The Mayas of New Orleans, Louisiana

The Chitimacha trace their origin to the arrival of Maya Sun Lords from Mexico. Unfortunately, the French enslaved the Chitimacha, instead of embracing their advanced culture. What if Native American architects had help design New Orleans?

Part 36 of The Americas Connected Series

by Richard Thornton, Architect and City Planner

Image Above: This virtual reality image is a birds-eye view of a proposal to develop several blocks in the Bywater District, which were devastated by Hurricane Katrina on Sept. 28, 2005. The multiuse project would include a resort hotel, apartments, water park, restaurants, street frontage shops and parking.

Life is stranger than fiction – Parte Cinq

A few days after returning from home after working in Sweden, I was hired by the famous Columbia, Maryland newtown planning firm, Richard P. Browne Associates. My first assignment, while being oriented and trained, was to prepare maps of southern Louisiana for the firm’s contract with the State of Louisiana to determine the impact of a major hurricane.

The report predicted that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane that followed the path later used by Katrina would flood most of southern Louisiana and do catastrophic damage to New Orleans unless flood control structures were radically upgraded. “Civilization would cease to exist in New Orleans for many months, if not years. Deaths could number in the thousands, if the population of New Orleans was not evacuated.”

The US Army Corps of Engineers and City of New Orleans ignored the RBA report. A senior Corps of Engineers administrator described the report as “the malarkey of delusional Ivy League college eggheads.” I suspect that most of the copies of this important report were quickly dumped in some government office trash can.

Years later, in mid-September 2005, my Ford Explorer would crest the knoll of the only remaining highway entering the edge of New Orleans. I beheld a devastated urban landscape as far I could see that was almost identical to that of Hiroshima after it was destroyed by a nuclear bomb. It was only time in my adult life that I have ever wept. At age 24, I had drawn the translucent blue overlay on a map of Louisiana that marked where 1,577 people would die in a matter of hours.

The Chitimacha People

The Chitimacha Tribe is a federally-recognized Native American tribe in southern Louisiana that has approximately 1300 members. This is just a shadow of its former size prior to the arrival of French soldiers and colonists. However, there are many thousands of Louisianans with partial descent from the Chitimacha. They are just not tribal members.

The Chitimacha originally occupied much of southeastern Louisiana. At the time of contact with European explorers and other non-indigenous populations, the Chitimacha were known as the most powerful tribe on the Gulf Coast between Texas and Florida.  Their current small reserve, however, is on land that has always been occupied by the Chitimacha.

Dr. Deborah Clifton

Officially, the Chitimacha language is an isolate . . . but just as in the case of the Creek languages, no one compared it to Mesoamerican languages to an early 21st century Creek scholar came along. In this case, it was Creek-Choctaw anthropologist, Dr. Deborah Clifton, of LSU-Lafayette.

Deborah found evidence of both southern Mesoamerican and Choctaw words in the Chitimacha Language, which is no longer spoken fluently by anyone. According to the Chitimacha, their original name was Pantch Pinankanc, which means “men altogether red” . . . the term also came to mean warrior. Another traditional name for the Chitimacha was Sitimaxa, which means “people of the many waters”

The Chitimacha have been skilled agriculturalists since around 500 AD, when they began establishing permanent villages in southern Louisiana. They obtained most of their animal protein from the bounty of the southern Louisiana wetlands and the Bayou Teche. Their large, planned villages generally had at least 500 occupants and were virtually identical to the indigenous villages in Mexico along the Gulf of Mexico.

Much of the aboriginal culture of the Chitimacha was lost during the 1700s due to being culturally repressed by the French settlers in Louisiana. The French used Chitimacha slaves to dig the canals and build the levees, which made New Orleans possible. A slave-owning priest, Father Cosme, was made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church, after he was killed on a slave raid to capture Chitimacha youth. You go figure!

Dr. Clifton was able to determine that originally the tribe had rigid case systems and like many Maya tribes, all male babies were subjected to having their foreheads flattened. By the late 1800’s, the Chitimacha had ceased making pottery, but a few surviving examples suggest that it had ornate diamond patterns like their basketry and the similar to Napier Complicated Stamp styles in Georgia.

A little bit more prying and Deborah was able to get to the history that the Chitimacha don’t put on their website or in books. According to oral tradition, they were hunters and gatherers until “Sun Lords” settled in their midst from Mexico. The words, “Sun Lords” (Hene Ahaw in Itza) is highly significant. That was the formal title of a brother or sister of a Great Sun or High King among the Itzas and western Mayas. The term is also mentioned by Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, while he was visiting Creek tribes in South Carolina. The only way for Sun Lords to have their own kingdom was to go somewhere and conquer another people. Nowadays, heneahaw is the official title of the Second Chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation.

Chitimeca mother and son – around 1780. She is almost identical to my Highland Maya female companion, whose photograph was in the previous article in this series.

I was able to pay the Chitimacha a brief visit in the spring of 2006, when road conditions had improved. I asked them about the Sun Lord tradition. They seemed surprised that I knew about it, but did not deny it. I found the Chitimecha to be almost identical to the Mayas and mestizos of eastern Tabasco and western Campeche. I asked a leader, if people every think that they are Mexico Mestizos. He said yes, but only when they are traveling outside of southern Louisiana.

