New Orleans is an Indian town. When Frenchmen and Africans arrived in the bend of the Mississippi that would eventually be re-named New Orleans, they encountered a place that had been home to Native Americans for hundreds of years.
We know from archaeology and historical accounts that just prior to colonization, there were settlements in the French Quarter near Conti and Chartres streets, in the Lower Garden District near Orange and Constance Streets, and at the mouth of Bayou Saint John.
Although we are not certain what they called this place, Tchoupitoulas Street shares an origin with the ‘village of the Chapitoulas’, or ‘river people’ in Choctaw, as recorded in 1718. The Chapitoulas were one of the small groups that moved up and down the river according to trade routes and seasonal hunting in the 1600’s and early 1700’s.
Native American know-how and labor helped build the city. In the garden behind St. Louis Cathedral, archaeologists discovered the oldest known building from the colonial period – a palmetto thatch hut built in the Indian style. Hand-built pottery, smoking pipes, trade beads, and stone hide scrapers are found in underground layers scattered throughout modern-day New Orleans.
After the founding era, the site behind the cathedral was used by Indian traders to exchange their goods on market days. Native American hunters, fisherman, and herbalists supplied the French Market well into the 1800s. Some communities of Choctaw, Chitimacha, and Houma maintained their independence outside the city while others blended into the urban population, contributing one of the many lineages that makes up Creole culture.
While many have debated the cultural origins of the Mardi Gras Indians, there is no question that this unique New Orleans tradition honors the memory of the city’s earliest inhabitants in a way that no paper archive can rival.