Houma (Native Americans of the Southeast)

Houma (VU ma), or Ouma. The word means "red" in Choctaw and Chickasaw, but it may have been a shortened form of Chakchiuma, a tribe from whom they probably descended. It may also be an abbreviation of their tribal symbol, sakti homma, or "red crawfish." Many Houma prefer simply the word "Indian" as a self-designation.

Location In the late seventeenth century, Houmas lived on the east side of the Mississippi River, opposite the mouth of the Red River. Today, most live in the southeastern Louisiana marshes.

Population There were perhaps 1,000 Houmas in 1650 and between 600 and 700 around 1700. There were about 11,000 enrolled members in the early 1990s.

Language Houma is a Muskogean language.

Historical Information

History Shortly after they made their initial alliance with the French, in 1686, more than half the tribe was killed by disease. Catholic missionaries began operating among the Indians after 1700. The Tunica Indians, to whom the Houma had given permission to settle in the area in 1706, soon killed more than half of their hosts. The survivors moved south after the massacre.

In 1718, shortly after the conclusion of the Chitimacha war, the Houma joined some Chitimachas and members of other tribes and migrated south again, to the vicinity of New Orleans, and then north again to present-day Ascension parish. After the Natchez defeat at the hands of the French, Houmas, who aided the Indian refugees, were in their turn attacked by French forces; hundreds were captured and sold as slaves in New Orleans.

By the early eighteenth century the Houma had begun a process of absorbing some smaller, neighboring tribes, such as the Acolapissa, Bayogoula, Biloxi, and Chitimacha. Beginning some time in the early nineteenth century, the people still in Ascension parish moved south and settled on the Gulf Coast (present-day Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes). Other portions of the tribe intermarried with the Atakapa and moved to their territory or migrated to Oklahoma or to the north, toward their original homeland, and became lost to history.

The Houma remained generally isolated well into the twentieth century. In the 1930s, oil speculators began taking advantage of the Indians’ illiteracy and lack of understanding in order to obtain their land. In response, local Indian leaders pushed their people to learn English. Still, most Houmas did not attend school until after World War II. Schools in the area were desegregated in the 1960s. Centuries of intermarriage thoroughly integrated Catholicism and the French language into Houma identity.

Religion Temples were fronted with carved wooden figures. There may also have been earthen images of deities inside. The people probably worshiped a number of gods, in particular the sun, thunder, and fire. Young people may have sought guardian spirits through quests.

Government Houma head chiefs, if they existed at all, were less powerful than the Natchez Suns. Women were known to have served as war chiefs.

Customs Corpses were placed on scaffolds. After a certain period of time, special workers cleaned the bones and placed them in a chest, in which they were subsequently buried. The people played chunkey and other games. They practiced head flattening, which they probably learned from the Natchez when the Houma migrated south.

Dwellings Each town may have had over 100 cabins, possibly arrayed in a circle. Houses were square, pole-frame structures, from 15 to more than 30 feet on a side, and with walls of adobe and Spanish moss. They were covered with cane matting inside and out and then by grass thatch without. Doors were less than 4 feet high. There were no smoke holes.

Diet Traditionally horticulturists, the Houma grew corn and other crops. They also collected shrimp and other marine food as well as a variety of wild plant food, and they ate muskrat and other small game.

Key Technology Palmetto was used in the manufacture of baskets, mats, and other items. Hunters used a two-piece blowgun. Musical instruments included clay-pot drums with skins stretched over the top.

Trade The Caddo were significant trade partners. Marine food was an important export. The people probably imported flint and bow wood. They may also have traded in salt and bird feathers.

Notable Arts Houmas carved wooden satyrs and animals, some in relief, and painted in black, white, red, and yellow on their temple vestibules.

Transportation The primary method of transportation was by pirogue, or hollowed-out canoe.

Dress Men wore deerskin cloaks or went naked. Some men and women wore turkey-feather or woven muskrat-skin mantles. They may also have worn skin leggings and moccasins and possibly bearskin blankets in winter. Girls, from about eight to ten years of age until marriage or the loss of their virginity, may have worn a waist-to-ankle-length mulberry thread netting garment, fringed and ornamented. Their clothing may have been colored red and/or yellow and/or white. Most men wore their hair long.

War and Weapons Allies included the Okelousa, and enemies included the Bayogoula, at least in the late seventeenth century. The Houma fought with bows and arrows, knives, and clubs.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Most Houmas live in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes, Louisiana, and particularly in the Dulac-Grand Caillou and Golden Meadow communities. They are governed through an elected tribal council. There is no tribal land base.

Economy Fishing, trapping, and hunting are still important. People also work in nearby oil fields. The people have been unable legally to substantiate their claims to oil-rich land.

Legal Status The United Houma Nation, Inc. (1979), was denied federal recognition in 1998.

Daily Life Few Houma Indians interacted with their non-native neighbors until after the 1960s. Around that time, traditional shrimping and muskrat trapping were being undermined, by technologically advanced competition in the former case and by competition and ecological problems in the latter. Despite intermarriage with both whites and African Americans, and although the three races live and work in close proximity, there remains some racially based tension among them and within the Indian community.

Ongoing traditional palmetto crafts include baskets, mats, dolls, and fans. Kinship patterns also remain as do healing and other cultural traditions. Healers often use native methods combined with Christian prayers. French is the first language, with English second. Only a few words still exist of Houma, which was probably in sharp decline in the middle of the last century. The lack of a land base, among other things, has worked against community cohesion.

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