Monday, January 5, 2015

Tatooed Mound Builders

Caddo Village

Today most people think of Native Americans as nomadic buffalo hunters.  Uncivilized types that resided in tepees, attacked wagon trains, and smoked long wooden pipes.  The Caddo Nation shatters this stereotype with well established villages, decorative pottery and a remarkable system of agriculture.    

The Caddo Nation was actually a confederacy of tribes that inhabited portions of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The three main tribes were: the Kadohadacho (good luck with the pronunciation) who lived along the Red River near the Oklahoma and Arkansas border, the Hasinai in East Texas, and the Natchitoches in Northern Louisiana.  The bountiful forests in the region provided them with fertile soil, abundant game, and wood for roomy, durable huts. The huts were roomy conical affairs that were built by fellow tribe members – similar to an old fashioned barn raising.  Archeological and linguistic evidence suggests the Caddo were once a mighty single tribe that migrated from the Caribbean Islands.  Like the Aztecs and Mayans, they had sizeable communities which featured a prominent, earthen mound that was likely used for religious ceremonies.  Before the 1800’s, the Caddo fell into decline and broke apart into a number of smaller tribes with a common language.  From that language, the name "Texas" was derived.  It was from the Caddo word for allies, "teyshas."

Caddo House
The main characteristic, that set them apart from other Texas tribes, was their farming skills.  Using crude tools made of stone and wood, the Caddo grew corn, beans, squash, and tobacco.   Unlike the Plains Indians, meat was only a small part of their diet.  Both men and women shared in the tasks of maintaining their gardens.  Abundant crops were produced to feed the tribe and get them through the winter months.

 In appearance, they supported elaborate tattoos made by inserting charcoal into their skin.  Males shaved their heads with only a single, long strip running down the middle.  The women painted themselves a variety of colors from the waist up.  At birth, Caddo infants had their heads pressed against boards, giving them a distinct cone shaped head as they grew older.

Like other Native Americans, the Caddo saw warfare as a sport, but with a spirited, week-long preparation period that involved feasting, dancing and praying.  A special house was constructed for this preparation period – a period that grew more intense with each passing day.  Finally, in a blind rage, the warriors burned the house down before setting off on their attack (sort of like your basic fraternity party).  Their primary weapon was the bow and arrow.  The bow itself was made from fine bois d’arc wood.  Because of its durability, the Caddo bow became a much sought after item at the local trading post.

Because of their proximity to the mouth of the Mississippi River, it was only a matter of time before they came into contact with the two great European powers in the region – France and Spain.  The Spaniards tried to establish missions among the Caddo but with no success.  The French had better luck with trading posts. Before their trade with the Caddo could expand, the French sold their Louisiana holdings to the Spanish, bought them back, and then sold them again to the United States.   

After contact with French traders and Spanish missionaries, disease began to decimate the Caddo. To make matters worse, their long time enemies, the Osage, began to seize their territory and force them out.  By the time Anglo pioneers began moving west, their numbers were significantly reduced - they became a mere footnote in U.S. frontier history.  During the mid 1800’s, their remaining numbers were forced on to reservations in Oklahoma.  Today the Caddo Nation is federally recognized and headquartered in Binger, Oklahoma.