Published on October 23, 2012 by Amy
The Atakapan people are a Southeastern culture of Native American tribes who spoke Atakapa and historically lived along the Gulf of Mexico. They called themselves the Ishak, pronounced “ee-SHAK”, which translates as “The People” and further designated themselves within the tribe as “The Sunrise People” and “The Sunset People”. Although the people were decimated by infectious disease after European contact, descendants still live in Louisiana and Texas. In 2006 the Atakapa-Ishak met as one people.
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Their name was also spelled Attakapa, Attakapas, or Attacapa. Choctaw in origin, it means “man eater”, and was the name learned by the Europeans from the Choctaw. The peoples lived in river valleys, along lake shores, and coasts from Galveston Bay, Texas to Vermilion Bay, Louisiana.
After 1762, when Louisiana was transferred to Spain, little was written about the Atakapan. Infectious disease epidemics of the late 18th century caused many fatalities among them. Survivors joined the Caddo, Koasati, and other surrounding tribes, although some culturally distinct Atakapan people survived into the 20th century.
Atakapa oral history says that they originated from the sea. An ancestral prophet laid out the rules of conduct.
The first European contact with the Atakapa may have been in 1528 by survivors of the Spanish Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. Two barges were blown ashore. One met the Karankawa, while the other probably landed on Galveston Island. The latter recorded meeting a group who called themselves the Han, who may have been the Akokisa.
In 1703, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, the French governor of La Louisiane, sent three men to explore the coast west of the Mississippi River. The seventh nation they encountered were the Atakapa, who captured and cannibalized one member of their party. In 1714 this tribe was one of 14 who came to Jean-Michel de Lepinay, who was acting French Governor of Louisiana between 1717 and 1718, while he was fortifying Dauphin Island, Alabama.
The Choctaw told the French settlers about the “People of the West,” who represented numerous subdivisions or tribes. The French referred to them as le sauvage. The name Atakapa is a Choctaw name meaning “people eater” (hattak ‘person’, apa ‘to eat’), a reference to the practice of ritual cannibalism. The Gulf coast peoples practiced this on their enemies.
The Atapakan ate shellfish and fish. The women gathered bird eggs, the American lotus (Nelumbo lutea) for its roots and seeds, as well as other wild plants. The men hunted deer, bear, and bison, which provided meat, fat, and hides. The women cultivated varieties of maize. They processed the meats, bones and skins to prepare food for storage, as well as to make clothing, tent covers, tools, sewing materials, arrow cases, bridles and rigging for horses, and other necessary items for their survival.
The men made their tools for hunting and fishing: bows and arrows, fish spears with bone-tipped points, and flint-tipped spears. They used poisons to catch fish, caught flounders by torchlight, and speared alligators in the eye. The people put alligator oil on exposed skin to repel mosquitoes. The Bidai snared game and trapped animals in cane pens. By 1719, the Atakapan had obtained horses and were hunting bison from horseback. They used dugout canoes to navigate the bayous and close to shore, but did not venture far into the ocean.
In the summer, families moved to the coast. In winters, they moved inland and lived in villages of houses made of pole and thatch. The Bidai lived in bearskin tents. The homes of chiefs and medicine men stood on earthwork mounds made by previous cultures.
It is believed that most Western Atakapa tribes or subdivisions were decimated by the 1850s, mainly from infectious disease and poverty. Armojean Reon, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, who lived at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, was noted as a fluent Atakapa speaker.
Descendants exist and have begun to organize to be recognized as a tribe. Numerous descendants today share a mixed lineage of Atakapa-Ishak and other ethnic ancestry, but they have maintained a sense of community and culture.
The names of present-day towns in the area can be traced back to the Ishak; they are derived both from their language and from French versions of their people and places. The town of Mermentau is a corrupted form of the local chief Nementou. Plaquemine, as in Bayou Plaquemine Brûlée and Plaquemines Parish, is derived from the Atakapa word pikamin, meaning “persimmon”. Bayou Nezpiqué was named for an Atakapan who had a tattooed nose. Bayou Queue de Tortue was believed to have been named for Chief Celestine La Tortue of the Atakapas nation. The name Calcasieu is a French transliteration of an Atakapa name: katkosh, for “eagle”, and yok, “to cry”.
On October 28, 2006, the Atakapa-Ishak Nation met for the first time in more than 100 years as “one nation.” A total of 450 people represented Louisiana and Texas. Rachel Mouton, the mistress of ceremony and newly appointed Director of Publications and Communications, introduced Billy LaChapelle, who opened the afternoon with a traditional prayer in English and in Atakapa.
The city of Lafayette, Louisiana is planning a series of trails, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, to be called the “Atakapa-Ishak Trail”. It will consist of a bike trail connecting downtown areas along the bayous Vermilion and Teche, which are now accessible only by foot or boat.
The Atakapa language is a language isolate, once spoken along the Louisiana and East Texas coast. John R. Swanton proposed a Tunican language family that would include Atakapa, Tunica, and Chitimacha, which Mary Haas later expanded into the Gulf language family with the addition of the Muskogean languages. These proposed families have not been proven.