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Taensa Indians

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A tribe of Muskhogean stock and somewhat superior culture, living when first known on the west bank of the Mississippi, within the present limits of Tensas parish, Louisiana, and numbering perhaps 1200 souls, in several villages. The meaning of the name is unknown. In language, religion, and custom they were nearly identical with the celebrated Natchez, their near neighbours on the opposite bank of the Mississippi, a little lower down. The Taensa were sedentary and agricultural and expert canoe men, living in large houses described as having walls of earth, but more probably of logs plastered with clay, and roofed with mats of woven cane splits. Their chiefs exercised despotic power and were treated with great respect, in marked contrast to the custom among the northern tribes. On one occasion of a ceremonial visit to La Salle the chief was accompanied by attendants who, with their hands, swept the road in front of him as he advanced. Towards the French they manifested from the first a warm friendship, but although described by the early explorers as dignified, polished, docile, and even "humane", their religion, like that of the Natchez, was notable for its bloody rites. Their chief deities seem to have been the sun and the serpent. Their dome-shaped temple was surmounted by the figures of three eagles facing the rising sun, the outer walls and the roof being of cane mats painted entirely red, and the whole was surrounded with a palisade of stakes, on each of which was set a human skull, the remains of a former sacrifice. Inside was an altar, with a rope of human scalp locks, and a perpetual fire guarded day and night by two old priests. When a chief died his wives and personal attendants were killed that their spirits might accompany him to the other world. At one chief's funeral thirteen victims were thus slaughtered. On another occasion Father Montigny, being present, interposed and prevented the sacrifice. Shortly afterwards, during a thunder storm, the temple was struck by lightning and entirely consumed. The high priest interpreted this as a sign of the anger of the god at the neglect of the ancient custom, and for reparation called upon the women to throw their children into the fire. In response five mothers rushed forward and cast their infants into the flames and others were about to follow when the soldiers of Iberville's party interfered. The five mothers who had thus given their children to death were afterwards led in procession, clad in white robes woven from the fiber of the inner bark of the mulberry.

The Taensa may have been visited by De Soto's expedition in 1540, but their definite history dates from 1682, when the French commander La Salle, accompanied by Tonti and the Recollect Father Zenobius Membré, stopped at their villages for a day or two while descending the Mississippi and met a friendly reception. In 1686 Tonti again visited them, and in 1690 he made their villages the starting-point for his expedition to the west in search of La Salle. In 1698 they were terribly wasted by a smallpox epidemic which ravaged all the tribes of the lower Mississippi, but were still estimated at about 800. In the same year, Fathers F. J. de Montigny, Antoine Davion, and Thaumur de la Source were sent out from Quebec by the Seminary of Foreign Missions (Missions Etrangéres) which had undertaken work among the southern tribes. After a preliminary reconnaissance, Father Montigny, with powers of vicar-general from the Bishop of Quebec, went in 1699 to the Taensa, assigning Davion to the Tonica. Later on Father Buisson de St. Cosme, of the same seminary, arrived and was assigned to the Natchez. Father Montigny was well received, and, as has been stated, was able at the time to prevent the funeral slaughter on the death of the chief, as also to make peace between the Taensa and the Natchez. In 1700 they were visited by Iberville, governor of the Louisiana colony. The missions, however, did not prosper. Iberville himself was unfriendly to the Quebec order, and the Taensa and Tonica, while apparently kindly, were too much attached to their own ritual and custom to be moved. The murder of Father Foucault by a neighbouring hostile tribe, the Koroa, in 1702, led to the withdrawal of the seminary priests and the abandonment of the missions.

In 1706 the hostility of the Chickasaw and Yazoo compelled the Taensa to abandon their villages and retire lower down the river. In consequence of their treacherous attack upon a tribe which had given them shelter, they were again forced to become refugees and finally, about 1740, removed to Tensas river near Mobile, Alabama, under the protection of the French. They were still mainly heathen. On the cession of Mobile to the English in 1763 they, with several other small tribes, again moved over into Louisiana, settling on Red River, where they still resided in 1805, reduced then to 25 men or perhaps 100 souls. Some years later they removed south to Bayou Boeuf and thence to Grand Lake, after which the remnant disappears from history.

In 1880-2 considerable interest was aroused among philologists by the publication in Paris of what purported to be important material of the Taensa language, including papers, songs, a grammar and vocabulary, but which proved to be the fraudulent invention of a young clerical student named Parisot, or of some one else from whom the manuscripts had originally come. The deception was exposed by Brinton in 1885 and has been more recently pointed out by Swanton.

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