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|The Houma Indians in 1700: Fierce warriors, female chief, chicken lovers|
On Monday, November 25, 1700, French explorer and commander Iberville paid a visit to the village of the Houma, located about five miles east of the Mississippi River and opposite the mouth of the Red. Iberville and his party had left Natchez the day before, riding a swift current downriver.
The population of the Houma stood at an estimated 3,000 in 1650. Like many of the smaller tribes in the Gulf region, the Houma were forced to moved from time to time due to various factors, including conflicts with other tribes and to ally with smaller tribes.
Iberville was shocked to learn that about half of the Houma tribe had died during the previous year, reducing its population to less than 1,000. Most of the dead were victims of dysentery, which was described then as "abdominal flux," and marked by severe intestinal cramps and bloody diarrhea.
Once led by a female chief of Amazon stature, the Houma had a reputation for being fierce warriors while also being known as a tribe so fond of chickens that they treated them like pets, refused to eat them and didn't want anyone else to eat them either.
Accompanying Iberville was French missionary Father Jacques Gravier. Another Jesuit priest, Father Paul Du Ru, had been living with the Houma for the previous months, had build a church and was witnessing to the tribe. The new chapel was 50 feet in length and located in the center of the village. Also erected was a "great cross 35 or 40 feet high."
Father Gravier baptized a three-day-old child during the visit. "God took him to paradise a few days afterward," he recorded, as he and Father Du Ru nursed the still ailing tribe. Father Gravier prayed that the health of the Houmas be restored, for their conversion to the Christian faith and that God would protect the women and girls, asking that God make "the road to their village impracticable for certain French libertines."
The Houma's main village was on the summit of a high, steep hill, reached by walking "over a very bad road, for one has to ascend and descend, and walk half bent through the canes," said Gravier. The village included about 80 cabins, where the Frenchmen observed young men exercising with a "flat stone, which they throw in the air from one end of the square to the other, and try to make it fall on two cylinders, which they roll wherever they think the stone will fall."
At the Houma temple, located opposite the newly-constructed Catholic church, Iberville and Father Gravier found the village priest, an old man, who was charged with keeping the sacred fire. The temple's vestibule was "embellished" with "grotesque figures...four satyrs (half-human creatures)," whose heads, hands and legs were adorned with snakes, mice and dogs instead of "fillets, bracelets, garters, baldrics and belts."
The old priest showed the two Frenchmen "the bones of the woman chief who died the year before." This female chief had been a fierce warrior, had led many war parties into battle and had "distinguished herself by the blows that she inflicted upon their enemies."
She was, said Gravier, "looked upon as an Amazon and as the mistress of the whole village. Greater honor was paid her than to the great chief, for she occupied the first place in all councils, and when she walked about was always preceded by four young men, who sang and danced the calumet to her. She was dressed like an Amazon; she painted her face and wore her hair like the men."
Although possessing a fierce reputation as warriors, Gravier found the tribe to be a compassionate and docile people. He said they were known to spare the lives of the children of their enemies who were made slaves. When a war party returned to the village with young and old captives, Gravier said "the women weep over them (the children), pity them for having been taken, and afterward treat them better than their own children." (Historian John Swanton thought the good Father's comments a bit naive, adding that Gravier's words would "elicit a smile from one familiar with Indian customs," because of their common cruelty to captives.)
Houma women wore "fringed skirts" which covered them from the waist to below the knees and wore nothing above the waist except during cold weather when they donned "a robe of muskrat skins or of turkey's feathers. Their faces are tattooed like the Tounika (Tunica) and the Natchez, and (they) blacken their teeth as those tribes do." Gravier said "black teeth...are considered beautiful among them. They blacken them by chewing the ashes of tobacco mixed with wood ashes and rubbing them with these every morning."
Both men and women wore their hair long and braided and it appeared to missionary Gravier that the custom of head flattening was no longer being practiced. He said the older men's heads were slightly flattened, the young male adults not at all.
Gravier also observed that the Houma had more chickens -- hens and roosters -- than did "villages in France." That was because, he said, "the Houmas...never kill any and will not even eat any of those that their dogs quite often kill. When one wishes to obtain chickens from them he must not say that he intends to kill or eat them..."
Added Gravier: "The hens have little chickens all the times, and in the month of December there were some (chickens) in all of the cabins, since they keep warm in the cabins, which the people are careful to clean, and which they sweep out two or three times a day."
In another eight years, the Houma would be forced to a locate near New Orleans after having been attacked by the Tunicas, who migrated from the Yazoo River region to escape the Chickasaw slave raiders. Years later, the Houma would move yet again. They never left the boundaries of Louisiana, but like other tribes their population would fade into obscurity.
(Stanley Nelson can be reached at email@example.com)
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