The photo above is a group of mixed Houmas Indians in Bayou Lafourche in 1907
The Draft Registration for WWI was really a wonderful historical opportunity. While other documents, such as the Indian Census, were taken only of tribal members, the draft asked each individual their race. They got to decide what they said, not as dictated by another body, such as a tribe or a school or a registrar of some sort. Some claimed mixed race.
In Louisiana, probably half of the people who claimed they were Indian came from Terrebonne Parish. The rest were scattered in other parishes, and New Orleans, of course, but Terrebonne probably had as many as all the rest put together. So I set about trying to discover who these Indians were. Ironically, the history of Terrebonne parish doesn’t say anything about Indians, which I found unusual, but I did find information in some other places.
It turns out that the Houmas Indians were the primary group found there in the 1800s and early 1900s, but they weren’t there earlier. Sometimes given as Ouma (French) or Huma. The name translates literally as “red” and is apparently a shortened form of Saktci-homma, the name of the Chakchiuma meaning “red crawfish.” Houma in southern Louisiana are sometimes referred to as Sabine, a derogatory term usually intended as a racial insult.
The first mention of the Houmas Indians is found in LaSalle’s report of the existance of the “Oumas” village in March of 1682, though he didn’t actually visit the location. (B.F. French, ed., Historical Collections of Louisiana, 1846, V. 1, p. 47-49) In 1686, Chevalier de Tonti went up the Mississippi River and found the “Oumas tribe, the bravest of all the savages. The location of the tribe at this time was east of the Mississippi River in West Feliciana Parish … near present-day Angola state prison. (Chevalier de Tonti, Relation De La Louisianne et de Mississippi, 1734, p. 45) In 1699, Bienville noted the conflict between the Houmas and the Bayougoula Indians, who lived further south. (Swanton, Bulletin 43, p.287-288) The two tribes had set up a red pole (from which the city “Baton Rouge” got its name) to mark the boundary of their hunting areas. (Richebourg Faillard McWilliams, Fleur de Lys and Calumet, 1953, p. 25) By the following year, the conflict had been resolved and the tribes made peace. (B.F. French, ed., Historical Collections of Louisiana and Florida, 1869, p. 55)
In 1700, the Jesuit Father Paul Du Ru joined Iberville in a trip to the Houma village. He left his servant, who directed the Indians in building a Catholic church … the first Catholic church in the Mississippi Valley. It was 50 feet long and had a cross almost 40 feet tall. (Roger Baudier, The Catholic Church in Louisiana, 1939, p. 2) On a later trip (1701-1702) to the village, Iberville counted 150 families in the tribe. (Margry, Decouvertes, Vol IV, p. 418)
About 1706, the Houmas and nearby Tunicas were feeling threatened by northern tribes from Mississippi. The Tunica settled in with the Houmas, only to later turn on them and kill over half of the tribe. The remaining Houmas moved southward. They probably settled around the mouth of the Lafourche. Some say that they moved to Bayou St. John, but is seems that they only visited that area seasonally. (Bernard de La Harpe, Historical Journal, p. 100-101) It is thought that their hunting area extended from the Lafourche eastward to Lake Ponchatrain. The main movement of the Houmas down the Lafourche probably came after 1770. The oral tradition of the Houma Indians says that one branch of the tribe settled at present-day Houma … which was in the center of their hunting land from Atchafalaya to Barataria. The village was named Chufahouma. (Oral History, Curry: # 2, #6, #15)
The following years saw the Houmas making peace … with the Chitimacha in 1716, and the Tunica and Natchez in 1723. Bienville noted in 1723 that “this nation (Houma) is very brave and very laborious.” It was reported in 1749 by Joseph De LaPorte that the Houmas lived in two villages located about six miles south of the Lafourche. De Kerlerec noted in 1758 that their location was about 66 miles upriver from New Orleans.
The latter half of the century was not a good time for the tribe. In 1771, John Thomas reported that there were 46 Houma warriors. In the latter half of the 18th century, a number of small conflicts between the Houmas and other tribes were reported. Their land, for which they had received a verbal guarantee, was sold out from under them. Legal battles were attempted … some lasting for decades … but failed due to a lack of a written document. The tribe was still on the land in 1785 and refused to move.
In 1803, Daniel Clark reported that there were 60 Houmas living on the east bank of the Mississippi River, about 75 miles upriver from New Orleans. John Sibley reported in 1806 that there were just a few Houmas living on the east side of the Mississippi just south of Bayou Manchac. Sibley also noted that some of the Houmas had traveled west and intermarried with the Attakapas tribe.
At this point, the story becomes somewhat clouded. Oral tradition of the Indians says that Alexander Billiot, the Houma chief, was living at the site of present-day Houma when the “white man came.” The traditions states that he was later given a grant for the land, though no proof of this grant exists. When they applied for the land (without a written grant), it was rejected (in 1814). They applied for “a tract of land lying on Bayou Boeuf, or Black Bayou.” This is the area between present day Houma and Morgan City. Without tribal land, the Houmas had to acquire land as private citizens.
The documented proof of Houmas Indian migration to Terrebonne Parish is lacking. The tribal identity and specifics of the Indian presence in Terrebonne Parish is still being looked into by the Bureau of Indian Affairs who issued a report which you can see at this link: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~laterreb/houmaindians.htm
In the mid 1990s, BIA came out with their genealogical report on the Houmas tribe. To summarize, they found only 3 progenitors that could be clearly identified as Native American: Joseph Houma Courteau, Jeanet, and Marie Gregoire. Courteau’s daughter married Jacques Billiot. Jeanet married his brother Joseph Billiot. Marie Gregoire married Alexander Verdin. Courteau was said to be an “Indian of the Biloxi nation.“
There are several others with possible connections. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, several other French men married Indian brides. Many of the names of these men are still recognized as being (primarily) Indian names. The surnames include: Billiot (see above), Verdin (see above), Solet, Verret, Parfait, Dardar (Michel Dardar, a Frenchman, married Adelaide Billiot, non-Indian daughter of Jean Baptiste Billiot & Marie Enerisse, in 1809), , , Naquin (Acadian Charles Naquin arrived in LA in 1785; his grandson Jean-Marie Naquin married Pauline Verdin, a daughter of Alexander Verdin & Marie Gregoire), Chiasson (Andre J. Chaisson married Felicite Isilda Billiot, non-Indian daughter of Jean Billiot & Manette Renaud).
The earliest Indian settlements in Terrebonne Parish were along Bayou Terrebonne and Little Caillou. By 1850, the settlements had spread to Pointe Aux Chenes and Bayou DuLarge. As the English, French, Acadian, etc. came into the parish, the Indians were forced further south. In 1907, John Swanton counted almost 900 people in several settlements. These included 175 at Bayou Sale (below Dulac), 160 at Pointe Aux Chenes, 117 at Isle de Jean Charles, about 90 at Bayou DuLarge, and 65 at Pointe Barre. (Swanton, Bulletin 43, p. 291) The Indian population was reported at 2,000 by Franklin Speck in 1941. (Speck, “Report … on Historical and Economic Background of Houma Indians,” p. 14-16)
The Houmas war emblem was the crawfish, representing both honor as it wouldn’t back down from anything, even unto death, and the most abject poverty if you ate it.
You can read more about the history of the Houma at this link: http://www.dickshovel.com/hou.html
To read about the Confederation of Biloxi, Chitimacha and Choctaw, tribes of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, visit this site: http://www.biloxi-chitimacha.com/
You can read more about their history here: http://www.biloxi-chitimacha.com/history.htm
Interviews and photographs: http://oralhistory.blogs.lib.lsu.edu/tag/houma-indians/