The wide area of Louisiana was once the home of a large number of Indian tribes, whose names and locations are mentioned by the historians of the early colonies. These Indians were distinct from each other in language as well as in race, and if an investigator, of scientific attainments, had visited all of them 150 years ago, he would have probably discovered over forty dialects, belonging to at least eight linguistic families. Unfortunately, such a work was not undertaken at a time when it was possible to perform it, and all that we can do now is to collect the last remnants of a world of speech. Even these are not free from foreign admixtures, and, as far as race is concerned, the majority of Louisiana Indians are no longer of pure blood.
The Shetimasha Indians, often in deadly conflict with the Chá′hta tribes, are distinct from other Indians in language and in some racial peculiarities. The banks of Grand Lake (formerly also Lake of the Shetimasha) and Grand river, or Bayou Atchafalaya (called She′ti, Tche′ti, in their language) seem to have been their earliest known habitat. Some sixteen or eighteen of these Indians still remain on Grand river and claim to own lands on it; but the majority of the tribe, about thirty-five persons, live at Charenton, a village on the southern bank of Bayou Tѐche, St. Mary’s Parish, not quite ten miles from the Gulf Coast. They have abandoned the tribal organization since the death of their chief, Alexander Dardin, in April, 1879.
The present Shetimasha Indians earn their living exactly in the same manner as the French creoles surrounding them. Too poor to run any of the large sugar plantations, with their expensive mills and other apparatus, and with the uncertainty of renting them, they prefer to earn wages in the service of the large sugar planters in summer-time, to raise some sugar-cane and kitchen vegetables for sale on the few acres which they own, to cut cypress timber in the swamps, (districts flooded in the rainy season,) and to manufacture baskets and other utensils. Articles like these are made by the women, who are hard workers and certainly more industrious than the men. About fifty-five Indians are all that now remain of this ancient tribe, and not more than one-half of these speak the Indian tongue, the rest using exclusively the Creole dialect of French. Every house contains quite a number of children, so that the tribe and even the language will not become extinct within a short time. But they have forgotten almost everything of importance concerning the history, traditions, wars, manners, and customs of their race. The oldest members of the tribe at the time I visited them (December, 1881) were three women, from sixty to seventy years of age, who are probably the only pure-bloods among them, and are of a very dark cinnamon complexion. The oldest man was but fifty, and the person best acquainted with their antiquities is Baptiste Angélique, an old negro living on Grand Lake. From several events mentioned by this hoary old slave, I have been enabled to establish some points in the chronology of the Shetimasha chiefs. Having no distinct idea of our mode of computing years, he stated that he was born nine years “before the Jackson war,” and married when “the stars fell from the skies,” which indications respectively point to 1805 and to the meteoric showers of 1833 or 1834.
The aboriginal name which the Shetimasha give to themselves is Pa′ntch pinunkansh, “men altogether red” Of course, this name could not have originated before the advent of the whites and negroes; and, by the way, it may be noticed that the Indians of the Gulf States do not intermarry with the negro, while in the north the Long Island Indians for instance many tribes have done so extensively. Of the name Shetimasha, these Indians can give no account, but state that the Alibamu Indians, living west of them, pronounce it Tchikĕmahá; the earliest French historians wrote Shyoutémacha, Tchoutymacha (1700), etc. Like the name of the Taënsa tribe, their name is taken from the Chá′hta language; it means “they have cooking utensils;” tchùti meaning pot, vessel for boiling; and imásha, they possess, they own. For this etymology I am indebted to Allen Wright, Governor of the Chá′hta Nation, Indian Territory.
The old French colonists were in the habit of visiting and describing only the tribes whom they found settled on the high roads of travel and commerce, and thus our historic knowledge of many inland tribes is very fragmentary. Only the tribes on the Mississippi and Red rivers were fully noticed by the French chroniclers and had the Shetimasha not caused an aggressive movement of the French and their Indian allies by murdering the Na’ktche Missionary, Saint Cosme, in 1706, on the Mississippi river, nothing besides their tribal name would have come down to us from the eighteenth century. Le Page du Pratz tells us that after a protracted warfare, the Shetimasha finally compromised the difficulty by soliciting a peaceable settlement, and “chanting the calumet” before one of the French commanders.
The luxuriant vegetation of the country inhabited by these southern Indians has often been described by eloquent authors fully able to appreciate the beauties of nature. A semi-tropical sky overarches that land, and its sultry climate produces all the plants, herbs, and fruits adapted to the luxuriant soil. The finest spectacle is presented by the gigantic live oak, the limbs of which begin to expand out of the vigorous trunk not far from the soil, rise to altitudes of 150 feet, and droop down their long gray mosses in profusion.
A correspondent of the New Orleans Times-Democrat writes of that part of Bayou Tѐche which lies between St. Martinsville and Breaux Bridge, where the live oaks on either bank are more dense than at any other point:
“The scenery is wilder, as the cultivated places at most points are some hundred yards back from the water. The oaks, with here and there a monarch cypress, assume the most varied shapes and seemingly impossible attitudessometimes receding from the bank at an angle of fifty degrees, and a little further on stretching their rugged branches far out over the water.
