CONSIDERING the important part played by the Choctaw Indians in early
Louisiana history it is surprising what slight attention they received from early French writers. In the classic works of Le Page du Pratz, Dumont de Montigny, and others, we have pretentious descriptions of the Natchez, and considerable accounts of many of the other leading tribes on and near the Mississippi.
Bossu, writing somewhat later, furnishes a considerable description of the Alabama Indians about Ft. Toulouse. But up to the present time we know of no French writer who made the huge Choctaw nation a special object of attention. This was probably due partly to the fact that there was nothing peculiar or striking either in the social organization or the customs of these people, as was the case for instance with the Natchez, and partly to the common knowledge regarding them which soon came to be shared by the greater part of the French settlers of Louisiana. And as, in course of time, a great deal of Choctaw ethnology quietly passed out of sight, it passed at the same time out of record as something too well known to need attention or to require the services of an historian.
Fortunately, however, there was at least one exception to this general neglect, and this exception furnishes the occasion for the present article. In September, 1916, the writer visited Chicago for the purpose of examining the valuable collection of works and documents in the Edward E. Ayer collection in the Newberry Library, and among the important manuscripts gone over at that time, some of which have been noted elsewhere, was a French narrative of Louisiana such as appeared frequently during the earlier part of the eighteenth century. This is entitled “Relation de La Louisianne’’ and is a small bound manuscript written in a fine, clear hand. There is nothing to show whether it is the original or only a copy, and there is no clew to its author except that on the back are printed the words “Relat de Kened.” The first and last words appear to be cut off, the last being probably the name of the author.
The “Relation” has 267 pages and is of value to the historian of Louisiana hardly less than to the ethnologist. That part dealing with the Choctaw occupies all of chapters vii and viii, pages 118 to 165. Of course the information embodied in this narrative is by no means to be compared with one of our modern ethnological studies, but it contains many important and interesting facts which could not be recorded at the present day. The footnotes are all mine. I have not attempted to smooth out the grammar of the original except in the more important particulars.
The Chaquetas are a hundred leagues north of Mobile. There are about four thousand bearing arms. The French divide them into three cantons. The eastern is named Ougoula annale. The chief of this canton has the same prerogatives as the grand chief. That of the west is called Ougoula tanama. That of the south is named Taboka. It is there where the grand chief lives. This nation is governed by a grand chief whose power is absolute only so far as he knows how to make use of his authority, but as disobedience is not punished among them, and they do not usually do what is recommended to them, except when they want to, it may be said that it is an ill-disciplined government.
In each village, besides the chief and the war chief, there are two Tascamingoutchy who are like lieutenants of the war chief, and a Tichou-mingo® who is like a major. It is he who arranges for all of the ceremonies, the feasts, and the dances. He acts as speaker for the chief, and makes the warriors and strangers smoke. These Tichou-mingo usually become village chiefs. They [the people] are divided into four orders, as follows.
[The first are] the grand chiefs, village chiefs, and war chief ;
the second are the Atacoulitoupa or beloved Olda hanali or Six towns. Ougoula is Okla; tanama perhaps from tanampi, to fight. ® Perhpas from tabokoa, noon, and hence the south. * Taska minkochi, ‘‘made a war chief.” ® Tishu minko, servant chief. swanton] (hommes de valleur) ;
the third is composed of those whom they call simply tasca or warriors ;
the fourth and last is atac emittla. They are those who have not struck blows or who have killed only a woman or a child.
