uh-TAK-uh-paws (Attakapa, Attakapas, Attacapa) are a Southwest Louisiana/Southeast
Texas branch of ancient Indians who lived in the Gulf of Mexico's northwestern
crescent and called themselves Ishaks (ee-SHAKS).
The name means the People.
In prehistorical times the Ishaks divided into two populations. Some Ishaks lived on the south coast of what is now Texas, down to Matagorda Bay. Other Ishaks lived on the upper coast of the Gulf's northwestern crescent at what is now Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. In Louisiana, on the coast, they spread all the way to what is now Vermilion Bay. The former Ishaks, those on the lower coast, inhabited their hinterland to perhaps a distance of a week's walk. Those on the upper coast inhabited their hinterland to perhaps a distance of several weeks' walk. The latter Ishaks came to be called Atakapas.
The name Atakapas has been spelled variously through the past three centuries. Henry R. Schoolcraft, America's first universal authority on the American Indians, spelled the name Attukapas on page 35 in Volume VI of his work, History of the indian tribes of the United States (1854). And he spelled it Attacapas on page 325 in Volume II. Attakapas is considered a modern spelling that is often encountered at the present time.
It is based on Louisiana's early Spaniards' phoneticization (spelling by sound) of a Choctaw slur word for all the Indians living to the Choctaws' west. The French in Louisiana generally adopted that spelling. In 1885 the Smithsonian Institute's Indian languages expert, Albert S. Gatschet, chose a simplified spelling, Atakapas.
The earliest physical description of the Ishaks was made by Cabeza de Vaca after he and his Spanish mates were saved from shipwreck and starvation by the people whom he called the Han people. Swanton wrote that Han probably reflects the word by which the Ishaks called their dwellings. Cabeza de Vaca described Ishaks as well built; translate it as well formed, handsome. His stay among them, from 1528 to about 1535, happened more than a century and a half before other Spaniards intruded permanently into the Ishaks' homeland.
Martin Duralde, Spanish commander of the Attakapas Post at what is now Franklin, Louisiana, revealed in the mid-1700's what he supposed was the Atakapas' idea of the origin or genesis. He claimed to have learned presumably from the Indians, that they considered themselves a people who came out of the sea. Archaeologist, Dr. Chip McGimsey, Louisiana University in Lafayette, in letter of June 2, 1997, to Hugh Singleton, historian and linguist, Hammond, LA., maintained that the current evidence shows that ....Ishaks simply represent the historic descendents of people who had been living in this region, (i.e. the northwestern crescent of the Gulf Coast) for thousands of years.
According to findings of some archaeologist in Southwest Louisiana, revealed in an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1996, there is evidence of human habitation over the past 10,000 years in Vernon Parish, Louisiana, near the apex area of the Ishaks' ancient homeland. But over the millennia many different peoples could have inhabited that area. It would have attracted tribes by its red earth deposits useful for pottery making. It is an area that presently attracts seekers after relics of the ancient Indians.
The prehistorical Ishaks in Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas were hunters, fishers, and gatherers. The Ishaks hunted with bow and arrow, which they called
'te n o n tik' (bow and string and arrow). Unlike today's users of the bow, the Ishaks did not forget to include the all important string in naming that hunting implement. The string for their main hunting bow was of triple-twisted sinews. Its bow of hickory wood stood
4 1/2 feet tall, and was the product of generations of careful craftsmanship. The bow was so powerful it could send an arrow clean through a bull bison.
Through prehistorical times the Ishak ancestors of the Atakapas hunted the bison. Hence, they were a nomadic people following the wandering herd. When hunting deer, sometimes the Ishaks chose to run a deer to exhaustion rather than slay it with arrow.
The Ishaks were also fishers. Long before Europeans arived, Ishaks harvested the waters of Southwest Louisiana/Southeast Texas, which were teeming with fish. They caught fish by hand, by net, by hooked bone, by weirs (traps), by arrow and by spear. They harvested salt water oysters along the length of their homeland's coast. They dried and smoked oysters and shrimp and other seafoods for consumption and for barter.
