Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations

Traveling Light

By Jeffery Darensbourg on June 1, 2016

Desseins de Sauvages de Plusieurs Nations (“Sketches of Savages of Various Nations”) is a well-known 1735 watercolor by French engineer, military officer, and government official Alexandre de Batz (1685-1759), who lived and worked in New Orleans for much of his life. De Batz’s work, now housed over 1500 miles away at Harvard, adorns the covers and pages of sundry books and articles about the history of the region. It has been analyzed and explicated and critiqued by those more learned about such matters than myself, but here I offer up a personal appreciation of this work, one born of a connection to it that runs both in my blood and in my culture.

De Batz depicts, from left to right, a group of people standing on the banks of the Mississippi in New Orleans: a chief of unknown affiliation; an apparently enslaved member of the Meskwaki (Fox) Nation; some members of the Illiniwek Confederation; a young African boy; and, importantly, all the way to the right, looking directly at the viewer, a gentleman labeled “Atakapas” – which is the reason I came to know this work. I am a member and tribal councilman of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas. The man in the watercolor is one of us. He is a wi pĕn, a cousin, as we call male relatives of uncertain provenance, and he is far from home.

De Batz’s image forms the basis for the seal on our tribal flag, as well as for the statue commemorating our historical presence in front of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church in St. Martinville, LA. Reflecting common misconceptions about us at the time, the text on the plinth of that statue describes us as a “roving savage tribe who settled here prior to the French, partly Christianized and civilized by missionaries.”

“Atakapa” is the modern spelling of the Choctaw word for “man-eater.” This was a slur directed at certain peoples inhabiting an area west of the Mississippi that is often known today by names associated with a group of Francophone colonists who would arrive later, names such as “Cajun Country” and “Acadiana.” Some older Cajuns and Creoles of the area, especially when speaking French, still refer to it by its former political designation, “le District Attakapas.” The traditional Atakapan lands extended from Vermilion Bay in Louisiana to Galveston Bay in Texas, and our language provided place names along that way such as “Calcasieu” and “Mermentau.”

Evidence of cannibalism amongst the Atakapan people is scarce and unreliable, but the slur’s influence spread, and soon European colonists began making maps referring to the inhabitants of a wide swath of present-day western Louisiana and eastern Texas as “Indiens errantes et anthropophages” (“wandering, man-eating Indians”). At a ceremony on a Choctaw reservation years back I happened to mention my tribal affiliation, and a couple of people who still spoke their language gave me a bit of a look. While the epithet does not beckon strangers to approach, those who did find themselves amongst us in periods of early European contact, such as the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca (shipwrecked in Galveston Bay in the 1500’s), noted that we were both hospitable and wary of cannibalism.

Our own tribal name for ourselves is simply “Ishak,” which means “Human Beings.” We refer to ourselves as both “Atakapa” and “Ishak” – both names being part of our history and heritage. Perhaps what I admire most about De Batz’s depiction of an Ishak man is that his depiction is so human. There he is, a member of a supposedly fierce nation, and yet his gesture is one of friendship. He is even making eye contact. This is actually quite notable, as American First Nations have often had traditions of eye contact that have conflicted with those of Europeans. I was once written up at work by a much older white woman in Texas for not making enough eye contact. “We had a little Asian boy here once who did that, and I had to tell him this is America,” my boss said, before adding, after catching herself, “but I guess you’re pretty deep into the being American thing.” There he is, my cousin, looking De Batz dead in the eye and holding up his calumet, a pipe for social smoking, in a gesture of familiarity and invitation, leading me to infer that perhaps this depiction is born of a personal relationship.

This man is hundreds of miles from his home. Perhaps he was traveling for trade or government business. He is traveling light, in some sense: he has pipes, both the calumet and a smaller, personal pipe in his left hand; he has a bit of clothing, and arrows. He would have also had a longbow over his back for the journey. Perhaps a bit of tobacco is in a pouch on his belt.

To come so far with so little implies something to me – it is where this watercolor hits me in the chest. He is carrying much more than is visible in and on his body, things that we as a people have since lost. Although obviously on a long journey, he has strapped to his back only weaponry and smoking equipment. It would be like walking today from Lake Charles (a traditional center of Ishak culture in Louisiana) to New Orleans, a distance of over 200 miles, holding only a giant bong and an AK-47.

To do so successfully one would have to either socialize with those encountered along the way, or deal with things if they became unpleasant. It meant he knew much of what was along his route. This man, my cousin, would have to have been familiar with the languages of those he’d meet, especially Mobilian Jargon, a Choctaw-steeped trade language, as well as certain European languages used in New Orleans. He undoubtedly had a knowledge of plants, both edible and medicinal, and could make shelter out of whatever he found on the trail. He knew exactly what to hunt and fish, and how to do so. The tattoos emblazoned on his skin were imprimaturs of his people, signs of trust and accomplishment.

He had so much that was intangible, and it reminds me, looking at him, that much of it is just out of my grasp, and I long for him to show me and tell me. Our language mostly exists in books. The last truly fluent speakers walked on around 1970, as far as I can tell. We Atakapa live in modern houses now, and live modern lives, even if those lives are still heavily influenced by our Native heritage.

I think it no coincidence that my cousin in the painting is next to an African child. Our tribe has historically interwoven itself with African peoples who’ve found themselves on our lands, so much so that we have sometimes referred to ourselves as “Creole Indians.” Part of the ethnic mixture that makes up Louisiana’s Creole population, we are both Native and Creole. We are French, and Spanish, and German, and Irish; we are African. We are Louisiana.

De Batz doesn’t depict Frenchmen in the painting, yet Monsieur De Batz himself could be considered part of his own work, completing the circuit of my own ethnicity in a way. I am someone whose ancestry contains people of multiple ethnic groups – mirroring the mixed framework that makes up Louisiana itself, and makes New Orleans a deep part of Louisiana.

Like my cousin in the painting, I am in New Orleans. I moved here from Lafayette, a city in the Attakapas District. Like him, I came on business, in search of opportunities. Although I have family here, and have family all over Louisiana, it is here that I came to work. Like this cousin, I carry our Atakapa-Ishak culture and stories and foodways. A great deal of my forebearer’s wisdom and skill has been lost in the process of colonization, assimilation, and migration, yet much of it remains in our people.

I can’t help feeling, especially when I stand next to the river (which flows a few blocks from my house), that perhaps in some ethereal way, wi ipăn payókĕt, as it is said in our Atakapan tongue. My cousin has returned.


I’d like to thank Alaina Comeaux, Rose Garner, Moose Jackson, Shane Lief, Wendy Raffel, and Joshua Lupkin for help with the preparation of this work.