Houma people

Last updated
Flag of the United Houma Nation.svg
United Houma Nation flag
Total population
10,837 (2010, US Census)
Regions with significant populations
Flag of the United States.svg  United States (Flag of Louisiana.svg  Louisiana)
English, French, Louisiana French; formerly Houma
Related ethnic groups
Choctaw and other Muscogeean peoples; Louisiana Creole people

The Houma ( /ˈhmə/ ) are a historic Native American tribe located in Louisiana on the east side of the Red River of the South. Their descendants, the Houma people or organization "The United Houma Nation", have been recognized by the state as a tribe since 1972 and not yet by the federal government. [1]

Native Americans in the United States Indigenous peoples of the United States (except Hawaii)

Native Americans, also known as American Indians, Indigenous Americans and other terms, are the indigenous peoples of the United States, except Hawaii. There are over 500 federally recognized tribes within the US, about half of which are associated with Indian reservations. The term "American Indian" excludes Native Hawaiians and some Alaska Natives, while Native Americans are American Indians, plus Alaska Natives of all ethnicities. Native Hawaiians are not counted as Native Americans by the US Census, instead being included in the Census grouping of "Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander".

Louisiana State of the United States of America

Louisiana is a state in the Deep South region of the South Central United States. It is the 31st most extensive and the 25th most populous of the 50 United States. Louisiana is bordered by the state of Texas to the west, Arkansas to the north, Mississippi to the east, and the Gulf of Mexico to the south. A large part of its eastern boundary is demarcated by the Mississippi River. Louisiana is the only U.S. state with political subdivisions termed parishes, which are equivalent to counties. The state's capital is Baton Rouge, and its largest city is New Orleans.

Red River of the South major tributary of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers in the southern United States

The Red River, or sometimes the Red River of the South, is a major river in the southern United States of America. It was named for the red-bed country of its watershed. It is one of several rivers with that name. Although it was once a tributary of the Mississippi River, the Red River is now a tributary of the Atchafalaya River, a distributary of the Mississippi that flows separately into the Gulf of Mexico. It is connected to the Mississippi River by the Old River Control Structure.


According to the tribe, they have about 17,000 enrolled tribal citizens residing within a six-parish area that encompasses 4,750 square miles. The six parishes are the following: St. Mary, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes.

A parish is a territorial entity in many Christian denominations, constituting a division within a diocese. A parish is under the pastoral care and clerical jurisdiction of a parish priest, who might be assisted by one or more curates, and who operates from a parish church. Historically, a parish often covered the same geographical area as a manor. Its association with the parish church remains paramount.

St. Mary Parish, Louisiana Parish in the United States

St. Mary Parish is a parish located in the U.S. state of Louisiana. As of the 2010 census, the population was 54,650. The parish seat is Franklin. The parish was created in 1811.

Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana Parish in the United States

Terrebonne Parish is a parish located in the southern part of the U.S. state of Louisiana. As of the 2010 census, the population was 111,860. The parish seat is Houma. The parish was founded in 1822.

The city of Houma (meaning "red"), and the Red River were both named after this people. Oklahoma shares a similar etymology, as the root humma means "red" in Choctaw and related Western Muskogean languages, including Houma. [2]

Houma, Louisiana City in Louisiana, United States

Houma is the largest city in the parish seat of Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, United States and the largest principal city of the Houma–Bayou Cane–Thibodaux Metropolitan Statistical Area. The city's powers of government have been absorbed by the parish, which is now run by the Terrebonne Parish Consolidated Government. The population was 33,727 at the 2010 census, an increase of 1,334 over the 2000 tabulation of 32,393.

Choctaw language Muskogean language traditionally spoken by the Choctaw people

The Choctaw language, traditionally spoken by the Native American Choctaw people of the southeastern United States, is a member of the Muskogean family. Chickasaw, Choctaw and Houma form the Western branch of the Muskogean language family. Although Chickasaw is sometimes listed as a dialect of Choctaw, more extensive documentation of Chickasaw has shown that Choctaw and Chickasaw are best treated as separate but closely related languages.


