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  • Biloxi Origins
  • David V. Kaufman (bio)

Onomastic and ethnographic evidence suggests that the Indigenous group that came to be called Biloxi (autonym Tanêks) was likely only a small detachment of a much larger ancestral population of Ohio Valley Siouans that lived to the north in the Appalachian highlands and Cumberland Plateau region of what are now modern eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, and southwestern West Virginia. Much of this hypothesis is based on onomastic linguistic evidence, that is, place-names and proper names attested in the literature that show high likelihood of being of Ohio Valley Siouan (OVS) origin rather than, as is often speculated, of Cherokee or other affiliation.

Biloxis have been routinely described in the literature as a small group of Siouans that ended up on the Gulf coast, the farthest south Siouan group. They were so far removed from other well-known Siouan groups (e.g., Lakotas and Omahas) that the linguist Albert Gatschet had originally assumed that Biloxi was of the Muskogean language family, related to Choctaw. However, his data collection in 1886 revealed Biloxi's affiliation with the Siouan languages to the north. The later missionary linguist James Owen Dorsey, when he worked with speakers of the Biloxi language in 1893–94, stated that Biloxis only remembered names for three clans. This fact alone suggests that Biloxis were likely only a small remnant or branch of a much larger ancestral Siouan population, since Siouan groups typically had many more clans.1

A discussion of ancestral Biloxi origins must begin with the apparent Urheimat, or homeland, of Siouan-speaking peoples and their migrations. There has been a long-standing debate on the exact homeland of Siouan peoples. Much of the debate has focused on the opposing views of John [End Page 145] Swanton, a linguist, who posited that the Siouan homeland was likely located in the Ohio Valley prior to ca. 1000 CE, while James Griffin, an archaeologist, posited the Allegheny Piedmont region of modern-day Virginia and the Carolinas as the Siouan homeland.2 Part of Griffin's argument against an OVS origin in the Ohio Valley itself is his contention that the "historic evidence available on the Tutelo indicate that they were in the Piedmont area at the time of the first contacts and does not indicate that they had ever been in the Ohio Valley."3 However, contra Griffin, linguistic data support Swanton's assertion that the Tutelos, close relatives of the Biloxis, indeed inhabited the Ohio Valley and may have had a settlement with burial mounds in what is now Detroit, Michigan.4 This is supported by the fact that Miami-Illinois, an Algonquian language of the modern Indiana and Ohio region, apparently borrowed a word for the number 8 from Tutelo.5

Much of Swanton's evidence for an Ohio Valley origin of Siouan peoples comes from Siouan speakers themselves who tell us that "they [Siouans], or at least some of them, formerly lived toward the east, the Ohio river being in some cases specifically mentioned." Swanton states that the Siouan homeland "seems to have been situated . . . among the Appalachian mountains."6 This westward Siouan migration is also supported by what the "Berthold Indians" (likely the Siouan Hidatsas) of Fort Berthold, North Dakota, reported to Dr. Washington Matthews of the United States Army: "Long ago the Sioux were all to the east, and none to the West and South, as they now are."7 Further, a nineteenth-century Kaw (Kansa) Siouan principal chief, Alinkawáhu, declared that "over there by the great water which is at New York dwelt the people at the very first" (the "great water" in this case apparently referring to the Atlantic Ocean and the "people" referring to Siouans).8 It is also known that the Ofos, or Mosopeleas, also an OVS group closely related to Biloxis and Tutelos, migrated to the southwest toward the Lower Mississippi Valley (LMV), where they came to settle along the Yazoo River in the seventeenth century (Ofos, along with Biloxis, joined the LMV Sprachbund).9

The language evidence presented in this article certainly supports a Siouan homeland in the Cumberland Plateau region of the western Appalachian range, and it is certainly possible...


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