- Coushatta Homesteading in Southwest Louisiana and the Development of the Community at Bayou Blue
We are no longer a group of homeless people, but the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana," asserted Ernest Sickey, the tribe's first chairman, in 1977, summarizing the two-hundred-year struggle of the Coushatta people to find a permanent residence.1 Scholars have long recognized the significance of land to indigenous communities in the American South.2 The Coushattas provide a unique case study, however, because they immigrated in the late nineteenth century to their current home in southwest Louisiana and settled the area primarily through homesteading. Coushattas filed most of their homesteading claims between 1887 and 1920 (Table 1). At the time, reformers aiming to reshape Indian policy viewed landownership as a sign of civilization, and the allotment of western reservations into individual homesteads became part of an overall federal effort to assimilate Native peoples.3 Consequently, federal officials who visited the Coushatta community viewed landownership by individual tribal members as a sign of their assimilation and as evidence that they did not need federal assistance. To the contrary, the land acquired through homesteading enabled the Coushattas to build a community, continue relationships, maintain self-governance, sustain cultural [End Page 113] traditions, and develop new institutions. Ironically, homesteading, a policy initially extended to the southern states to aid African Americans after emancipation, allowed the Coushattas to assert their Indian identity, in a region usually thought of in binary racial terms. The Coushatta people used a policy intended to assimilate them to survive as an American Indian community in the South, gain federal recognition, and establish themselves as an essential part of the economy of southwest Louisiana.4
Before establishing their current community near Bayou Blue, north of Elton in southwestern Louisiana, the Coushattas relocated several times to avoid American encroachment and to ensure the community's independence. Oral history and archaeological evidence suggest that antecedents of the Coushattas moved from west of the Mississippi River to the Tennessee River Valley between 800 and 1200 c.e. and formed the Coste chiefdom, which was part of the paramount chiefdom of Coosa. Documentation dates to 1540, when Hernando de Soto first visited Coushatta ancestors on a fortified island in the Tennessee River. Other Spanish explorers followed and recorded the movements of these people. Juan Pardo encountered Coushattas near the Tennessee River in 1567. In the seventeenth century, Coushattas faced European diseases, drought, and English-inspired Cherokee and Westo slave raids, and by 1686, according to Marcus Delgado, these people had relocated farther south, to a location near the convergence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers in present-day Alabama.5 [End Page 114]
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The same factors that led the Coushattas to relocate made the Mississippian chiefdoms untenable, and their remnants established independent towns held together through loose alliances. The Coushattas subsequently strengthened their position by allying with the Creek Confederacy, which by the late eighteenth century boasted seventy-three towns and more than fifteen thousand people. These towns enjoyed considerable autonomy, even in foreign policy. The Coushattas allied with the French in Louisiana in 1712, and the French built Fort Toulouse near a Coushatta town only five years later. British victory in the French and Indian War and the French loss of Louisiana prompted groups of Coushattas to relocate, but most Coushattas remained part of the Creek Confederacy. Some became important leaders...