Houma people

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Bandera Houma.png
United Houma Nation flag
Total population
10,837 (2010, US Census)
Regions with significant populations
 United States ( Louisiana)
English, French, formerly Houma
Related ethnic groups
Choctaw and other Muscogeean peoples
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Bandera Houma.png
United Houma Nation flag
Total population
10,837 (2010, US Census)
Regions with significant populations
 United States ( Louisiana)
English, French, formerly Houma
Related ethnic groups
Choctaw and other Muscogeean peoples

The Houma people are a Native American tribe. The United Houma Nation is a state recognized tribe in Louisiana.[1] They number approximately 17,000 tribal citizens residing within a six-parish (county) service area, which encompasses 4,750 square miles. The six parishes are the following: St. Mary, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Jefferson, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard parishes.

The city of Houma, Louisiana (meaning "red"), and the Red River were both named after them. The State of Oklahoma shares a similar etymology, with the suffix homa meaning "red" in Choctaw and related Western Muskogean languages, including Houma.



The Houma tribe, thought to be Muskogean-speaking like other Choctaw tribes, was recorded living along the Red River on the east side of Mississippi River, by the French explorer Cavelier de La Salle in 1682.[2] Because their war emblem is the saktce-ho’ma, or Red Crawfish, the anthropologist John R. Swanton has speculated that the Houma are an offshoot of the Yazoo River region’s Chakchiuma tribe, whose name is a corruption of saktce-ho’ma.[3]

Individuals in the tribe maintained contact with other Choctaw communities after settling in present-day lower Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. 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.


Extinct19th century
Language codes
ISO 639-3None (mis)
Linguist list

The indigenous Houma language is thought to have fallen out of use by the late 19th century. As a result of a language shift which began during the French colonial period 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.[4]

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.[5] 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").

French era[edit]

In 1682 the French explorer Brinson noted in his journal passing near the village of the Oumas. This brief mention marks the entry of the Houma into 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 thought each settlement represented a different tribe. While being guided through the area north of Lake Pontchartrain, Iberville and his men asked their Bayougoula guides the identity of a group on the far bank of a particular bayou. The guides responded that these were the mugulashai, meaning “the people on the other side (of the bayou).” The French thought the term was the name of the group, and called them the Mugulasha tribe.[citation needed] They were more likely a band of the Bayougoula people who, like the Houma, were of Choctaw origin. In historic times, several bands of Choctaw migrated into the Louisiana area. Today they are known as the Jena, Clifton, and Lacombe bands.

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 great red pole 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 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. It developed as the modern city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

In 1706, the Houma left their villages in the Red River region for more southern areas. One account said they wanted to move closer to their new French allies 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 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 would remain predominantly Houma, the last remnants of many nations would find refuge with them.

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

Early United States era[edit]

Napoleon agreed to sell the Louisiana colony to the United States, which would double the size 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 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[edit]

By the end of the 19th century, the Houma language had become creolized with 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 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 America 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, they 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. They also cultivate small subsistence gardens, and depend on the bayous and swamps for fish and game. Houma members R.J. Molinere, Jr. and son Jay Paul Molinere are featured hunting alligators on the television program Swamp People.

It was not until 1964 after the Civil Rights Act was passed that Houma children were allowed to attend public schools. Before this time, Houma children attended only missionary schools.

Federal recognition[edit]

One of the most important issues of the Houma people is the unresolved matter of their federal recognition. The Houma tribe has been in the federal recognition process since 1979, when it first filed its letter of intent to petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The petition was rejected in 1994, and the tribe rebutted in 1996.[6] The Houma tribe waits for their application to be reviewed again for final determination.

Coastal erosion[edit]

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 are severely affected by the continuing coastal erosion. It is due mainly to oil companies placing piping under the ground and not properly covering it afterward, as well as salt water intrusion caused by navigation canals dug by those same oil companies.

Currently the community of Isle de Jean Charles is eroding; scientists estimate that within the next 15 years, the island will disappear if nothing is done. The Houma tribe is looking for land to buy in the area to relocate and resettle 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[edit]

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 the Houma people among many other Native American populations. The names of the Houma peoples origins have been replaced with those of French, German and English origin. In the beginning days of the formation of the Tribe as it is known today, many Native populations thought they had to sign up with the Houma in order to be called Indian. Houma mean red in Choctaw, which is where the Mobile Trade Jargon derived. Today, this had led to much confusion among the different Tribes within the state. The research necessary for Federal Recognition has helped many find their true Tribal Identity. It has been a long journey, but one that gives honor to the ancestors who faced much discrimination in the generations before. The Houma, like many other Tribes across the Gulf Coast have had significant defining moments in their Tribal history. They play an important role in the cultural melting pot that makes Louisiana unique.

Today the Louisiana constitution guarantees residents the right to learn, teach, speak, read and write in both French and Houma. In the 1980s, the tribe led a language revival effort in which Houma children are instructed in their native language; many such students showed significant improvement in educational progress. Some of these Houma students have become distinguished as university graduates: linguists, scientists, musicians, Linux programmers, animators, sociologists, and nurses. [7]


  1. ^ "Welcome to the United Houma Nation." United Houma Nation. 12 Aug 2008 (retrieved 31 Oct 2011)
  2. ^ Swanton, John R. Indians of the Southeastern United States (Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1946) p. 139
  3. ^ Pritzker, Barry M. Native American: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Peoples Vol. 2, p. 550
  4. ^ Brasseaux, Carl, ed. French, Cajun, Creole, Houma; A Primer on Francophone Louisiana. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2005.
  5. ^ Kilpatrick, Mary. "Houmas search for native language". houmatoday.com. Retrieved 6 August 2013. 
  6. ^ "Federal Recognition." United Houma Nation. 5 Oct 2008 (retrieved 31 Oct 2011)
  7. ^ "About", Yale University

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