This nation is warlike against similar people, and in the woods. The French always having needed to depend upon them in war, it has made them so insolent that they despise the French and would receive the English among them. They are much accustomed to receiving presents from the French, which formerly were very few, not reaching, then, a value of eight thousand Hires, but which, increasing every year, amount at present to more than fifty thousand francs. They think that it is a right, that the French pay them for the lands which they occupy. It is this which they try to make them understand in the’ speeches which they make to the com- mandants of the posts where they go, saying: Formerly our ancestors occupied the place where you’ now live and came there to hunt; they have ceded it to you as to people who wished to be their friends, in consideration for which you have promised them a certain quantity of goods, and length of time has not cancelled the continuance of the gift, and of the friendship, which, having reigned between our ancestors and the French, reigns still between you and us. You know that every time you have asked us to take vengeance on your enemies who have insulted you, we have had pity, since, being few in numbers, you were unable to go to war, and that we, regarding you as our brothers, have left our wives, children, houses, villages, harvests, and periods of hunting to attack your enemies and stain our arms with their blood; that we have often lost our people there. You know that many times on returning from war we have taken credit for the goods that you have promised us, gained at the price of our blood, because they had not yet arrived by vessel from France. You know that the English are always at our doors importuning us to make an alliance with them, and sell them our deerskins at fairer prices than you offer. We have hopes then that in consideration of all these things you will look with pity on us and will share with us as your*brothers in order that we may return to our village loaded with the presents you shall have given us. Here are almost the exact words of one of their speeches, and the others do not differ much from it.
They often repeat the same Hatak holitopa, “holy or beloved men.” – From hatak, “man” and perhaps imatali, “supporting.” ’ Throughout this speech the familiar form of the pronoun of the second person singular is employed, and in making a speech they usually consume two hours in talking.
When a band reaches Mobile in the time when presents are given out, which is usually the month of March or April, they stop three leagues from the town, and send a messenger to inform the commandant of their arrival, and ask for bread and brandy. What they need is sent to them in proportion to their numbers, and the next day they arrive in ceremonial costume, which consists in a cloak without lining, a very dirty shirt, and a bad breechclout: the greater part have only one skin, of deer, bear, or bison, on the body. In this garb the interpreter conducts them to the commandant, where they begin by shaking his hand one after the other. You may believe that it tires him when the band is large. They smoke and then give [the pipe] to the commandant and the officers around him to smoke, as a sign of peace, after which they make the speech. Then they are sent back into the woods, their arms are mended, they are fed until they leave, and presents are made them. All of these irruptions (dessentes) of the savages cost the commandant infinitely for he has them very often at his table, or such [Indians] as come in while he is eating, to whom he is obliged to give food and drink by way of entertainment. The union having been placed on this footing for many years, scarcely are they gone when others come and this train (trin) usually continues three weeks, sometimes six. They are fed during this time with rice, corn, potatoes, a little bread, and sometimes brandy.
When a Frenchman wishes to go to trade among them, he usually chooses the time when they return with their presents. He asks of the chief of the band the number of savages he needs to carry his goods, for they go by land and even,- evening he must lie down under the open sky and on the earth. His entire bed consists in a bear skin and a small blanket. Meat is had on the route when the savages can kill anything; otherwise they live on corn (bled de turquie), which is called maize, which is boiled in water.
When one has reached the village he is conducted to the house of the chief, where, having entered without uttering a word, he is seated on a cane bed * Spelled lieux. raised about three or four feet above the ground, for fear of the fleas. Then they throw you a pipe called calumet with the pouch full of tobacco which you smoke. It is to be noticed that all this is done without speaking, after which the chief says to you “You are come then? ’’ Having answered that he has, one tells him the object of his journey and the kind of merchandise which he has brought to sell to his warriors. The next day he (the chief) informs all the people of the arrival of the Frenchman at his house, what he has brought, and what he asks for it. Each one comes to his shop, and takes away his goods, and when he (the trader) desires to return he informs the, chief, who has the payments which he has agreed upon with his warriors brought to him. He again asks for porters and repairs to the French village.
These journeys are usually of two or three months’ duration, and two hundred per cent, is made by them; but it is necessary to know their language well. Their house is nothing else than a cabin made of pieces of wood of the size of the leg, buried in the earth, and fastened together with lianas, which are very flexible bands. These cabins are surrounded with mud walls without window; the door is only from three to four feet in height. They are covered with bark of the cypress or the pine. A hole is left at the top of each gable-end to let the smoke out, for they make their fires in the middle of the cabins, which are a gunshot distance from each other. The inside is surrounded with cane beds raised from three to four feet from the ground on account of the fleas which exist there in quantities, because of the dirt.
When they are lying down the savages never get up to make water but let it run through the canes of their bed. When lying down they have a skin of a deer or bear under them and a skin of a bison or a blanket above. These beds serve them as table and chair.