louisiana flag and landscape

The First Louisianans: Native Cultures Before Colonization

Long before Europeans reached the swamps and bayous of what we now call Louisiana, this was home to a diversity of Native American peoples.

From the pine forests of the north to the Mississippi delta in the south, tribes like the Natchez, Houma, Chitimacha, and Caddo established unique cultures shaped by their environments.

The Natchez, pushed south by conflict with settlers in their Mississippi valleys, ruled a small empire near what is now called Sicily Island, sustained by corn agriculture and trade. Their Great Sun chief lived atop imposing temple mounds in the Grand Village, overseeing a highly stratified society.

Poverty Point – ancient earthworks site
Poverty Point – This ancient earthworks site near modern-day Epps, Louisiana represents one of the earliest Native American civilizations in North America

Downriver, the Chitimacha harvested fish and shellfish from the marshlands. Skilled dugout canoe-makers, they warily resisted French encroachment into their homelands.

And in the northwest, the agrarian Caddo, whoes empire spilled into Texas too, built large grass houses and traded with Plains tribes, acting as mercantile middlemen between East and West.

In smaller numbers, the Atakapa, Tunica and Coushatta tribes had established lands in Louisiana, as well. And despite their different languages and customs, Louisiana’s tribes were connected through far-reaching trade networks using the Mississippi as a vital artery.

Rarities like copper, shells, and pearls made their way through skilled native hands, exchanged for hides, salt, pottery, and agricultural surplus. This web of commerce fostered cultural diffusion, spreading ideas, tools, and even games like chunkey along the rivers.

But gathering clouds foretold the coming storm of European contact. When Cabeza de Vaca washed ashore in Texas after a disastrous shipwreck in 1528, he heralded a new epoch for Native Americans.

Soon, the lust for gold and souls would transform Louisiana into a battleground between rival empires.

“These Indians are very different in their customs from all the others we have seen until now”

Cabeza de Vaca on the Atakapa tribe, 1528

The Coming of the Europeans

The first portent of change arrived in 1519, when Spaniard Alonso Álvarez de Pineda’s ships appeared off the Louisiana coast, probing the Gulf like harbingers of the future.

The Spanish sought gold and glory, but found only swamps and suspicious native eyes watching from the trees. Their ambitions unsatisfied, they sailed away.

Nearly a decade passed before Europeans returned – this time, unexpectedly. In 1528, the tattered survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s failed Florida expedition washed ashore near Galveston Island.

Explorer Cabeza de Vaca lived among natives for roughly six years after his expedition ended in a shipwreck off the coast

Led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, they were some of the first outsiders to encounter Louisiana’s native inhabitants. The Bedouin-like existence Cabeza de Vaca endured among the tribes marked the dawn of a new era.

Soon, others followed. Hernando de Soto’s expedition marched through Louisiana in 1542, the first Europeans to glimpse the Mississippi River.

French explorers also penetrated the interior, drawn by rumors of wealth. Men like René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle navigated the great river, claiming its watershed for France.

The clash of cultures had begun in earnest. Native ways of life, honed over centuries, now faced the trial by fire of colonialism.

Louisiana’s tribes found themselves caught in the machinations of imperial rivalries between European powers vying for control of the lower Mississippi. Life on the Delta was forever changed.

Some natives chose to accommodate the newcomers, providing food, guides, and wives to early French traders and colonists. After all, newcomers brought fresh opportunities for trade.

Others resisted, attacking encroaching settlements like the short-lived Fort Caroline near present-day Jacksonville. But European diseases like smallpox proved far deadlier than native arrows and spears. Entire villages were consumed by sickness after contact.

By the early 1700s, France had established colonial toeholds at Fort Maurepas, Natchitoches, and along the Gulf Coast. Pressures mounted as more colonists arrived seeking land and wealth, disrupting traditional native lifeways.

Warfare, enslavement, disease, and displacement ravaged tribes across Louisiana, foreshadowing the greater conflagrations to come.

Timeline of Early European Exploration in Louisiana

  • 1519: Álvarez de Pineda expedition
  • 1528: Cabeza de Vaca shipwreck
  • 1542: Hernando de Soto expedition
  • 1682: La Salle claims Louisiana for France
  • 1699: Founding of Fort Maurepas
  • 1718: Founding of New Orleans

Jefferson’s Gamble

Like explorers of old, Thomas Jefferson keenly felt the draw of the unknown frontier.