Extinct 19th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Glottolog None

The indigenous Houma language is thought to have fallen out of use by the late 19th century due to European-American encroachment. As a result of a language shift which began during the French colonial period and trading in Louisiana, a majority of Houma people today speak Louisiana French. American English is also widely spoken by the community. Additionally, in light of their distinct society and isolated geography, as many as 3,000 mostly elderly people living on Houma tribal lands in the Lafourche Basin are believed to be monolingual speakers of French. [3]

Language shift Change of a communitys language over time

Language shift, also known as language transfer or language replacement or language assimilation, is the process whereby a community of speakers of a language shifts to speaking a completely different language, usually over an extended period of time. Often, languages that are perceived to be higher status stabilise or spread at the expense of other languages that are perceived by their own speakers to be lower-status. An example is the shift from Gaulish to Latin that occurred in what is now France during the time of the Roman Empire.

Louisiana French French variety spoken in Louisiana

Louisiana French refers to the complex of dialects and varieties of the French language spoken traditionally in colonial Lower Louisiana. As of today Louisiana French is primarily used in the U.S. state of Louisiana, specifically in the southern parishes, though substantial minorities exist in southeast Texas as well. Over the centuries, the language has incorporated some words of African, Spanish, Native American and English origin, sometimes giving it linguistic features found only in Louisiana, Louisiana French differs to varying extents from French dialects spoken in other regions, but Louisiana French is mutually intelligible with all other dialects and particularly with those of Missouri, New England, Canada and northwestern France. Many famous books, such as « Les Cenelles », a poetry anthology compiled by a group of gens de couleur libres, and « Pouponne et Balthazar », a novel written by French Creole Sidonie de la Houssaye, are in standard French. It is a misconception that no one in Louisiana spoke or wrote Standard French. Figures from the United States Census record that roughly 3.5% of Louisianans over the age of 5 report speaking French or a French-based creole at home. Distribution of these speakers is uneven, however, with the majority residing in the south-central region known as Acadiana. Some of the Acadiana parishes register francophone populations of 10% or more of the total, with a select few exceeding 15%.

American English set of dialects of the English language spoken in the USB drive

American English, sometimes called United States English or U.S. English, is the set of varieties of the English language native to the United States.

In 1907, Swanton interviewed an elderly Houma woman to collect vocabulary from her Houma language. More recently, efforts have been made to collect vocabulary and grammar from elders in order to revitalize the language. [4] As Houma has been identified as being very similar to standard Choctaw, some linguists have concluded that the Houma spoke a Western Muskogean language (akin to Choctaw or Chickasaw). Other scholars have suggested that the data in Swanton's vocabulary is Mobilian Jargon. Some unidentified words may be from other languages spoken on the Mississippi. The Tunica referred to the Mobilian Jargon as húma ʼúlu (meaning "Houma's language").

Chickasaw language Native American language of the Muskogean family

The Chickasaw language is a Native American language of the Muskogean family. It is agglutinative and follows the word order pattern of subject–object–verb (SOV). The language is closely related to, though perhaps not entirely mutually intelligible with, Choctaw. It is spoken by the Chickasaw tribe, now residing in Southeast Oklahoma, centered on Ada.

Mobilian Jargon was a pidgin used as a lingua franca among Native American groups living along the Gulf of Mexico around the time of European settlement of the region. It was the main language among Indian tribes in this area, mainly Louisiana. There is evidence indicating its existence as early as the late 17th to early 18th century. The Indian groups that are said to have used it were the Alabama, Apalachee, Biloxi, Chacato, Pakana, Pascagoula, Taensa, Tunica, Caddo, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Ofo. The name is thought to refer to the Mobile Indians of the central Gulf Coast, but did not originate from this group; Mobilian Jargon is linguistically and grammatically different from the language traditionally spoken by the Mobile Indians.

Tunica people group of Native American tribes in the Mississippi River Valley, United States

The Tunica people were a group of linguistically and culturally related Native American tribes in the Mississippi River Valley, which include the Tunica ; the Yazoo; the Koroa ; and possibly the Tioux. They first encountered Europeans in 1541 - members of the Hernando de Soto expedition.


The Houma people take a decoction of dried Gamochaeta purpurea for colds and influenza. [5] They make an infusion of the leaves and root of Cirsium horridulum in whiskey, and use it as an astringent, as well as drink it to clear phlegm from lungs and throat. They also eat the tender, white hearts of the plant raw. [5]


Decoction is a method of extraction by boiling herbal or plant material to dissolve the chemicals of the material, which may include stems, roots, bark and rhizomes. Decoction involves first mashing the plant material to allow for maximum dissolution, and then boiling in water to extract oils, volatile organic compounds and other various chemical substances. Decoction can be used to make herbal teas, leaf teas, coffees, tinctures and similar solutions. Decoctions and infusions may produce liquids with differing chemical properties as the temperature and/or preparation difference may result in more oil-soluble chemicals in decoctions versus infusions. The process can also be applied to meats and vegetables to prepare bouillon or stock, though the term is typically only used to describe boiled plant extracts, usually for medicinal or scientific purposes.

