Chitimacha Culture

(Updated Frequently)

Ceremonies/Religion

The tribal dance house, intended for religious dances, stood on a little bay of Grand Lake, about 3 miles northwest from the present village of Charenton. Like all other lodges, it was about 12 feet square, with a pointed roof, but it was surrounded with a picket fence. It contained nothing else but the garments of the dancers and the three kinds of paints used at this ceremony: the ha’pt, or “vermillion paint,” the ku’ps, or “black paint,” and the kúpshesh, or “white paint.” No idols, stuffed animals, perpetual fires, etc., were found in connection with it, as was the case with the temple of the Natchez people.

As there was only one meeting place of this description among all the Shetimasha, the participants gathered from all the surrounding lake settlements by canoes the day before the new moon. Men, women and children flocked to the ceremony in large numbers. The ceremony took place in honor of Kutnähänsh, or the Noon-Day Sun, and in summer time lasted longer than at other seasons of the year. The men danced with the breechcloth on, the body painted red, and with feathers stuck in the ribbons encircling the head. Gourd rattles and the scratching of alligator skins furnished the music for the occasion. They fasted during the six days the dance lasted. When the ceremony was drawing to a close, they drank water in order to produce vomiting; and, after they had removed in this manner any impurities in their systems, they began to eat heartily.[i]

6-day mid-summer festival was held annually, during which young males were initiated into manhood.[ii]

 

Political System

The Chitimacha resembled the Natchez in having a distinct class of nobility, with different terms of etiquette for each. 

There are distinctions of rank recognized among them; the chief and their descendants are noble, and the balance of the people are of the class of commons. An old man of this latter class, however great may be his age, will use to the young noble, however young he may be, respectful expressions which are only employed toward the nobility, while the latter has the right of speaking to the former only in popular terms. [iii]

Instead of marrying among the common people, Chitimacha nobles were constrained to take partners in their own class, which is tantamount to the admission that a true caste system existed. If a Noble married among the common people, he would have to stay with them, and for that reason many refused to marry at all when no women of their own caste were to be had, and thus hastened the extinction of the tribe.

Chieftanships seem to have passed from father to son absolutely regardless of clan. There are two cases in which wives succeeded their husbands. The wife of Soulier Rouge, named Adell Champagne, and perhaps the daughter of the chief Champagne, succeeded him on his death four or five years before the Civil War. [iv]

 

Food

“We were perfectly well received by their grand chief and by all the savages of the village: they gave us something to drink and eat such as buffalo, bear, and deer, and every kind of fruit in abundance, such as peaches, plums, watermelons, pumpkins, and all of an exquisite flavor. The pumpkins are indeed better than those in France: they are cooked without water, and the juice that comes from them is like syrup, it is so sweet. As for the watermelons, they are just about like those in France. The peaches are better and bigger; but their plums are not so good; there are two varieties, white ones and red ones.[v]

“They served us also some of the sagamité, which is a kind of pap made from maize and green beans that are like those in France. Their bread comes from maize and from a grain that grows on canes.[vi]

“They have some dishes made of wood and others of clay, which, even though made by the hands of savages, are nevertheless very well made indeed. The savages' women also make great earthen pots, designed almost like big kettles, which hold about forty pints; in these they cook their sagamité for two or three families; this is how they contrive among themselves to avoid the trouble of cooking the same thing every day, each one in turn doing it . . . . An observation I have made about the savages is that, however abundant their provisions may be, they do not overindulge themselves, but eat only what they need, yet very untidily, most of them eating only with their fingers, though they possess spoons, which they made from buffalo horns.[vii]

“Their meat is usually smoked or in some other way buccaned, as they say in that region. They have, however, a kind of gridiron on which they put it, but with little fire underneath, doing little more than drying it, the smoke contributing as much to the process as the heat from the fire.”[viii]

Swanton states: “The material culture of this tribe was similar in most respects to that of the Indians along the lower Mississippi. It was distinguished from them principally by the increased importance of food obtained from the waters and the decreased importance of food from land animals.”[ix]

Gatschet states, “The fishing in the lakes and bayous was done by the women, men, and boys; not with nets, but only with hook and line. They fished at night just as often as during the daytime.”[x]