“There is little or no underbrush, and this affords delicious vistas through the heavy trunks back to the fields beyond. The oaks in their new garniture of fresh foliage, and patriarchal in their Mohammedan beards of gray, seem to laugh at the evanescent changes going on around them. Solid, strong, apparently eternal, they have stood their watch over the Tѐche, have sheltered the man-eating Attakapas Indian and squaw, have waved their arms at the approach of the Acadian boats, as with measured stroke their sturdy navigators came slowly along to give new life to these prairies and awaken these forests to a day of plenty. The story of Evangeline is familiar to the people of the bayou. They point to the church at St. Martinsville as being situated on the site of the old edifice where she worshipped; and Longfellow’s story has touched tender chords among those the history of whose ancestors he has so tenderly written.”
Settlements of the Shetimasha, or Gens de la Fourche, (Bayou Lafourche,) existing about 1700. From Baptiste Angélique, and the last two from maps.
(námu is village, táta, city, tchāt, bayou.)
- Tchāt Kasítunshki, (better than the form Kawítunshki,) now Charenton, on Bayou Tѐche, southwest side of Grand Lake.
- Amtpaná námu, Bayou Gris, 3 miles east from Charenton, on the lake shore.
- Nēt Plnu′nsh “Terre Rouge,” 2 miles west from Charenton, on Bayou Tѐche.
- Shóktangi háne hetchi′nsh, on an inlet of Grand Lake, about 3 miles north of Charenton. Their central house for religious dances and the burial ground of their chiefs was in this locality. Now it is the sugar plantation of Mr. Price.
- Ne′k-un si′snis, or “Round isle,” opposite Ile aux Oiseaux, in the Lac de la Fausse Pointe.
- Hipinimtch námu, on the western part of Grand Lake, at the Fausse Pointe, near Bayou Gosselin, (hípi, prairie, nimtch. road and portage.)
- Námu kátsup, Bayou Chѐne village, St. Martin’s parish.
- Kúshu’h námu, on Lake Mingaluak, near Bayou Chѐne; (kú-shu’h is cottonwood tree.}
- Káme náksh tchāt námu, at Bayou du Plomb, a large Indian town, near Bayou Chѐne, 18 miles north of Charenton.
- Tsáχtsinshup námu, on Grand river, near Plaquemine Bayou,
- Grosse Tête námu; Indian name not remembered; two miles from the Plaquemine village, Tsáχtsinshup námu.
- Tchétin námu, east of Plaquemine, on Grand river, the name of which was Tchéti, Shéti, 20 miles east of Charenton.
- Tcháti Kutíngi námu, at junction of Bayou Tѐche with Bayou Atchafaláya.
- The site of Donaldsonville, Assension parish, on the west shore of the Mississippi river, was that of a Shetimasha village. The missionary, St. Cosme, was murdered there by the Shetimasha, in 1706. The present Indians know nothing of that settlement, nor of the following.
- Mouth of Bayou Lafourche, (Tchát Na′χtsĕbu,) where it empties into the gulf. This bayou was probably held by the Shetimasha in its whole length.
In their aboriginal state the tribe supported themselves mainly by vegetable food; but they also ate the products of the hunt, which consisted of deer and other smaller animals. The women had to provide for the household by collecting pistaches, wild beans, a plant called kúpinu, (kántak in Chá′hta,) and another called woman’s potatoes, the seed of the pond-lily (áktā), grains of the palmetto, the rhizoma of the common Sagittaria, and that of the Sagittaria with the large leaf, persimmons, (plaqueminein Creole, nánu in Shetimasha,) wild grapes, cane-seed, and súccû, (guspí in Shetimasha.) They also planted, to some extent, maize, sweet potatoes, and, after the arrival of the whites, wheat; or procured these articles by exchanging their home-made baskets for them.
The fishing in the lakes and bayous was done by the women, men, and boys; not with nets, but only with hook and line. They fished at night just as often as during daytime.
These Indians were strict monogamists, and the husband could remarry only when he had lost his wife by death. 1 The young women were severely beaten if they took any improper liberties with men of their acquaintance. I have not been able to find any proof of the existence of phratries and totems among the Shetimasha; but there can be hardly any doubt that they once existed among them. The women must have exercised authority in the tribe, for, as late as this nineteenth century, two women, after the demise of their husbands, who had been village chiefs, succeeded them in this charge.
The women had a peculiar method of fastening their infants in the cradle-boards. They rocked them in such a way that the forehead was flattened, while the back of the head assumed a round shape by the rocking motion. This implies that the flattening pad, or short piece of wood, was fastened to the head only, and not at the same time to the cradle-board, as is done with the Pacific Coast Indians.
The Shetimasha men wore the hair long, and fastened a piece of lead to the end of the tress behind for the purpose of keeping the head erect. They adorned themselves with much care and artistic taste, and tattooed their legs, arms, and faces in wavy punctured lines. They sported necklaces, finger-rings, bracelets, nose-rings, and ear-rings.
