Published on December 10, 2012 by Amy
The Biloxi tribe are Native Americans of the Siouan language family. They call themselves by the autonym Tanêks(a) in Siouan Biloxi language. When first encountered by Europeans in 1699, the Biloxi inhabited an area near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico near what is now the city of Biloxi, Mississippi. They were eventually forced west into Louisiana and eastern Texas. The Biloxi language–Tanêksąyaa ade–has been extinct since the 1930s, when the last known native semi-speaker, Emma Jackson, died.
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Today, remaining Biloxi descendants have merged with the Tunica and other remnant peoples. They were federally recognized in 1981 as the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana and share a small reservation. The two main tribes were from different language group. Today the tribe members speak English or French.
Little is known of Biloxi history prior to their contact with Europeans in 1699. They encountered the French Canadian Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville, who was establishing France’s Louisiana colony. D’Iberville was told that the Biloxi nation was formerly quite numerous, but that their people were severely decimated by an epidemic of smallpox, which left an entire village abandoned and in ruins. The surviving Biloxi lived in Louisiana and Texas, where they merged with other peoples such as Caddo, Choctaw, and most recently, Tunica people.
Although historically of Siouan-language origin, ancestors of the Biloxi shared similar cultural features with other peoples in the Southeast, what anthropologists call the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC). They were an agricultural society, although they supplemented their agrarian diet by hunting deer, bear, and bison (Kniffen et al. 1987). They fished year round.(Brain 1990). As in many largely agrarian societies, control of access to granaries and storage facilities, as well as controlled distribution of their contents, led to a stratified society revolving around the Yaaxitąąyą, or “Great Sacred One,” the highest ruling noble, king or queen. The Yaaxitąąyą had a cadre of lesser nobles or deputies called ixi. The Biloxi word for “king” or “chief,” ąyaaxi or yaaxi, is also the word for “medicine man” or “shaman.” The rulers were also spiritual practitioners.
Biloxis “were descendants of the mound-building Mississippian culture people….” (Brain 1990: 80). D’Iberville described coming upon a deserted village after it had been stricken two years prior by disease. The village contained remnants of cabins made of mud, with roofs covered in tree bark (in Dorsey & Swanton 1912: 6).
According to the data Dorsey compiled for the 1912 dictionary, in traditional Biloxi culture prior to the arrival of Europeans, men wore breechcloth or breechclout, usually made of deerskin which was “passed between the legs and tucked up under a belt before and behind, with considerable to spare at either end” (Swanton 1985: 681). Belts were made of skin or of beaded cord. “Men covered the upper parts of their bodies with a garment or garments made of the skins of various animals, such as the bear, deer (particularly the male deer), panther, wildcat, beaver, otter, raccoon, squirrel, and bison. Some of these were made long, were used particularly by old people, and were intended for winter wear” (ibid.). Leggings were worn during cold weather or to protect the legs from underbrush. The lower portions of leggings were tucked under the rims of moccasins and the upper ends were usually fastened to the belt by means of straps (ibid.: 682). Biloxis made implements and utensils from bison and deer horn and wore ornaments of cut and polished seashells. Some Biloxis had facial tattoos and wore nose- and/or earrings (Dorsey & Swanton 1912).
While little is known of Biloxi funeral practices among commoners, the bodies of deceased ąyaaxi were dried in fire and smoke. The preserved bodies were then placed in an upright position on red poles stuck into the ground around the central interior of a temple. The deceased would be set up on a platform near the front entrance of the temple. Food would be “offered” daily by visitors (De Montigny 1753: 240).