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The Tunica were one of several Native American tribes situated in the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the French colonial period. As allies of the French colonial Louisiana government, the Tunica were involved in many of the turbulent events that took place between the start of the Louisiana colony and the Louisiana Purchase by the United States. As a result, their population was severely reduced in numbers during this century, and they moved their villages repeatedly, generally downstream, until settling near present-day Marksville, Louisiana, about 1790.
Tribal traditions and early colonial historic reports do not give a clear picture of Tunica ancestral homelands and cultural traditions. There is evidence, however, to indicate that the Tunica resided, at least in part, in southeastern Arkansas for some time before 1700. Some scholars believe that some of the Indian towns that Hernando de Soto and his followers found in present-day Arkansas had Tunican names, such as Tanico, and therefore were Tunica settlements. By 1700, however, the Tunica villages were situated east of the Mississippi River, near the mouth of the Yazoo River, in present-day Mississippi. One plausible scenario is that the Quapaw moved into eastern Arkansas as the Tunica moved south sometime in the late 1600s. The extent and duration of the Tunica sojourn in Arkansas, and their relationship to the people described by the de Soto expedition chroniclers, remain active areas of research and speculation.
French colonists and missionaries provide some fragmentary information about traditional Tunica culture. The Tunica spoke a language similar to that of the Tiou, Koroa, Yazoo, and other small groups in the Mississippi River Valley but distinct from the majority of southeastern Native American language families. Their lifestyle was generally similar to numerous other Southern native people, however. The Tunica were farmers, growing maize (corn), beans, and other domesticated plants, as well as herbs and medicines. Tunica men undertook much of the garden labor, a practice that was unusual when compared to most Southeastern Indian societies in which women were responsible for most agricultural activities. Harvested foods were placed in aboveground storage buildings that stood within each settlement. The Tunica hunted and collected wild foods to supplement their diet but were not as active in hunting as most of their neighbors.
Social and political affairs were centered in a primary village settlement where a civil chief, and evidently a war chief, shared leadership positions and led public events. These dual leaders may have inherited their roles, but historic descriptions are unclear about family organizational patterns and degree of social inequality in Tunica society.
Some primary villages had a public plaza, in the center of which was erected a post used as a focus for religious and social events. Religious activities were also focused on a temple in which a fire was kept burning perpetually by one or more priests. In at least one of the primary villages used by the Tunica during the eighteenth century, the temple was situated on an earthen mound. Numerous households were scattered around the village, with individual families living in circular, wattle-and-daub dwellings that had thatched roofs. Numerous smaller satellite villages and hamlets were scattered around the primary village. Individual farmsteads and small villages would have moved from time to time as social conditions and garden conditions dictated. As the entire tribe moved periodically, the layout and inventory of buildings in the villages varied with time and circumstances.
Tunica religious beliefs were similar to other Southeastern Indian farming societies. They conceptualized an animate, multilayered cosmos in which humans had a dynamic relationship with numerous spirit beings. Rituals involved commemoration of important events in the agricultural year and interactions with important supernatural forces and spirit beings that had influence over the Tunica and the world they inhabited. Religious practices included events that were orchestrated by priests and intended to benefit the entire society, like the annual Green Corn ceremony held when the first crops were ready for harvesting. Rituals intended to aid individuals, such as those carried out to cure illness and commemorate death, also took place under the supervision of shamanic religious practitioners.
In the early contact period, the Tunica wore few clothes or personal adornments when carrying out everyday activities in warm weather. Women wore a short, fringed, skirt woven of plant fiber, while men wore little more than a skin loincloth, and small children generally went naked. In cold seasons, they added skin or cloth capes. Personal adornment reportedly included tattooing, blackening teeth, various kinds of jewelry, and various hair arrangements. As contact between the Tunica and Europeans increased during the eighteenth century, glass beads, metal jewelry and ornaments, and items of European-style clothing became common.
After settling near the confluence of the Ouachita and Red rivers in Louisiana about 1790, the Tunica were joined by a small group of Biloxi that had migrated west from the Gulf Coast, and numerous families intermarried. Small parties of other remnant tribes also consolidated with the Tunica from time to time. The Tunica and Biloxi formally established themselves as the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe in 1974. They gained federal recognition in 1981, and the Tunica-Biloxi Reservation and tribal headquarters is now situated in present-day Marksville, Louisiana.
For additional information:Brain, Jeffrey P. Tunica Archaeology. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology 78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1988.
Brain, Jeffrey P., George Roth, and Willem J. De Reuse. “Tunica, Biloxi, and Ofo.” In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 14: Southeast, edited by Raymond D. Fogelson. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2004.
Jeter, Marvin D. “From Prehistory through Protohistory to Ethnohistory in and near the Northern Lower Mississippi Valley.” In The Transformation of the Southeastern Indians 1540–1760, edited by Robbie Ethridge and Charles Hudson. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.
Sabo, George, III. Historic Indians of Arkansas. Popular Series 3. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 2001.
Ann M. EarlyArkansas Archeological Survey
Last Updated 5/28/2014
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