President Thomas Jefferson
American President Thomas Jefferson was the architect of the U.S. Louisiana Purchase

As president, his imagination was captured by tales of the vast Louisiana Territory and dreams of an American empire spanning the continent. But Louisiana belonged to France, not the upstart United States.

Never one to let pragmatism overrule ambition, Jefferson took a gamble in 1801. Knowing war with Britain loomed, he offered to buy New Orleans and West Florida from Napoleon, securing U.S. access to the port.

To Jefferson’s surprise, Napoleon offered to sell the entire territory, seeking funds for his wars in Europe. Despite constitutional doubts about the purchase, the prospect of 828,000 square miles of land proved too tantalizing for Jefferson to resist.

At the bargain cost of $15 million, the massive acquisition doubled the size of the fledgling nation overnight. It was America’s first step onto the world stage as a major power.

But for Native Americans, it marked the beginning of the end. With the American flag now flying over Louisiana, a rising tide of settlers flooded into their lands, not caring whether the territory was lawfully purchased or not.

Western tribes faced relentless pressure as more and more newcomers hungered after their hunting grounds and farms. Disease, whiskey traders, and land loss continued to ravage native communities caught in the path of American expansion.

Jefferson’s gamble brought wealth and power to the nation, but tragedy to the original inhabitants of Louisiana.

The promises and pledges that lured tribes into early treaties soon dissolved like writing in sand as native voices went unheard in the clamor of Manifest Destiny. For tribes like the Osage and Caddo, the Louisiana Purchase was the first chapter in their conquest and removal.

The Agony of Displacement

Warfare cleared the way for settlement. The Creek War of 1811-1813 opened huge swaths of land to the U.S. army and eager pioneers.

British agents enflamed tensions between native groups, seeking allies among the Choctaw, Chickasaw and others to augment their military strength during the War of 1812. Their eventual defeat ended Spanish colonial ambitions and resistance to American expansion.

Exiling the Southern Tribes

Despite their adoption of Euro-American ways, renowned tribes like the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole faced relentless pressure to surrender their Southern homelands.

Collectively known as the Five Civilized Tribes, they built plantation-style homes, became literate in English, converted to Christianity, and even owned Black slaves like their white neighbors. But this cultural assimilation did not protect them from the hunger for land by an expanding United States.

Coerced treaties extracted under threat of force steadily eroded their holdings in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Lands they had occupied for centuries were severed by boundary lines drawn in Washington.

trail of tears removal

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the federal government to forcibly expel all Native Americans living east of the Mississippi. Tribal governments were abolished, and armies were sent to march the Southern tribes westward at gunpoint along routes that became known as Trails of Tears.

Most traveled to the newly-carved Indian Territory, in what is present-day Oklahoma, to lands ill-suited for farming and raided by indigenous nations established on the plains.

Not even model tribes like the Choctaw of Louisiana, who assisted American troops against the British in the War of 1812, were spared. In 1831, the Choctaw were the first removed tribe, making the trek in the dead of winter.

Nearly one-third died of cold, disease and starvation along the way. The proud Chickasaw experienced similar hardships when exiled in 1837, as did thousands of Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole on other Trails of Tears.

The agony and injustice of Indian Removal erased any notion that adoption of white culture would allow Native Americans to retain their homelands and way of life. The civilization offered by the United States came at the price of exile in the Western wilderness, revealing the harsh limits of American tolerance.

The Trail of Tears in the late 1830s, focused on the Cherokee removal, expelled over 15,000 Native Americans westward at gunpoint. Thousands perished in horrible Winter weather, not to mention mistreatment at the hands of American cavalry, along the two main routes.

“I traveled fourteen of the longest days in my life in crossing the deep waters and swamps.”

Choctaw survivor of the Trail of Tears, 1831-1833

The Plantation Economy’s Deadly Harvest

The cotton kingdom brought immense plantations and slavery to central Louisiana, consuming more native lands. New Orleans grew into a bustling antebellum metropolis, fueled by trade from the Mississippi watershed.

Native communities found themselves hemmed in by farms and towns, confined to ever-smaller reservations. And by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, most Louisiana tribes had lost their last footholds.

Scattered bands eked out an existence in remote swamps and marshes beyond the reach of settlers.

Defeat and Reconstruction further eroded native sovereignty, with the 1871 Indian Appropriations Act denying tribes separate nationhood. The Dawes Act authorized confiscation and sale of reservation lands held communally, dealing yet another devastating blow.