Hurricane Katrina Recovery Projects

I was involved in three voluntary programs, after the strike of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, between Sept. 15, 2005 and May 2006. I have never forgotten the experiences that I had in southern Louisiana, but for many years afterward would occasionally have nightmares that I was back in New Orleans during that horrific time. Civilization did indeed cease to exist and the vast majority of residents, who remained in New Orleans had no clue how to survive in that situation.

And you wonder why I had nightmares from the experience?

(1) When Muscogee-Creek Nation officials learned that the Houma Indians at the southern tip of the Mississippi River were getting practically no help from the federal or state government agencies, I was asked to go down there on the MCN’s behalf to survey the situation, plus teach the survivors how to build shelters from storm debris and how to distill potable water using storm debris.

I invited Susan Karlson* to join me there, because she carried a federal badge and a legally concealed Glock 9mm pistol. She had to back out at the last minute.

*Susan was the blond FBI attorney, who 14 years earlier had anointed me with “Holly Olive Oil” in my pasture in the Shenandoah Valley. (Shenandoah Chronicles)

I was given typed credentials from both the MCN and FEMA, but the Louisiana National Guard refused to let me pass. The asked me to use my two herd dogs to hunt for bodies. That we did, but it was a very morbid experience. I had to beg potable water for me and the dogs from the National Guardsmen and had to camp on a beach between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf of Mexico, where there were no toilets. The nearest working gasoline pump was 53 miles away, so when my fuel tank hit 1/4th tank, I headed home.

(2) Since I had intimate knowledge of the impact of hurricanes on Louisiana from working at RBA, the American Institute of Architects asked me to go down to Slidell, Louisiana and analyze a section of the city where reinforced concrete buildings, constructed to the latest hurricane codes, had been leveled.

It was mind-boggling at first, but eventually I noticed a spiral pattern of debris around each large structure. A 28 feet (8.5 m) wall of water had roared through the channel between Lake Pontchartrain and the Gulf. Friction with objects on the landscape and lower elevation water created a series of maelstroms or underwater tornadoes. The International Building Code did not have calculations for structural integrity, when buildings were assaulted by circular lateral forces 28 feet high!

(3) Since I have some MAJOR credentials in Downtown Revitalization, the American Institute of Architects invited me to participate in a study of New Orleans, in which architect-urban designers would submit conceptual plans and drawings that explained how to revitalize New Orleans after the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. Each professional was assigned a different neighborhood. I was assigned the Bywater District Waterfront, which is adjacent to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and downstream from the French Quarter. The famous architects got locations in the French Quarter, Charles Avenue or Canal Street.

Most of the Bywater District should be protected by a National Historic District . . . that was obvious. So, the majority of the district was targeted for historic preservation and compatible infilling. In contrast, several large tracts of land near the river had been swept clean by the flood waters of the Mississippi River. Here I proposed to construct an acropolis like Maya cities and Ocmulgee National Historical Park (in Georgia) had. It would be linked by a pedestrian parkway to the Center for Creative Arts.

The megastructure would contain apartments, shops, restaurants, a resort hotel, a water park, active solar electric generating panels, rainwater harvesting basins and parking. There was plenty of space for a large structure plus three acres of plazas.

There was no real client and the project would probably never be built, so I decided to go “hog-wild.” The megastructure would be a modern interpretation of Puuc Maya Architectural esthetics of northern and eastern Campeche State in Mexico. Puuc is my favorite architectural style in Mesoamerica. Since the Chitimacha had Maya roots and I had just learned from a DNA test that I was part Maya, it seemed a cool thing to do. The people in New Orleans would see what their city could have become, if the French had been nice to the Chitimacha!

Below are more images of the project for your viewing pleasure (or disgust!)

8 Comments

  1. Tau, Hello, Hola Señor Richard! I hit reply because I haven’t been able to post any comments for a while now. Thank you for sharing this! I enjoy reading it like all the articles you have done. It’s amazing how much knowledge you have on the various indigenous people of the Americas and their language. I know a bit about the Houmas but did not know about their connection with the Chichimecas. My husband and I stay every year for our anniversary in a place that used to be part of their home. It is a beautiful place that has been turned into an Inn. Which I love because of it’s gardens and peaceful setting. It is sad knowing the history behind it and knowing what happened but I appreciated the owners of the plantation naming it after its original owners. The plantation has a museum and I was stunned and grateful to see right at the entrance of it an area dedicated / on the Houmas . They were and are still part of that land. It was touching seeing that at the entrance as an acknowledgment of that.

    Sent from my iPhone

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    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Richard each of your blog posts get more interesting and I have to come back and read them again sometimes in order to understand the many tribes that were. I was about to suggest that maybe placing a museum at some of the most interesting area’s you talk about until I read the comment above where a museum is mentioned. However I guess that would cost too much with the amount of TRUE history that needs to be included. Have a good day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of tribes in North America. Keep in mind, though, that even if the Chitimacha are a small tribe now, they were once very numerous and occupied most of SE Louisiana.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hello Richard,

    Once again I thank you for the history lesson! I sure hope we learned something from the Katrina tragedy! Alas, there will be more of these tragedies as global warming rapidly changes our weather systems.

    I thought your rendering of the Bywater area was wonderful.

    Liked by 2 people

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