Who are the Avoyel?

Two groups claim to be descendants of Avoyelles' first tribe

This parish was named after a small Native American tribe who lived here when Europeans first explored this area.

The Avoyel Tribe has not officially existed since the late 1700’s, but four unrecognized organizations have claimed to be the descendants of this “extinct” tribe.

Two of those -- the Avogel Nation and the Avoyel-Kaskaskia -- have apparently become dormant, with no members actively proclaiming their claim as the descendants of the original Avoyelleans. Two organizations loudly proclaim their heirship rights.

The conflicting claims of the Avogel Okla Tasannuk Tribe and the Avoyel-Taensa Tribe is cited as a possible reason why neither one has gained state or federal recognition as a Native American tribe. The federally recognized Tunica-Biloxi Tribe claims to have absorbed the remnants of the Avoyel Tribe generations ago, thus giving it a claim to be the modern-day representative of the parish’s namesake.

The last historical mention of the Avoyels was by U.S. Indian Agent John Sibley in 1805, when he noted the tribe had been reduced to only three Avoyel women being held as captives in
another tribe.

The French estimated the Avoyel tribe’s population at 280 in 1698. Shortly after that, the tribe was struck with diseases carried by the Europeans and its population declined rapidly.

One online source says the last person with known lineage to the Avoyels died in 1932 “among the Tunica” in Marksville.

However, there are many in this parish and elsewhere who disagree.

HISTORIAN/LINGUIST

Perhaps the strongest opponent of that viewpoint is John “Sitting Bear” Mayeux -- who has written a history of the tribe and is presently compiling a dictionary of the Avoyel, or Avogel, language.

Mayeux, a native of the Simmesport-Moreauville area, lives in Duson and teaches foreign language at Scott Middle School. He is the chief of the Bear Clan of the Avogel (Okla Tasannuk) Tribe organization. The tribe of about 250 members has three “clans” -- Bear, Eagle and Deer.

He served as the head chief for over 20 years. He and wife Janice “Morning Sun” Mayeux are artisans at the Vermilionville Living History Museum & Folklife Park in Lafayette.

Mayeux said most online resources and books that mention the parish’s namesake tribe were written by non-Indians who relied on inaccurate information and have continued to pass on those errors. He said he worked on his book for 10 years and printed it primarily to prove that the tribe is not extinct.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

The tribe’s name is of French origin, but there are different versions of what it means and how it became attached to the tribe.

Mayeux said the name Avogel is a combination of two words in the tribe’s language.

“Avo means ‘flint’ and Gel (“g” as in “go”) means ‘people,’” Mayeux said. It is pronounced AH-vo-GEL.

“The French did not like the hard ‘g’ sound in our language, so they pronounced it ‘Avoyel,’ to sound more French,” Mayeux said.

He said the “trade language” of the Southeast tribes called the Avogel the “Okla Tassannuk,” which literally means “People of the Flint (Rock).” That is why his organization uses that designation in its name.

The Choctaw referred to the Avoyels as the Tassenogoula -- which means “Flint People” or “People of the Rock.”

The Tunica had the same idea, but called the tribe the Shi’xhaltini, which means “Stone Arrowpoint People.”

The name refers to the tribe’s role in working with and serving as a middleman in trading flint and flint tools from northern tribes for goods available from stone-poor southern tribes.

“Avoyel” is not a French word for flint, so it is not a French term for “Flint People,” as has sometimes been stated.

Another theory is that it came from a French word, avoie, that meant “Little Vipers,” but that is also generally considered to be incorrect.

A document of the Avoyel-Taensa organization says the Biloxi gave the tribe the name of Avoyel and that the tribe called itself the Tasanuk.

WHO ARE THE AVOYEL?

The four unrecognized tribes claiming to be the descendants of the Avoyel have all sent a “letter of intent to petition” the U.S. government for federal recognition.

Those organizations, listed in order of the date of their “letter of intent” are the Avogel Nation (2000), Avogel (Okla Tassanuk) Tribe (2001), Avoyel-Taensa (2003) and Avoyel-Kaskaskia (2005).

Establishing a tribal identity of a small Native American tribe is difficult. It took the Tunica-Biloxi decades of effort to finally achieve federal recognition even with a documented history of a recognized Indian community and social structure in Marksville.

When there are parties who claim they, and they alone, are the true descendants of the tribe and the others are false claimants -- and some claiming to have research that shows the tribe ceased to exist as a tribe generations ago -- that effort is even harder.

Although there are still four Avoyels groups in lists of unrecognized tribes, the debate over the “true heir” to the tribe’s name now seems to be between the Avoyel-Taensa and Avogel Okla Tasannuk.

The Avogel Nation has been silent since its leader, Terryl Francisco, passed away in 2014.

The Avoyel-Kaskaskia organization “has pretty much dissolved,” Allen Holmes said.

Holmes helped the organization with research for its letter of intent in 2005, but was not a member of the organization.

“They decided they did not want to go through the process,” Holmes said.

AVOYEL-TAENSA

The Avoyel-Taensa Tribe came the closest to gaining state recognition when a bill seeking that status was introduced in the Legislature by Sen. Don Hines and Rep. Charles Riddle.

Riddle’s House Concurrent Resolution 2 was defeated 36 to 60. Hines’ Senate Concurrent Resolution 41 was approved by the Senate 23-11. It was sent to the House, after Riddle’s bill had been shot down, and was rejected with 46 “yes” and 53 “no” votes.

The Avoyel-Taensa has an office on Cottage Street in Marksville.

Chief Romas Antoine said the tribe is still working to gather all of the information necessary to complete their application for federal recognition. He estimates about 700-800 members, scattered across the nation with most in Louisiana, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, California, Oklahoma and Colorado.