 

Housing

Their houses were like those of their neighbors, ie, they consisted mainly of palmetto leaves over a framework of poles, and like them, the houses of the chiefs were larger than those of the common people.  According to Benjamin Paul, there was a smoke hole, which could be closed when the weather was bad.[xi]

 

Dress

Instead of being left long all over, the hair was shaved off by both sexes at the sides and in front, a single ridge remaining, extending from the middle of the top of the head to the neck. This was tied with strips of deerskin and ornamented with feathers.[xii] The Shetimasha men were also known to fastened a piece of lead to the end of the tress behind for the purpose of keeping the head erect. The women wore their hair in plaits or tresses, ornamented with plumes. A portion of the hair was wound in a coil about the head and secured by pins.

They adorned themselves with much care and artistic taste, and tattooed their legs, arms, and faces in wavy punctured lines. In painting themselves they used only the red and white colors.  They sported necklaces, finger rings, bracelets, nose rings, and earrings.[xiii]

Fine pieces of copper were hammered into bracelets, shoulder pieces, and breast pieces. Others were worn about the waist, and the chief carried a piece upon his forehead. Nothing nearer like a hat was employed. The nose ornaments were sometimes made of gold or silver.[xiv]

The warriors enjoyed a peculiar kind of distinction, as follows: Certain men, especially appointed for the purpose, had to paint the knees of the warriors with pulverized charcoal, and this was made to stick by scarifying the skin with the jaw of a small species of garfish until it began to bleed slightly, after which the coloring matter was rubbed on. This manipulation had to be repeated every year.[xv]

 

Boat-making

“To make these they kept a fire burning at the foot of a tree called cypress until the fire burned through the trunk and the tree fell; next, they put fire on top of the fallen tree at the length they wished to make their boat. When the tree had burned down to the thickness they wanted for the depth of the boat, they put out the fire with thick mud; then they scraped the tree with big cockleshells as thick as a man's finger; afterward, they washed it with water. Thus, they cleared it out as smooth as we could have made it with our tools. These boats may be twenty-five feet long. The savages make them of various lengths, some much smaller than others.”[xvi]

 


Notes

The latania, commonly called palmetto.[xvii]

Buccaned -- Derived from French boucaner, “to smoke meat on a frame.” According to Read (Louisiana-French, p. 83) boucan is a South American Tupi word meaning a “wooden lattice frame for the smoking of meat.” 

Mud -- In hollowing out a log for a pirogue, the Indian worker used a layer of mud, when necessary, to control the direction of the burning as well as the depth of the trough.  

 

Works Cited

[i] Gatschet, Albert S. “The Shetimasha Indians of St. Mary’s Parish, Southern Louisiana.” Anthrop. Society, vol. 2. Proceedings of the Seventieth Annual Meeting of the Anthropological Society of Washington, May 1, 1883.
[ii]
Leitch, Barbara. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Tribes of North America. Michigan: Reference Pub., 1979. Pp. 108-111.
[iii]
Duralde, Martin, MS, Bureau of American Ethnology, discovered about 1848.
[iv]
Swanton, Bull 43, 348-9.
[v]
Pénicaut, 1953, 18.
[vi]
Pénicaut, 1953, 18.
[vii]
Pénicaut, 1953, 19.
[viii]
Pénicaut, 1953, 19.
[ix]
Swanton, John R. Indians Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley & Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Government Printing Office: Washington, 1911. Pp. 342-346.
[x]
Gatschet, Albert S. “The Shetimasha Indians of St. Mary Parish, Southern Louisiana.” Anthrop. Society, vol. 2. Proceedings of the Seventieth Annual Meeting of the Anthropological Society of Washington, May 1, 1883.
[xi]
Swanton, 1911, 342-346.
[xii]
Swanton, 1911, 342-346.
[xiii]
Gatschet, 1883.
[xiv]
Swanton, 1911, 342-346.
[xv]
Gatschet, 1883.
[xvi]
Pénicaut. Fleur de Lys and Calumet. Trans. Richebourg Gaillard McWilliams. Baton Rouge: LSU P, 1953. Pp. 8-9.
[xvii]
Pénicaut, 1953, 19.