Atakapas say culture still alive

By Mike D. Smith
Beaumont, Texas (AP) 9-07

Thousands of years before Southeast Texas was even a concept, strong men and women fished its waters, hunted its game, walked its forests and thrived off raw nature. They were the Atakapas, the group that history says traded with colonists and helped them fight wars before vanishing in the early 1900s.

But Texans and Louisianans claiming to be of Atakapan descent who say the culture is alive and well are mounting an effort to scratch their ancestral name off the federal government’s extinct cultures list.

The Atakapas were hunters and gatherers who occasionally roamed from present-day southern Louisiana, through Southeast Texas to Matagorda Bay, said Pam Wheat, executive director of the Texas Archaeological Society.

“What’s pretty amazing is that they did what they did and survived as long as they did by using their natural resources,” Wheat said.

The Smithsonian Institute sent linguist Albert Gatschet to the Gulf Coast during the late 1800s to write an Atakapan language dictionary before the last known native speakers died, McNeese State University history professor Ray Miles said.

Gatschet found a native speaker in Lake Charles, La., but gave up after he couldn’t trace the language’s origin. The project stalled until anthropologist John Reed Swanton came along in the 1930s.

“By the time he (Swanton) came here, he claimed there was only one person left that could speak the Atakapan language,” Miles said.

Swanton finished the dictionary that today is in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“He basically said they were an extinct people,” Miles said. “That was the perception in Washington, D.C., and that perception is going to be very difficult to break down.”

Revival

The Atakapa-Ishak Nation has about 400 active participants across Texas and Louisiana, said Chief Michael Amos, who lives in Port Arthur.

That’s the tip of the iceberg, as many more can possibly claim strong genetic links, Amos said.

The group’s Web site boasts a showing of 80 people at a June gathering in Lafayette, La., that included talks on ways to preserve tribal artifacts.

Prayers at gatherings are done in the Atakapan tongue and there’s talk of building museums in Texas and Louisiana, he said.

In February, the group filed a letter of intent to become federally recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Now the hard work begins – collecting family histories that date back as far as records go. A positive result will be worth the work, Amos said.

“It will give us our identity back and we can do things for our people and bring back our culture and heritage,” Amos said.

Other recognition benefits include the possibility of purchasing tax-exempt reservation territory with allocations to run a government.

But Amos said the group would focus on uplifting Atakapan descendants.

“It can help assist some kids as far as attending college, with grants and stuff like that,” Amos said. “As things go, maybe we can get grants to help older people.”

Long road ahead

If the Gulf Coast group is successful, change could be a while away.

The letter begins a seven-step process such requests undergo, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesman Gary Garrison said.

A group must show that the tribe in question existed at the time Europeans arrived.

The group also must show that Atakapas have existed since 1900 and been recognized by the regional community as a distinct group.

“And that’s where they may stumble,” Miles said.

The Atakapas never signed any treaties with the federal government or foreign countries. They didn’t leave any written histories behind and were diluted by surrounding cultures as time marched on, he said.

“Many people genetically are Atakapa, but culturally, it’ll be hard to prove that,” Miles said.

And there’s a line of people ahead of the Atakapas. The bureau only has a nine-member staff to handle such claims, and its plate already is filled with 10 requests, and 10 more behind those, Garrison said.

Figure up to 25 years just for a decision and Atakapan hopefuls have some waiting to do.

A silver lining: overall requests have dropped. The bureau got one last year compared to 43 in 1978 – the year its Office of Federal Acknowledgement opened, Garrison said.

Amos said the group is in it for the long haul. In the end, the Atakapas will get the recognition they deserve, he said.

“They may say we’re extinct, but that’s not true,” Amos said. “How could people just vanish from the face of the Earth? Think about it. It doesn’t make sense.”

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