Tunica and Koroa Indians
by George Sabo III
When Hernando de Soto and his army approached the eastern bank of the
Mississippi River in the spring of 1541, he visited towns of a native
province called Quizquiz (pronounced "keys-key"). These Indians
spoke a dialect of the Tunican language. At that time, Tunican speakers,
represented mainly by the Tunica and Koroa tribes, occupied a large region
extending along both sides of the Mississippi River in present-day Mississippi
and Arkansas. How much of Arkansas was then occupied by these Indians
is unknown, but French explorers and missionaries in the late 17th century
reported Tunica and Koroa villages along the central and lower Arkansas
River in eastern Arkansas, along the Ouachita River in south-central Arkansas,
and along the Mississippi River south of its confluence with the Arkansas.
"Sauvage matachez en Guerrier," pen and ink by Alexandre de Batz, New
Orleans, 1732 (41-72-10/18). Courtesy of the Peabody Museum, Harvard
Tunica Indians were sedentary agriculturalists. Corn and squash were
the primary food staples. The men did most of the gardening. The women
collected wild plant foods, including fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, roots,
and herbs. The men also hunted deer, bear, and occasionally buffalo for
meat, hides, and other products. Water from salty springs was evaporated
to make salt, some of which was traded to other tribes.
The men wore deerskin loincloths during the warm seasons, and they tattooed
themselves and wore beads and pendants. Women wore short, fringed skirts
of cloth made by pounding the inner bark of mulberry trees. They also
tattooed themselves and wore beads, pendants and ear ornaments. Women
kept their hair in a single, long braid that often was coiled on top of
the head. Both sexes wore cloaks of mulberry cloth, woven turkey feathers,
or muskrat fur during the cold seasons.
Spiritual beings and powers were recognized in many elements of nature.
The cardinal directions along with the relative positions of the heavens
and the earth represented the primary dimensions of the universe. The
terrestrial world of humans, plants, and animals separated upper and lower
worlds of spiritual beings. Tunica Indians believed that the sun was a
female deity, and they recognized thunder and fire as important spiritual
forces. Each village had a temple with a sacred fire where priests conducted
rituals to maintain positive relations with spiritual beings.
"Temple des Sauvages, Cabanne de Chef," pen and ink by Alexandre de Batz,
New Orleans, 1732 (41-72-10/18). Courtesy of the Peabody Museum, Harvard
Tunica villages consisted of circular dwellings arranged around an open
area, or plaza, where the temple was usually located. Houses were built
by setting a circle of upright posts into the ground. Horizontal cane
stalks were woven through the uprights and a conical roof framework of
wood poles was added. Walls were plastered with clay and roofs were thatched.
Small doorways provided the only natural light in these houses and the
only exit for smoke. One 17th century French explorer wrote that Koroa
Indians decorated their dome-shaped houses with "great round plates
of shining copper, made like pot covers." Outdoor cooking hearths
and aboveground grain storage bins were also built near each house. Feasts,
dances, and games were held in the plaza.
Villages had leaders who inherited their positions. Separate leaders
were appointed to manage internal village matters and external affairs
including warfare. Warriors gained honor for their accomplishments and
could be identified on the basis of their distinctive tattoos. Individuals
could elevate their social standing through success in other activities,
such as trading with Indians from other tribes or with Europeans.
Most Tunica Indians moved their villages to the lower Yazoo River in
present-day Mississippi by 1699. Many Koroa Indians - who suffered population
losses from European diseases - joined the Tunicas, while other members
of this group joined the Chickasaw and Natchez tribes. By the early 19th
century, most Tunica Indians joined with Biloxi Indians living near Marksville,
Louisiana, where today approximately 200 members of the Tunica-Biloxi
Brain, Jeffrey P.
Treasure. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology,
No. 71. Harvard University, Cambridge.
Tunica Archaeology. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology
and Ethnology, No. 78. Harvard University, Cambridge.
Tunica-Biloxi Tribe. Chelsea House Publishers, New York and Philadelphia.
Jeter, Marvin D.
Tunicans West of the Mississippi: A Summary of Early Historic and Archaeological
Evidence. In The Protohistoric Period in the Mid-South: 1500-1700,
edited by David H. Dye and Ronald C. Brister, pp. 38-63. Mississippi
Department of Archives and History Archaeological Report No. 18. Jackson,
Kidder, Tristram R.
Koroa Indians of the Lower Mississippi Valley. Mississippi Archaeology
Sabo, George III
of Our Children: Historic Indians of Arkansas. Arkansas Archeological
Survey Popular Series No. 3. Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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