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  • What's in a Seal?How a Fish Came to Represent the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana
  • Denise E. Bates (bio)

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The garfish plays a vital role in the Coushatta tribe's story, past and present, and serves as a cultural and historical anchor for them. Illustrations by Catherine A. Moore.

[End Page 128]

The garfish is a "prehistoric hang-over," a living fossil that has inhabited southern waterways for millennia. Archeologists have found gar fossils, up to 9,000 years old, from sites throughout the Southeast and have identified five different species that range in size from the smaller Florida gar, measuring approximately two feet long, to the alligator gar, which averages nine feet long and can tip the scale at more than 300 pounds. The various species of southern gar join one of the most diverse aquatic topographies in North America, inhabiting fresh water and gravitating to slow-moving rivers, streams, and bayous, where they are considered "one of the best kept secrets in angling" by some sports fishers.1

To many Native peoples of the Southeast, however, this slender-bodied fish with jutting, sharp teeth and covered in bony scales holds a venerated status. In particular, the garfish plays a vital role in the Coushattas' story, past and present, and serves as a cultural and historical anchor for the tribe. While the Coushatta people (also known as the Koasati) have familial and historical connections to many animals and natural elements through clanship and traditional stories, the nitobi embodies many of the characteristics associated with core Coushatta values: wisdom, strength, and discipline. Like other Native peoples, the Coushattas are survivors of centuries of colonialism, warfare, displacement, and marginalization. References to the Coushattas first appear in written European records in the mid sixteenth century, when Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto encountered the tribe in the Tennessee River Valley. By the eighteenth century, they had migrated further south into Alabama, where they joined the Creek Confederacy—an assemblage of culturally and linguisitcally diverse Indigenous groups. It wasn't long before colonial pressures forced them to move again. This time, the Coushattas pushed further west, igniting a diasporic migration that resulted in their fanning out across large expanses of territory. While some families settled in Oklahoma and Texas, the largest group found a permanent home along Louisiana's Bayou Blue, in Allen Parish, where they settled in the late nineteenth century.2

Through these multiple relocations and the hunt for permanence, the garfish, always plentiful in the waterways that veined the region, provided sustenance. Leonard Battise, a former tribal council member involved in designing the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana's seal—a giant alligator garfish atop a sunburst-schemed emblem—noted that the garfish was chosen because of its broad usefulness to the Coushatta. In addition to serving as a reliable food source, garfish were also used to create tools. Ethnohistorical accounts documenting Indigenous uses of garfish throughout the region indicate that the bony, triangular scales were once used as arrow points—a discovery that prompted a reinterpretation of many southeastern archeological sites that had previously understood gar as being a food source exculsively. Had the Coushattas' connection to the garfish been limited to food-and tool-making, tribal leaders may have opted for another, perhaps more familiar, [End Page 129] symbol for the tribe, such as catfish, deer, turtle, or crawfish. The Coushatta, however, view their relationship to the garfish as shaped by a tradition of reciprocity and a parallel history of struggle. The ancient fish's aptitude for survival and its reputation for not easily being caught garnered respect and resonated with the Coushattas' own history.3


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View full resolution

The garfish is a "prehistoric hang-over," a living fossil that has inhabited southern waterways for millennia. Archeologists have found gar fossils, up to 9,000 years old, from sites throughout the region and have identified five different species that range in size from the smaller Florida gar, measuring approximately two feet long, to the alligator gar, which averages nine feet long and can tip the scale at more than 300 pounds.

Eighteenth-century accounts of the Coushattas prior...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 128-133
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-31
Open Access
No
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