<i>Gamochaeta purpurea</i> species of plant

Gamochaeta purpurea, the purple cudweed, purple everlasting, or spoonleaf purple everlasting, is a plant native to North America.

Influenza infectious disease

Influenza, commonly known as the flu, is an infectious disease caused by an influenza virus. Symptoms can be mild to severe. The most common symptoms include: high fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle pains, headache, coughing, sneezing, and feeling tired. These symptoms typically begin two days after exposure to the virus and most last less than a week. The cough, however, may last for more than two weeks. In children, there may be diarrhea and vomiting, but these are not common in adults. Diarrhea and vomiting occur more commonly in gastroenteritis, which is an unrelated disease and sometimes inaccurately referred to as "stomach flu" or the "24-hour flu". Complications of influenza may include viral pneumonia, secondary bacterial pneumonia, sinus infections, and worsening of previous health problems such as asthma or heart failure.



The Houma tribe, thought to be Muskogean-speaking like other Choctaw tribes, was recorded by the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, in 1682 as living along the Red River on the east side of Mississippi River. [6] Because their war emblem is the saktce-ho'ma, or Red Crawfish, the anthropologist John R. Swanton speculated that the Houma are an offshoot of the Yazoo River region's Chakchiuma tribe, whose name is a corruption of saktce-ho'ma. [7]

Individuals in the tribe maintained contact with other Choctaw communities after settling in present-day lower Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. They used the waterways to harvest fish and crawfish, as well as to supply their water needs and for traveling. It is not certain how the Houma came to settle near the mouth of the Red River (formerly called the River of the Houma). By the time of French exploration, the Houma were settled at the site of present-day Angola, Louisiana.

French era

In 1682 the French explorer Brinson noted in his journal that he had passed near the village of the Oumas. This brief mention marks the entry of the Houma into written recorded history. Later explorers, such as Henri de Tonti and Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville, give a fuller description of the early Houma. Iberville reported the Houma village to be some six to eight miles inland from the east bank of the Mississippi near the mouth of the Red River.

When the Europeans arrived in greater number in the area, they struggled with the language differences among the Native Americans. They thought each Native American settlement represented a different tribe and made errors in their designations of the peoples as a result. The Bayogoula people were, like the Houma, related to and descendants of the Choctaw. In historic times, several bands of Choctaw migrated into the Louisiana area. Descendants today are known as the Jena, Clifton, and Lacombe bands while some, such as the Houma, Bayougoula, and Acolapissa people, were documented as separate tribes.

By 1700, the Houma were in a border conflict with the Bayougoula over hunting grounds. Mediation by Iberville's brother, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, settled the conflict in March of that year. The tribes placed a tall red pole marked by sacred animal carcasses and feathers in the ground on the bank of a bayou, at a place now known as Scott's Bluff, establishing a new border between their peoples. Called Istrouma or Iti Homma by the natives and Baton Rouge by the French, this marker was at a site some five miles above Bayou Manchac on the east bank of the Mississippi. The area developed as a trading post and the modern city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In 1706, the Houma migrated south from the Red River region to other areas. One account said they wanted to move closer to their new French allies, concentrated in the New Orleans area, and away from the English-allied tribes to the north. From the 1730s to the French-Indian war (1754–1763) (also known as the Seven Years' War), European wars were played out in North America. Numerous Native American bands formed protective alliances with the Europeans to deal with the conflicts. As early as 1739, the French reported that the Houma, Bayougoula, and Acolapissa were merging into one tribe. Though the tribe remained predominantly Houma, the last remnants of many tribal nations joined them for refuge.

Because of increasing conflicts among the English, French, and Spanish colonists, the Houma migrated south by the beginning of the 19th century to their current locations in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. Oral history and modern scholars agree that they made a settlement called Chukunamous (meaning roughly Red House). The modern city of Houma, Louisiana was later developed at this site. The tribe moved further south.