“I imagine there are a lot more,” he said. “We are trying to register all of the members.”

The organization asserts that the Avoyel and Taensa tribes merged many generations ago. That merger is disputed by the Avogel Tribe’s Mayeux.

The Taensa were located to the north, probably around what is now the Tensas Parish area. The Avoyel Tribe was mistakenly called the “Little Taensa” by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1699.

Today the Avoyel-Taensa are associated with the First People’s Conservation Council in Terrebonne Parish and meet quarterly to discuss Native American issues and efforts to gain recognition or economic development for the tribal groups.

The tribe used to have an annual event in Avoyelles Parish, but ceased a few years ago. It is planning an event at Yellow Bayou Park in Simmesport on Nov. 3-4.

Antoine said he does not dispute the Avogel members’ claim to be descendants of the Avoyels. He also noted that Terryl Francisco -- who led the Avogel Nation group -- was his cousin.

“We are all related in some way or another by marriage,” he said.

Antoine was refused membership in the Tunica-Bilox Tribe, even though he has records showing one of his ancestors was Mary Pierite, who was also related to the tribe’s last traditional chief Joseph Alcide Pierite Sr. and the tribe’s first modern chairman, Joseph Alcide Pierite Jr.

“Earl Barbry Sr. said, 'Our roles are closed,’ and that none of us would be allowed to join the Tunica-Biloxi,” Antoine said.

As noted earlier, the Tunica-Biloxi claim the Avoyel as one of their member tribes, considering that the tribe was absorbed into the Tunica-Biloxi many generations ago.

`”I have no animosity against the Tunica or any other tribe,” Antoine said. “My only concern is for the welfare of my people in the Avoyels Tribe.”

Another issue of interest to the Avoyel-Taensa is the restoration of the state’s Prehistoric Indian Park. Antoine said he would like the park to be a place where Native Americans could meet. He said he considers the site to be a sacred burial ground of this area’s first inhabitants.

If the tribe ever gains federal recognition, he and the Tribal Board would like to have the state turn it over to the tribe.

Antoine said the tribe’s members left this area for the same reason so many Avoyelleans leave -- to find employment and a better way of life.

He said he worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 28 years before he retired. His three children went to college and are now working elsewhere, on e in business, one as a librarian and one as a teacher.

Because lack of economic opportunity is responsible for the dispersal of the tribe, a primary goal of the Avoyel-Taensa is to create jobs through various economic developments. However, that goal is also dependent on obtaining federal recognition that would provide funding for the tribe to undertake those endeavors.

AVOGEL OKLA TASANNUK

The Avogel Okla Tassanuk Tribe -- often shortened to Avogel Tribe -- has offered to take over management, maintenance and operation of the state park and museum. It sees the site as sacred to the original inhabitants of Avoyelles Parish, which they say were the ancestors of the Avogel/Avoyel) tribe.

The tribe’s principal chief is Mickey Baptiste of Mansura.

Baptiste said the tribe has two major goals for the near future.

One is to gain state recognition as a Native American tribe. Federal recognition could be achieved before or after that.

The second is to convince the state to let the tribe operate, manage and maintain the Marksville State Historic Site -- commonly called the Prehistoric Indian Park or Marksville Mounds.

“I have been in touch with the U.S. BIA many times and with the state many times,” Baptiste said. “I don’t know how long it will take to gain recognition of our tribe, but that is something we will continue to seek.”

Mayeux is an outspoken leader of the organization, as well as the organization’s historian.

In addition to his writing and teaching duties, he conducts presentations on Native American culture at Vermilionville museum and park in Lafayette.

Mayeux’s "The Avogel Tribe of Louisiana" focuses on the myth, history and future of the tribe. All proceeds from the book go to benefit the tribe, he said.

Mayeux estimates the organization’s membership at about 238.

“We have been in hiding for a long time due to the excesses that have been visited on the indigenous people of the Americas,” Mayeux said. “We are coming out of hiding at this time because we feel that it may be safe enough to let others know of our presence.”

Mayeux said the Avogel Tribe tried to help the state decide on how to recognize Native American tribes.

“We gave them guidelines that followed the federal guidelines,” he said.

Mayeux is disappointed in the state’s attitude toward the tribe and would prefer the Avogel “not mess with the state, but go forward with seeking federal recognition. If the federal government recognizes a tribe, the state has to recognize it.”

Mayeux said the tribe is seeking federal recognition, but is taking it slowly and cautiously because it does not fully trust the federal government.

The tribe is excited about its project to create a dictionary and its efforts to save and restore the tribe’s language.

“If you have the language, you have the connection with the past,” he said.

Mayeux said many so-called Indian tribal groups decided to seek recognition as a tribe “so they could open a casino. That is not our reason. Our people have voted three times against seeking a casino once we are recognized.”

The question of whether the Avoyel Tribe is extinct or exists in the membership of one or more organizations claiming that heritage may never be answered.

Dedicated members in at least two of those organizations are working to prove their case to the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- but dedication and passion for a cause may not be enough.

Until they are bestowed that sought-offer designation as a “recognized tribe,” they will continue much as any non-profit membership organization, working on projects to benefit their membership and the communities in which they live.

Whether or not they ever receive the federal and/or state approval of their claim does not detract from the work they have done and do to improve the public’s understanding and knowledge about Avoyelles’ first inhabitants.

Baptiste said it is unlikely the Avogel and the Avoyel-Taensa will ever resolve their differences over which organization is the rightful remnant of the historic Avoyel that first greeted Europeans here. That makes it unlikely the two groups would ever merge to provide a united voice in favor of federal or state recognition, he said, “but you can never tell.”

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