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Another View on "Ethnogenesis of the New Houma Indians"
William A. Starna
In "A Case of Identity: Ethnogenesis of the New Houma Indians," Dave D. Davis argues that "available documentary sources indicate that the modern Houma originated in the nineteenth century as a multiethnic group that included Europeans, African Americans, and some Native Americans, none of whom are known to have been Houmas."1 He asserts that claims to an Indian identity by this particular "multiracial creole" community or "mixed-racial" isolate (476, 489) date to no earlier than the late nineteenth century and, moreover, that they were made for historical and political reasons that are tied firmly to the group's African and African-American ancestry. In Davis's view, these people sought to avoid the racism of southern Louisiana by passing as Indians; hence, the creation of what Davis calls the "new Houma Indians." Davis's allegations are serious in that they involve the United Houma Nation's (UHN's) long-time attempt to secure federal recognition. Davis marshals an impressive body of historical and ethnological data to support his argument. In this commentary, we question his data and sources.
Inasmuch as the anthropological code of ethics calls for transparency in research support so that one's conclusions can be placed in the fullest context, we wish to disclose our involvement in UHN's effort, financed in large measure by the Native American Rights Fund. Since 1984–5, we have written the UHN's Petition for Federal Acknowledgment (1985; hereafter UHN Petition), responses to the Bureau of Indian Affair's Letters of Obvious Deficiencies and Omissions (1986–88), and the Rebuttal to the BIA's Proposed Findings against Acknowledgment (hereafter UHN Rebuttal), issued by Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Ada Deer in 1994.2 The UHN [End Page 779] currently awaits the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research's review of its rebuttal and the issuance of a final determination.
Although he is silent on disclosure, Davis appeared as a witness against the UHN in United Houma Nation v. Texaco, Inc.3 and submitted in February 1998 an affidavit opposing the UHN claim to human remains unearthed by Texaco. In his affidavit he asserts, albeit in abbreviated format, what he does in "A Case of Identity"—that the Houmas are not Houmas.4
Resemblances between Davis and the Bureau of Indian Affairs
In "A Case of Identity," Davis appears to have conducted extensive, independent research into more than three centuries of Houma history, yet his argument and virtually all of his information bear an uncanny resemblance to the 1994 proposed finding against the United Houma Nation, written by the Branch of Acknowledgment and Research (hereafter BAR-PF), Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 1998, Davis stated that he had "reviewed certain public records related to the United Houma Nation Inc's failed attempt at attaining federal recognition as an Indian tribe," as well as "the Petition of the United Houma Nation, Inc. and all attachments."5 In other words, he had access to the BAR-PF and the UHN Rebuttal (and cites the UHN Rebuttal).
The parallels between Davis and the BAR-PF are close and curious, given that he does not always cite the latter. Fourteen examples follow (please see footnotes for amplification).
- Davis (474, 479) writes that La Salle in 1682 was the first European to have "encountered" the Houmas. So does BAR-PF: "A Houma village was first encountered by La Salle in 1682," and, "First historical contact of Europeans with the historical Houma Indian tribe (though not the petitioner) dates to the 1682 voyage of LaSalle."6 Both err. Henri de Tonti, not LaSalle, was the first European to meet the Houmas, and in 1686, not 1682 as Davis has it.7
- "As BIA researchers have noted" (483), Davis writes, "the existence of the new Houma [Davis's, not a BIA/BAR designation] was essentially Cajun: they spoke French, dressed like whites...