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Biloxi Indians still remain a mystery

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The Biloxi Indians are associated with the earliest colonial history of Mississippi and the more recent history of Louisiana. Native American researchers have recently found locations of Biloxi villages in another part of the Southeast. Who exactly were this enigmatic people?

BILOXI, MISSISSIPPI - (Examiner.com) - In 1699 a fleet commanded by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville established a colony near what is now Biloxi, Mississippi. Shortly, after landing, a group of small nearby village approached the French. Using a trade language known as the Mobilian Jargon, the greeting committee apparently viewed the French as protection against their enemies. They called themselves a word that the French wrote down as Tanequesa (Taneska haya,) but initially, the French could not understand their language. It means “first people.” The French later called their neighbors by the Choctaw name of the village, Bilocchy (Biloxi.)

Early 20th century studies of the few remaining speakers of Biloxi by ethnologists John Swanton and James Dorsey determined that the Biloxi spoke a Siouan language. The language is now extinct, but probably was so aberrant that it would not be understood by modern Siouans, such as the Lakota of the Northern Plains or the Catawba of the Carolinas.

Disastrous effect of French colonialism

The fort Pierre Le Moyne built was designated the first capital of the French Province of Louisiana and his brother, Jean-Baptiste de Bienville was named its first governor. Its existence was initially dependent on the good will of its indigenous neighbors.

Relations between the Biloxi and the French were fairly good, mainly because their numbers were so small. The village probably contained fewer than 200 persons. However, smallpox and other European diseases spread from the French fort quickly decimated their population. In 1702, the Biloxi survivors, along with their allies the Pascagoula and Moctobi, relocated to the west side of Mobile Bay to be under the protection of the French in Fort Conde.

After the French lost the French and Indian War in 1764, the Biloxi moved to Red River Basin in the part of Louisiana that had been transferred to Spanish ownership. They eventually joined with the Tunica Tribe of Louisiana. The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe is recognized by the Federal government. It owns a reservation near Marksville, LA than contains one the nation’s oldest Native American casinos. Federal recognition was a direct result of litigation initiated by the tribe, when amateur collectors and archaeologists destroyed a site that the tribe held sacred. The successful suit directly resulted in the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

The Tunica were once a very powerful ethnic group in southeastern Arkansas, associated with mound building and the Southeastern Ceremonial Culture. Several of their towns were visited by Hernando de Soto in 1541 the Tunica had suffered devastating population losses from European diseases and repeated attacks from their indigenous neighbors. The Chickasaws repeatedly raided the Tunica villages in the late 1600s and early 1800s to obtain slaves to sell in Charleston, SC. The surviving Tunica eventually moved to present day Louisiana to obtain French protection from Chickasaw raiders.

Misconceptions about the Biloxi

Anthropologists in the 19th and 20th centuries studied the few remaining Biloxi in Louisiana and from those observations made assumptions about their past. Because the Biloxi sometimes built teepees, they were assumed to have been a small Siouan band that migrated south from the northern Mississippi Valley. Many Native American tribes traditionally built teepees as temporary or seasonal homes. The original use of teepees for seasonal housing may have been by the Algonquian-speaking Potawatomi, Ottawa and Obijwe tribes. The Lakota-Sioux originally lived in “pit-houses” before becoming Plains Indians.

Because the Biloxi lived near mound-building societies when the French first made contact with them, the scholars have long assumed that their cultural heritage included mound-building and hierarchal social divisions. Any evidence of these cultural traits may have derived from 150 years of intermarrying with the Tunica. The Biloxi left the Biloxi region only three years after the French arrival in Biloxi. Cultural evidence of any mound-building activities by the Biloxi is too tenuous to be certain.

American settlers and scholars first made contact with the remnants of the Biloxi after Louisiana was acquired by the United States in 1803. They looked over the colonial maps of the previous century and didn’t see the word Biloxi anywhere else. From that observation, they assumed that the Biloxi were always a tiny band last located in the southwestern corner of Mississippi. This “fact” has been accepted by succeeding generations, and may be found in virtually all references that discuss the Southeastern Indians.

Words identical or similar to, Taneska, may be found in several parts of the Southeast. The most problematic information on maps, however, is the appearance of the Creek Indian words for the Biloxi, either Polachi or Polachicola (Biloxi People) within Georgia and Alabama. Early English maps indicate several Polachicola villages in what is now Southeast Georgia, near the Savannah River. After the Yamassee War (1715-1717) the Polachicola apparently were far less numerous, but late 18th century maps of the Creek Confederacy show that the Polachicola had joined the Creeks and moved to the Chattahoochee River Basin in southwest Georgia.

If the Biloxi Indians were originally far more numerous in Georgia than in either Mississippi or Louisiana, scholars are faced with a “chicken or the egg” question. Did most of the Biloxi move from southern Mississippi to Georgia prior to the arrival of the French? Was the Biloxi band in Mississippi merely a small group that left Georgia in early times? Since the Biloxi called themselves a word that meant, “The first people,” are they the remnants of an aboriginal people, who once occupied most of the Southeast? These are questions that can not be answered today with the limited information available about the Biloxi’s past.

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