The Ishaks were also gatherers, nomads often on the move by the seasons, gathering food and useful items. They gathered and packed pecans for barter via the ancient trade routes of the Indians. Their forays for gathering food in what is now S.W. LA/S.E. TX found them tramping their forests there and camping on the more than half a dozen streams in their homeland. They looked for roots, berries, nuts, wild grapes, wild honey, persimmons, and other fruits, along with other useful plants like sedges and rushes for making mats and baskets. They gathered also medicinal plants for remedies.
The Indians' concept of land ownership was that an individual did not own land. The tribe owned areas the limits of which were fixed in the minds of the tribesmen, and they used those lands as hunting grounds. Their lands were largely bypassed and overlooked by early Europeans and later were in the heart of the Louisiana Purchase "No Man's Land." After the Louisiana Purchase, the United States Land Office attempted to determine which previous sales of land should be recognized as having been valid and which fraudulent. The commissioners classified the claims, and most of the Indian claims appear to have fallen in two classes, "B" and "C". The B claims were recommended for confirmation and the C claims were not.
An example of a "B" class as contained in AMERICAN STATE PAPERS - PUBLIC LANDS: Francois Brusard claim for 730 acres was originally claimed by Bernard Attakapas chief. Classed as "C" was 3,333 acres claimed by John Coleman, originally claimed by Attakapas Indians.
Historical Ishaks were called Atakapas, a Choctaw slur, by the Spaniards and then by the French in Louisiana which gave the Ishak people an ugly reputation, rumor of which continues through today. Descendents of the Atakapa Indians exist unrecognized and misnamed under various names of choice like Creoles, Creole Indians, and Creoles of Color. The term colored has clouded the Atakapas' racial identity. Atakapa descendents show a wide range of complexions which is attributed to the genes for light or brown complexions. Many Atakapas no longer know their correct racial identity.
The heritage of the Atakapa is rich and diversified and one of which to be proud. There is much in our lives today that point to the prehistoric Atakapa. Tasso and oyster pie were food products of their inventing. Zydeco, the good time dance is their gift to our country. Relics of Atakapa names include Anacoco, Calcasieu, Carencro, Lacassine, Mamou, Mermentau, Opelousas, Teche and others. The most beautiful and pleasing, is the language which has been translated into the English grammar for the Christmas Carol Silent Night, Holy Night and other works by linguist, Hugh Singleton.
The naming of U. S. Highway 190 between the Sabine River and DeRidder, LA, as the Atakapa-Coushatta Trace is attributed to the fact that Atakapa Indians inhabited and traversed Beauregard Parish. It is more clearly defined as part of the Atakapa foot trails in the Atakapas' homeland that reached as far up as parts of present-day Natchitoches, Rapides, and Sabine Parishes and parishes lying along all the S.E. Texas and S.W. Louisiana coast. The Atakapa have been identified as the only tribe, consisting of six bands to inhabit all of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas for centuries prior to habitation by Europeans.
Historical Marker memorializing the Atakapas-Ishak is situated adjacent to the Junction, U.S. Highway 190 and Highway 111, between Merryville and DeRidder, Louisiana, which is an integral part of the ancestral homeland.
The aborginal Atakapa Ishak of Louisiana are a quiet, peaceful, meek, even passive people, yet they have served this nation in all its wars. Though neglected and unschooled from 1690's to early 1900's, they have proved themselves highly intelligent, of accomplished talents, industrious and self-sustaining. Numbers of them have become professionals, and individuals serving their country in positions of honor, such as President Carter's Ambassador to Kenya and the Seychelles, Dr. Wilbert LeMelle of New Iberia, LA and Alex Boudreaux of Lake Charles who served as a Tuskogee Airman during WW II.