972, 1980, and 1981. They uncovered artifacts of aboriginal and European origin, including pottery, basketry, glass beads, ceramic bowls, axes, nails, scissors, jewelry, and firearms. Most items were found on or near the bodies of Tunica men, women, and children buried in native fashion.
Also during the 1970s, leaders of what remained of the coalition of Tunica and Biloxi Indians decided to pursue federal recognition as a tribe. Earl J. Barbry Sr., was elected tribal chairman in 1978, after which he became the main force behind an appeal to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for acknowledgement of the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe. Official federal recognition of the Tunica-Biloxi came in 1981, but only after native leaders were able to demonstrate the following information to the federal government: the existence of a distinct Indian community going back several centuries to first contact with Europeans; the identification of a distinct Indian group since first contact by federal governments, state governments, local governments, other tribes, or scholars; and proof of ancestral links to the historic tribe from which the present tribe descended. Moreover, Barbry was partly responsible for the return of the “Tunica Treasure” to the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe in 1989 in accordance with a state court ruling. Profits from Grand Casino Avoyelles have contributed to the multimillion-dollar restoration, preservation, and presentation of the artifacts, though the collection remains closed to the public while a state-of-art museum complex is under construction.
According to the 2000 US Census, approximately one hundred people reside on the Tunica-Biloxi reservation, measuring less than a square mile in area. Currently, there are approximately 1,200 members of the tribe. Grand Casino Avoyelles remains the largest employer in Avoyelles Parish, 98 percent of which is comprised of non-Tunica-Biloxi employees. In 1998, tribal leaders started the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Political Action Committee (TBIPAC) in order to influence legislation at the state and federal levels, often resulting in benefit to the interests of TBIPAC. The administration of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe includes departments devoted to health, housing, gaming, finances, cultural resources, legal affairs, social services, and education. Though most members of the tribe do not reside on tribal lands, many participate in cultural life in the form of tribal meetings and the annual Tunica-Biloxi Pow Wow.