The warriors enjoyed a peculiar kind of distinction, as follows: Certain men, especially appointed for the purpose, had to paint the knees of the warriors with pulverized charcoal, and this was made to stick by scarifying the skin with the jaw of a small species of garfish until it began to bleed slightly, after which the coloring matter was rubbed on. This manipulation had to be repeated every year.
The outward distinction of the chiefs consisted in the privilege of carrying a much larger tobacco pipe than the warriors, which they exhibited at the ceremony of chanting the calumet. The cabin in which they dwelt was also of larger size than those of the other Indians.
The women wore their hair in plaits or tresses, ornamented with plumes. A portion of the hair was wound in a coil about the head and secured by pins. Their ornaments were bracelets, ear-rings, and finger-rings. In painting themselves they used only the red and white colors.
The tribal dance-house, or “maison de valeur,” intended for religious dances, stood on a little bay of Grand Lake, about three miles northwest from the present village of Charenton. Like all other lodges, it was about twelve feet square, with a pointed roof, but it was surrounded with a picket fence. It contained nothing else but the garments of the dancers and the three kinds of paints used at this ceremony: the hápt, or vermilion paint, the kúps, or black paint, and the kúpshesh, or white paint. No idols, stuffed animals, perpetual fire, etc., were to be found in connection with it, as was the case with the temple of the Natchez people. They called this dance-house Shóktan gi hána hédshinsh ; all the other dance-houses, hána nѐdshámtuina. The place where it stood is now a sugar-field, and was called by the Creoles Graine-á-volée, from the nuphar plants growing in the vicinity.
As there was only one meeting place of this description among all the Shetimasha, the participants gathered from all the surrounding lake settlements by canoes the day before the new moon. Men, women, and children flocked to the ceremony in large numbers. The ceremony took place in honor of Kut-nähänsh, or the Noon-Day Sun, and in summer time lasted longer than at other seasons of the year. The management was entrusted to leaders, (pékidshinsh,) who were provided with long wands, or poles. The men danced with the breech-clout on, the body painted red, and with feathers stuck in the ribbons encircling the head : gourd-rattles and the scratching of alligator skins furnished the music for the occasion. They fasted during the six days the dance lasted. When the ceremony was drawing to a close, they drank water in order to produce vomiting; and, after they had removed in this manner any impurities in their system, they began to eat heartily.
Analogous to this is the custom of some tribes of the Jivaro family, on the Putumayo river : the men tickle their throats every morning to produce vomiting, and then take breakfast, considering it unwholesome to eat with even the least impurity in the stomach.
The principal deity of the Shetimasha, as well as of -most other American nations, was the Sun, although worshipped here under the special form of the Noon-Day Sun, Kut-Nähä’, which literally means the half circle, the circle or orbit half completed, the culminating sun.
No other worship of the sun existed except that by dances, just like those celebrated at the initiation rites, which were performed by the men and women during a fast. An addition was, however, made to these dances: a huge cone of dry reeds, which wj1s erected and set on fire at noon. Then the dance continued around it until the pile was consumed, which lasted about thirty minutes. All this took place at the communal lodge, or temple, called hána hedshinsh, on an inlet of Grand Lake.
The Shetimasha had other divinities besides: the great devil, the little devil, and the last devil. I could learn nothing distinct about the nature of these, but probably one of them represented the Jack o’Lantern, or feu folâtre, then very frequent about the shores of Shetimasha Lake, around which their settlements were situated. The word for devil (neka) means, also, witch, sorcerer, and witchcraft.
The initiation of the boys had not the purpose of imparting to them certain mysteries concerning the worship of their main deity, the Noon-Day Sun, but simply aimed at making them insensible to the pangs of hunger and thirst. Dressed in breech-clouts, their heads adorned with feathers, ribbons, red paint, and small gourds, they had to dance for six days in the temple, while fasting and without tasting a drop of water, led by their ephori, or disciplinarians. No female was allowed to approach, although they had access to the ceremonial dances at the new-moon festivity.
In the vicinity of this communal lodge also were performed mortuary ceremonies. One year after the death of ^a head chief or of any of the village war chiefs, of whom there were four or five, their bones were dug up by a certain class of ministrants called turkey-buzzard men, (“ramasseurs d’os”; ō′sh hä′tchna, in Shetimasha), the remaining flesh separated, the bones wrapped in a new and checquered mat, and brought to that lodge. The inhumation of these bones took place just before the beginning of the Kut-nähä worshipping ceremony or dance. The people assembled there, walked six times around a blazing fire, after which the bones were placed into a mound. The widow and the male orphans of the deceased chief had to take part in the ceremonial dance.
The burial of the common people was effected in the same way, one year after death ; but the inhumation of the bones took place at the village where they had died. We find this singular custom also among the Chá′hta and many other southern tribes, though the time assigned for it varied from one to five or ten years after death.
- If there is any truth in this statement, it forms a singular exception to the common practice in Indian conjugal customs, which are dictated by mere sensuality.[↩]