The Influence of Indigenous Americans on Early New Orleans

American Indians in Early New Orleans is very much the result of learning something that I should have already known. Like far too many people of my generation—and regrettably of generations before and after—I grew up in New Orleans with no recognition of my home city’s Native American past or present. As suggested in my book, this ignorance of American Indians’ relationship with the Crescent City exemplifies a nationwide refusal to see what has been and continues to be urban about Native American people.

A couple of personal anecdotes illustrates this. During the 1960s I spent many summer weeks at Camp Salmen, a Boy Scout camp on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Activities and ceremonies held there, as in all scouting camps, supposedly originated in so-called “Indian lore.” The camp’s sleeping cabins were arranged in clusters with names like “Apache,” “Cherokee,” “Choctaw,” “Houma,” “Mohawk,” “Natchez,” etc. Participation in playing “Indian,” however, not once made me realize that those names represented Indigenous people with richly diverse histories and cultures, many of whom even had and continue to have strong ties to the Greater New Orleans area. It has become too easy for U.S. citizens, especially those of us in cities, to overlook American Indians living and working right beside us. We think they live only in remote and distant places. We learn little or nothing about their role in our local history.

My second story involves the sport of lacrosse, which seems to be quickly catching-on among New Orleans schools and clubs today—imported apparently from East Coast elite schools.

When I left the Crescent City back in the early 1970s to attend college in Baltimore, there was certainly no sign that lacrosse had ever been played in my home town. Returning for summer breaks with a lacrosse stick purchased in Maryland, I found nothing back home but outdoor walls to throw the hard rubber ball against—along with bemused looks from curious neighbors. But years later, aspiring to become a historian of Louisiana, I happened upon Dale A. Somers’s The Rise of Sports in New Orleans, 1850-1900 (Louisiana State University Press, 1972.) Imagine how startling it was to read a quarter-way into that book that “raquette,” another name for lacrosse, “was the only ball game played by organized teams in the city before 1859.” Somers went on to explain that this sport originated with local Indians and continued to be played in the Crescent City into the 20th century. I naturally wondered, “how was this history forgotten, or hidden, in my own city’s memory?”

The pursuit of this question, guided mostly by a desire to re-illuminate the actual presence of American Indians in New Orleans from the shadow of obscurity, led to the writing of my new book American Indians in Early New Orleans. Thankfully, I have found company among fellow historians studying the urban experience of Native Americans in other regions. How Indigenous people have participated in and contributed to urban life in places as far-reaching as Albuquerque, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle is coming into clearer view. But my own work on New Orleans has also benefited from studies that focus on American Indians in Louisiana. Among books written about this region’s Native people, several have been influential—particularly for understanding recent history and current issues.

In the midst of Louisiana Indian communities’ resurgent struggles for identity and sovereignty, The Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana: From 1542 to the Present was published by Louisiana State University Press in 1987. Co-authored by Fred B. Kniffen, Hiram F. Gregory, and George A. Stokes—scholars with plenty of direct experience among the state’s Indian communities—this encyclopedic book made information about their history and culture accessible to readers who were still mostly unaware of their continuing presence in Louisiana. It continues to be a valuable introduction for scholars and other interested learners. In 2003 LSU Press released Nations Within: The Four Sovereign Tribes of Louisiana by Sarah Sue Goldsmith and Risa Mueller. The beautiful photographs by Tim Mueller featured in this book vividly capture what life among the state’s four federally recognized nations is like today. Generous collaboration from tribal officials made it possible for the writers and the photographer to share close-up looks inside Native Louisiana communities.

As my book on New Orleans shows, the production and marketing of baskets persisted as an important expression of cultural identity as well as a means of livelihood for many Louisiana Indian communities. The Work of Tribal Hands: Southeastern Indian Split Cane Basketry, published by Northwestern State University Press in 2006, is a collection of essays about the craft of split cane basketry, edited by Dayna Bowker Lee and H. F. Gregory. This book offers us a marvelous look at many different dimensions of the art—including the technical and aesthetic skills that weavers apply to their intricate work, the changing uses of Native basketry among consumers and collectors, and the efforts underway today to restore and manage growth of river cane within American Indian communities.

Although archaeology no longer holds the nearly monopolistic grip on learning about American Indians that it once held, archaeologists continue to advance our knowledge of this history from ancient times to the present. Archaeology of Louisiana is a collection of current works finely edited by Mark A. Rees and published by LSU Press in 2010. Its topics range from the Paleoindian to the present-day presence of Indigenous people across the region. The state of Louisiana is covered from Caddo to Houma territory, providing a bounty of new information and insight.

A couple of books focusing on particular groups in recent times also merit attention. Brian Klopotek’s Recognition Odysseys: Indigeneity, Race, and Federal Tribal Recognition Policy in Three Louisiana Indian Communities, published by Duke University Press in 2011, is a sophisticated analysis of the fraught intersections of tribal and racial identity among the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe, Jena Band of Choctaws, and the Clifton-Choctaws. Klopotek exposes the complicated impact of the federal government’s recognition policy on Louisiana’s diverse and dynamic Native communities. In The Other Movement: Indian Rights and Civil Rights in the Deep South, released by University of Alabama Press in 2012, Denise Bates has written a compelling comparative study of American Indians in the states of Alabama and Louisiana during the 1970s and 1980s. This book encompasses Louisiana Indian communities’ tribal leadership and intertribal organization as well as their relations with state and federal governments and their role in nationwide Indian activism.

Born and raised in New Orleans, Daniel H. Usner is the Holland N. McTyeire Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783; American Indians in the Lower Mississippi Valley: Social and Economic Histories;Indian Work: Language and Livelihood in American History; and Weaving Alliances with Other Women: Chitimacha Indian Work in the New South.