Early United States era

Having lost Saint-Domingue with the success of the slave revolt establishing Haiti, Napoleon ended his North American ambitions and agreed to sell the Louisiana colony to the United States. This doubled the land area of the new republic. On April 30, 1803, the two nations signed a treaty confirming the Louisiana Purchase. With respect to native inhabitants, article six of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty states

The United States promise to execute such treaties and articles as may have been agreed between Spain and the tribes and nations of Indians, until, by mutual consent of the United States and the said tribes of nations, other suitable articles shall have been agreed upon.

Although the United States signed the treaty, they failed to uphold the policy. Dr. John Sibley was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson as US Indian agent for the region. He did not visit any villages in the swamps of southern Louisiana, and the Houma had no official representation to the federal government.[ citation needed ]

In 1885, the Houma lost a great leader, Rosalie Courteau. She had helped them survive through the aftermath of the American Civil War. She continues to be highly respected.

Modern era

By the end of the 19th century, the Houma had developed a creole language based on the French language of the former colony. The Houma-French language which the Houma people speak today is a mix between the French spoken by early explorers and Houma words, such as shaui ("raccoon"). Yet, Houma-French language is still a French language, because it can be understood by French speakers from Canada, France, Rwanda or Louisiana. There are some differences in vocabulary, for example, chevrette to say crevette (shrimp). The accent of the Houma Nation French-speaker is comparable to the difference between an English-speaker from the United States and an English-speaker from England; every linguistic group develops many different accents.

As southern Louisiana became more urban and industrialized, the Houma remained relatively isolated in their bayou settlements. The population of the Houma at this time was divided among six other Native American settlements. Travel between settlements was made by pirogues and the waterways; the state did not build roads connecting the settlements until the 1940s. Like the other Native American populations, the Houma were often subjected to discrimination and isolation.

In 1907, John R. Swanton, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, visited the Houma. The Houma continue to have a hunter-gatherer type economy, which he documented, depending on the bayous and swamps for fish and game. They also cultivate small subsistence gardens. Houma members R.J. Molinere, Jr. and his son Jay Paul Molinere are featured hunting alligators on the television program, Swamp People .

After white Democrats regained power in Louisiana following the Reconstruction era, they passed laws establishing racial segregation. They had previously classified the Houma and other Native Americans as free people of color and required them to send their children to schools established for the children of freedmen, when available. The state was slow to construct any public schools in Houma settlements. It was not until 1964 after the Civil Rights Act was passed and ended segregation that Houma children were allowed to attend public schools. Before this time, Houma children attended only missionary schools established by religious groups.


The Houma established a government that includes a role for tribal elders, who operate like a senate. In addition, they have an elected council of representatives and elect a president. That position is held by Principal Chief Thomas Dardar, Jr.

Federal recognition

The Houma were granted land by the 1790s on Bayou Terrebonne under the Spanish colonial administration, which had prohibited Indian slavery in 1764. [8] They were never removed to a reservation and, as a small tribe, were overlooked by the federal government during the Indian Removal period of the 1830s. As a people without recognized communal land, in the 20th century, they were considered to have lost their tribal status.

In addition, since 1808, following United States purchase of Louisiana, state policy required classification of all residents according to a binary system of white and non-white: all Indians in Louisiana were to be classified as free people of color in state records. [8] This was related to the approach of United States slavery states to classify all children born to slave mothers as slaves (and therefore black) regardless of paternity and proportion of other ancestry. During the French colonial period in Louisiana, the term free people of color had applied primarily to people of African-European descent. After US annexation of the territory, its administrators applied this term to all non-whites, including those who identified as Indian. [8] In the early 20th century, the state adopted a "one-drop rule" that was even more stringent, classifying anyone with any known African ancestry as black. Many Houma people may have mixed ancestry but identify culturally and ethnically as Houma rather than African American.

Records of these people are among regular civil parish and church records, and reflect differing jurisdictional designations, rather than lack of stability as a people in this area. Since the mid-20th century, the people identifying as Houma have organized politically, created a government, and have sought federal recognition as a tribe. In 1979 the Houma tribe filed its letter of intent to petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Their petition for recognition was rejected in 1994, on the basis that the tribe had lived in disparate settlements. The tribe submitted a response in 1996. [9] The Houma tribe waits for their application to be reviewed again for final determination.