Key 19th Century Events

  • 1803: Louisiana Purchase
  • 1830s: Indian Removal Act and Trail of Tears
  • 1861-1865: American Civil War
  • 1871: Indian Appropriations Act
  • 1887: Dawes Act

“They buried Crazy Horse in secret because they knew we were never supposed to forget him.”

Floyd Westerman, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, on the legacy of Native American resistance

The Nadir of Assimilation

The early 20th century brought renewed efforts to assimilate native peoples into mainstream American society. Government policies sought to erase native cultures through re-education of children at coercive boarding schools.

Speaking tribal languages or practicing traditional religions brought swift punishment. “Kill the Indian, save the man” was the guiding motto.

What few land bases tribes retained were further eroded in the Allotment Era, as communal reservations were divided into individually-owned plots. Much of this allotted land then passed quickly into the hands of white speculators.

Oil discoveries in the early 1900s spurred more loss of native lands. The trend of confiscation would continue throughout the century as valuable resources were discovered on reservation lands.

Native dances, potlatches, and ceremonies were outlawed in the 1900s-1920s as dangerous and uncivilized. State fairs held “Last Sun Dances” where indigenous cultural practices were mocked and prohibited.

The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act made Native Americans U.S. citizens subject to state and federal laws, undermining tribal sovereignty. However, by the late 1920s, it was clear that federal assimilation policies were failing.

The Meriam Report of 1928 condemned the poor conditions at boarding schools and the loss of native lands. Its revelations helped pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, restoring some measure of self-government to tribes.

But the gains proved short-lived. The onset of World War 2 brought renewed pressure on Native Americans to assimilate and aid war mobilization.

Many left reservations in the 1940s-60s amid the federal termination policies, relocating to cities where their heritage was neither welcomed nor supported.

“I was forced to eat food that made me vomit. I was punished for crying. I was banned from speaking my language.”

Louis Ballard, Kewa Pueblo, on his experience at a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in the 1920s

The Rise of Red Power

The late 1960s witnessed the birth of the American Indian Movement (AIM) in Minneapolis. This nationwide grassroots effort sought to focus attention on native issues like treaty rights, discrimination, and loss of lands.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, activists employed attention-grabbing tactics. In 1969, AIM occupied the former prison on Alcatraz Island, initiation a 19-month protest highlighting broken treaties and demands for self-determination.

Other acts of resistance followed. The seizure of Mount Rushmore in 1970 decried the desecration of the sacred Black Hills.

The Voice of a Generation

In the coffee shops and folk clubs of Toronto in the early 1960s, the plaintive melodies of a new singer caught the ear of customers.

Buffy Sainte-Marie
Cree folk artist Buffy Sainte-Marie was a pioneering voice of the 1960s

Clad in fringed leather and beads, the indigenous folk artist known as Buffy Sainte-Marie entranced audiences with her piercingly poignant original compositions commenting on the plight of Native Americans.

Born on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was adopted and raised in Massachusetts. But her ancestral roots called to her. Moving to Canada to pursue music, she became one of the first widely-known indigenous musicians and activists.

Songs like “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” resonated with the turbulence and social change movements of the 1960s. Their unique poetry and perspective on native struggles earned her fame and praise.

She appeared at college campuses, coffeehouses and festivals, winning audiences with her haunting vibrato and profound messages. With anthems like “Universal Soldier” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Sainte-Marie gave voice to the legacy of colonialism still impacting Native Americans.

She brought awareness to broken treaties, discrimination, stolen lands, and campaigns like AIM’s occupation of Alcatraz Island. Though largely forgotten today, her music provided the soundtrack to an era of indigenous activism.

In 1972, AIM undertook a Trail of Broken Treaties march converging on Washington D.C., only to end up occupying and vandalizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters.

The zenith of AIM’s activism came in 1973 with the 71-day standoff at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of an 1890 massacre of Lakota Sioux.

Mobilizing in defense of traditional tribal leaders on the Pine Ridge Reservation, AIM inspired both native pride and government suppression. The FBI infiltrated and provoked internal divisions within the movement.

Despite the turmoil, AIM energized a sense of pan-Indian identity and spotlighted modern grievances. Their 1978 Longest Walk was a peaceful cross-country trek culminating in demonstrations against anti-sovereignty legislation.

In 1980, AIM assisted the Lakota claim for the Black Hills at the Supreme Court, raising awareness of broken treaties. By the 1990s, AIM’s influence was waning amid infighting and receding publicity.

But the movement left an enduring legacy for future generations of activists pursuing indigenous rights. The embers AIM ignited still smolder in the hearts of all who yearn for cultural survival and self-determination.