ORANGE — “All the Atakapans are gone now. They died out or were absorbed into other tribes in the middle 1800s. It is a shame we know so little about them.” R. E. Moore
The statement by Mr. Moore is totally erroneous. The Atakapa-Ishak Nation is very much alive. They were never gone. As European colonists came to the shores of Texas and Louisiana, the Atakapas were pushed out of their ancestral lands on the Gulf coast. Colonists crossing into Louisiana and into Texas from the north encountered the Atakapas and pushed them out of the plains they had always lived on. They were caught as though they were in a vise. Eventually they were forced into living with other ethnic groups, instead of living like they had for centuries, as a nation, people following the lifestyle they had lived on the coast and in the forests of Texas and Louisiana.
When the first Spanish and French explorers landed on the Gulf coast between the western shores of Galveston Bay in Texas and the Eastern Shores of Vermillion Bay in Louisiana, they met native inhabitants that had an established culture and who had already been living on those lands for centuries.
The explorers encountered brown-skinned people who lived in huts made of a simple wooden framework covered with grass and reeds interwoven into a secure covering. The huts were not large or fancy, but were easy to build and move from place to place.
The men wore breechcloths and the women wore wraparound skirts. Shirts were not necessarily worn, except in cooler weather when both men and women wore a mantle-like garment. They went mostly barefoot, but some wore moccasins.
Men and women alike had long hair. They did not paint their faces, but did decorate their bodies with tribal tattoos. Headdresses were not usually feathered, but normally a roach often made of porcupine hair.
They were a gentle people and welcomed the newcomers and often served as guides and teachers after a means of communication was established.
The tribes referred to themselves as “Ishak”, meaning “the people.” The Choctaw called them “Atakapa”, pronounced “ah-tah-kah-pah”. The Choctaw word meant, “Man-eaters”, even though there is no proof of Atakapa cannibalism, and Europeans who met the Atakapas did not witness this behavior. It is possible that the Choctaw name “Atakapa” was actually intended for the Karankawas, who were known for their cannibal war practices and the French misunderstood the Choctaw stories.
Today the people are known as the Atakapa-Ishak Nation. The Nation is made up of six tribal bands; the Eastern group of Bands is known as “The People of the Sunrise”, and the Western Bands; “The People of the Sunset.”
In the Eastern Bands there is the Opelousas Band, around St. Landry Parish, represented by the Heron; the Calcasieu Band inhabits the lands between the Calcasieu and Sabine Lakes in Southwestern Louisiana, the Eagle represents them. The Snake is the totem of the Teche Band from the area around St. Martinville in South Central Louisiana. Located around the Vermillion River is the Alligator Band, represented by the alligator that provided so much for those people.
The Band who inhabited the prairies and coastal lands of Southwestern Louisiana near what is now Lake Charles, and remain there to this day is the Red Bird Band, represented by the Red Bird.
The Atakapa who live in and around the Sabine River and into Southeast Texas is the Panther Band, and the Panther is their totem. The shell piles, or “middens” found around the shores of Sabine Lake and artifacts like pottery, pottery shards, and arrowheads found on the Orange County bayous have been identified as coming from these ancient Atakapa inhabitants.
How did it happen that a group of people so organized with such a proud history and traditions were thought to be extinct? Very simply, the same thing happened to them that happened to the tribes in the East, Great Plains, and Western America; the newcomers took over their lands and then tried to eliminate their culture. The larger, stronger Native American tribes were relocated to reservations, where they managed to keep an identity.
The Atakapas were never a tribe that fought hard to keep their lands. They were a gentle people. They allowed themselves to be pushed away from the desirable areas that the European invaders wanted to take over and live on first as a few families, and later as established towns.
The Atakapas retreated into the swamps, marshes, and forests until finally; these lands were wanted by the newcomers also. The purity of the tribes was diluted as the newcomers married tribal members. There began to be a mixing of the races as time went by.
In the late 18th century there was a smallpox epidemic that destroyed large numbers of the Atakapas. By the late 19th century the Atakapas were being assimilated into the groups of ethnic minorities that were coming into the region. Their identity was becoming diluted at an alarming rate.
One example is that the State of Louisiana did not recognize any of its Native American tribes. They were classed as Negroes. Until nearly the mid 20th Century, in Louisiana you were either “White” or “Black”. The Atakapas were of many shades of brown, they were not White; therefore, they were classed as Black. Being Native American was not an official option. Officially, on paper, they did not exist. This sort of treatment was widespread. Even though physically present, they no longer existed, except in their own historical records, mostly oral. Their language was also fading away as the other facets of their culture also eroded.
In Lake Charles shortly after the turn of the 20th Century, the Atakapas were relocated to neighborhood called, “The Dummyline”, named after a local rail line. The Dummyline was a section of land with only graded dirt streets. There was no running water or sewage system. The Atakapas and the Black residents of Lake Charles lived here as one. After 1920 the Catholic Atakapas were no longer allowed to attend the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. They were told to attend the Sacred Heart Catholic Church that had been built for them in the Dummyline. The Atakapas were still around us, just being pushed out of sight.
The same thing was happening all over their former homelands. Finally things began to change until they progressed to where they are today. For nearly 25 years the Atakapa-Ishak Nation has been trying to gain recognition from the U. S. Government. They have been granted a “Recognized” status, but the final stage “Acknowledgement” is still a long way from being attained.
Basically the Government has said, “We know who you are, but you must prove who you are.” One great stumbling block is that the Atakapas have never signed any kind of treaty or other document with the U.S. Government.
The Atakapa-Ishak Nation is formally organized with a constitution, and a tribal council with representatives from each of the six bands. The Principal Chief is always known as “Chief Crying Eagle.” In May, 2012, Edward Chretien, Jr., a Lake Charles native was elected Principal Chief.
“My goal is to bring awareness of our tribe to everyone. We are not extinct, we have never been extinct. We want people to know that and to know that we are proud of who we are and proud of our history and traditions. We are working to bring our language back. I want to bring our young people into being active members of our Nation. We are going to work to get all the steps done to get Federal Acknowledgement. I want this so that our people can get benefits due them. I want to see our young people get the benefit that will allow them to go to college. I want to see our people that need health care get those benefits. I have told those that think they are going to get a check from the Government that this is not about that. We do not want a hand out of money. We want benefits for our people that will help them have a better life,” said Chief Crying Eagle.
The Mission Statement of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation states their goal very well;
“We the People of the Sunrise and Sunset walk this earth with the sun on our shoulders. We are a proud people of the “Most High.” Our mission is to let our light shine, and if we should fail at that mission we shall have to put down the sun and the world shall be in darkness.”