The Houma have been highly decentralized, with communities scattered over a wide area. The Pointe-Au-Chien Indian Tribe in southern Louisiana and the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogee have organized and left the United Houma Nation because of feeling too separated from other peoples. They have each achieved state recognition and are independently seeking federal recognition as tribes but have not succeeded as of 2014. [10]

Facing continued criticism of its tribal recognition process as being too stringent in view of US historical issues, in 2013 the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs offered proposed rule changes. Tribes would be required to demonstrate historical continuity since 1934, when Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act, granting tribes more power as sovereign nations. Earlier they had been required to demonstrate political continuity as a community from the colonial or settlement period of European contact. [11] Numerous tribes seeking federal recognition had protested that disruption by European-American colonists and settlers were the very factors that caused losses of historic lands and continuity, but that their people could demonstrate continued identification as tribal peoples. In 2014, the Houma were informed by the BIA that their review was in active status under these new guidelines. [12]

The state of Louisiana officially recognized the United Houma Tribe in 1972.

Coastal erosion

As many of tribal communities are in coastal areas and depend on the swamps and bayous as a source of food and economic resource, they have been severely and adversely affected by the continuing coastal erosion and loss of wetlands. Different factors associated with industrialization have contributed to such losses, including dredging of navigation canals by shipping and oil companies, which increased water movement and erosion, increasing salt water intrusion and causing loss of wetlands plants. In addition, oil companies have buried piping under the ground but not covered it sufficiently.

The community of Isle de Jean Charles has suffered severe erosion; scientists estimate that the island will be lost by 2030 if no restoration takes place. The Houma tribe is looking for land in the area to buy in order to resettle all of the community together. Coastal erosion has adversely affected the quality of fishing. The tribe has suffered from a decrease in fish, as saltwater intrusion has destroyed many of the old fishing holes.

Family names

The Houma people, like many other Native American Tribes within the state and surrounding states, spent many years migrating and shifting. This has left a scattering of ethnic Houma people among many other Native American populations and considerable intermarriage. Over time, the Houma were encouraged to adopt European-style names; in addition, there was considerable marriage by European men and native women. Today most Houma have surnames of European origin, such as Billiot, Verdin, Dardar, Gregoire, Parfait, Courteau, Solet, Verret, Fitch, etc.

In the beginning days of the organization of the Tribe as it is known today, many Native people of other ethnicities thought they had to enroll with the Houma in order to be classified by the state as Indian. Houma means red in Choctaw, Choctaw being the language from which Mobile Trade Jargon derived. The research necessary for Federal Recognition has helped many find their ancestral tribal identity. The process of documentation of ancestors has given honor to those Houma and other Native Americans who faced much discrimination in the generations before.

Today the Louisiana constitution guarantees all residents the right to learn, teach, speak, read and write in English, French and Houma. In the 1980s, the tribe led a language revival effort; they have done considerable research to reconstruct their lost language. Some of these Houma students have gone to college and become linguists, scientists, musicians, Linux programmers, animators, sociologists, and nurses. [13]


  1. United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Indian Affairs (1990). Houma Recognition Act: Hearing Before the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, United States Senate, One Hundred First Congress, Second Session on S. 2423 ... August 7, 1990, Washington, DC. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 38.
  2. Byington, Cyrus (1915-01-01). A Dictionary of the Choctaw Language. U.S. Government Printing Office.
  3. Brasseaux, Carl, ed. French, Cajun, Creole, Houma; A Primer on Francophone Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
  4. Kilpatrick, Mary. "Houmas search for native language". houmatoday.com. Retrieved 6 August 2013.
  5. 1 2 Speck, Frank G., 1941, "A List of Plant Curatives Obtained From the Houma Indians of Louisiana", Primitive Man 14:49-75, page 64
  6. Swanton, John R. Indians of the Southeastern United States (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1946) p. 139
  7. Pritzker, Barry M. Native American: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Peoples, Vol. 2, p. 550
  9. "Federal Recognition", United Houma Nation. 5 Oct 2008 (retrieved 19 Jun 2014)
  10. State of Louisiana "List of state and federally recognized tribes"
  11. Jordan Blum, "La. tribes look to change in federal recognition rules", The Advocate, 1 September 2013
  12. Dan Frosch, "Tribes Seek Speedier Federal Recognition Proposed Changes May Benefit Native Groups Denied Health, Other Benefits", Wall Street Journal, 10 July 2014, accessed 19 October 2014
  13. "About", Yale University

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