Tunica-Biloxi Today

By: Bill Day, Director
Tunica-Biloxi Cultural and Historic Preservation

History is a continuum, and this applies to the Tunica-Biloxi. The struggle for federal "recognition" began in the 1930s when tribesmen led by Chief Eli Barbry made their way to Washington, D.C., in a Model T Ford. Fifty years and many efforts later, under the leadership of Eli's grandson, Earl J. Barbry, Sr., the U.S. Congress formally declared the Tunica-Biloxi to be a sovereign nation. This recognition placed the Tribe on equal footing with the fifty states and into a special relationship with the federal government.

It was with this status that the Tribe began legal effort which was to lead to recovery of the objects which had been pilfered from the graves of their ancestors, the so-called "Tunica Treasure." As with the quest for "recognition," litigation was a slow and agonizing process. This time, however, there was welcome assistance; the State of Louisiana joined the tribe in its lawsuit for the title to the artifacts. More than a decade was to pass in the courts, but the ruling finally rendered became a landmark in American Indian history. Upheld by the highest court, that decision, simply stated, said, "Grave goods belong to descendants." This rule of law not only triggered the largest return of American Indian grave goods ever, the "Tunica Treasure," but laid the foundation for a new federal law. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in essence, declares that grave goods, and other objects which are held by museums, federal and state agencies, and which are identifiable as to a particular tribe, must be returned to that tribe.

Prior to actual receipt of the "Tunica Treasure," the Tribe decided to build a museum to house it. Since the graves from which the objects had been taken were destroyed in the looting, it was deemed impossible to rebury these funerary offerings with the persons to whom they belonged. The museum then would take the form of an ancient Tunica temple mound, and honor the memory of all the ancestors. The "Tunica Treasure" objects would be symbolically interred in the building, its earthen sides providing that missing element of the original burials.

However, when the "Tunica Treasure" was returned to the Tribe for placement in the new museum, it was discovered that the artifacts were seriously deteriorated. This condition resulted not only from their long stay in the ground but from that which followed: exposure to unstable air, humidity, and repeated handling while the ownership of the artifacts was being decided in the courts.

The Tribe had received not only the world's largest collection of Indian and European artifacts from the colonial period of the Mississippi Valley, but also the world's largest such collection most in need of preservation.

Professional artifact conservators brought in to survey the damage estimated a cost of over two million dollars for restoration. This was far beyond the financial resources of the Tunica-Biloxi but, undaunted by this newest turn of events, the Tribe responded. An environmentally-correct storage facility was fabricated from a salvaged highway refrigerated trailer. With the aid of private funding and donated equipment, a second highway trailer was converted into a highly sophisticated laboratory. A Historic Preservation Grant from the National Park Service was used to bring a team of professional conservators to the reservation to teach two tribal members how to save the "Tunica Treasure."

Conservators Earl J. Barbry, Jr. and Brent Barbry work on the restoration of tribal artifacts.
(Photograph courtesy of the Tunica-Biloxi Indians.)

It was from this humble beginning hat the Tunica-Biloxi established the very first full-scale artifact conservation facility on an American Indian Reservation. Major funding from the Administration for Native Americans allowed expansion of the laboratory and acceleration of the training. The artifacts are now being restored to professional standards by descendants of the ancestor Tunica. Other tribes faced with similar consequences of repatriation are now requesting training and assistance from the Tunica-Biloxi. This program has generated national and international acclaim for both its innovation and the excellence of its results. Earl J. Barbry, Jr., and his cousin Brent Barbry, are mastering the art and science of artifact conservation and have become the full-time tribal conservators. Because of the volume of artifacts, other tribal members are being apprenticed to the program.

The Tunica-Biloxi museum houses the "Tunica Treasure" and serves as a shrine to the tribal ancestors.
(Photograph courtesy of the Tunica-Biloxi Indians.

The museum is now able to fulfill its intended function as a shrine to the ancestors. The concept of symbolic re-interment allows the "Tunica Treasure" to be seen and understood as proof-positive of the Tribe's all-important role in the formative years of Louisiana. In order to place the artifacts in their proper context, the museum features a life size diorama which demonstrates the beginning of French-Tunica affairs of commerce and diplomacy, a mutual interdependence which lasted nearly a hundred years and is well reflected in the population of Louisiana today. French-Indian bloodlines flow in the veins of many. Bienville, known to history as the Father of Louisiana, is shown in the diorama on his first visit to the Tunica town of Chief Cahura-Joligo. The few human remains recovered with the artifacts are buried in the earth beneath the floor of the museum.

Diorama in the Tunica-Biloxi museum depicts the first visit of Bienville and Chief Cahura-Joligo. Other aspects of the diorama show horse and salt trade. (Photograph courtesy of the Tunica-Biloxi Indians.

The Tunica-Biloxi history by no means stops with repatriation and restoration of the "Tunica Treasure." Earl J. Barbry, Sr., descendant of hereditary chiefs, has guided the Tribe's destiny since his election in 1978. Chairman Barbry has used the benefits of federal recognition to secure a high standard of living for his people. Where once there were shacks with no indoor plumbing and drinking water carried from the creek, there are modern, air conditioned homes, dirt roads have been paved, and the school bus, which used to not carry Indian children, now stops on the reservations. A lake and other recreational facilities are in daily use. Health Care and Social Services, which have been housed in the Tribal Community Center and Office Complex, will soon be located in a new building of their own. Per capita income of the some five hundred tribal members has, for a very long time, been well below the norm. But that will now change with the advent of perhaps the most obvious element of the "new" history of the Tunica-Biloxi.

Earl J. Barbry, Sr., Chairmen of the Tunica-Biloxi
(Photograph courtesy of the Tunica-Biloxi Indians.

Grand Casino Avoyelles is now open. The sixty-acre complex is the first full-scale Indian-owned casino in the south and the first land-based casino in Louisiana. Located on the Tunica-Biloxi Reservation, the casino is the largest private employer in Avoyelles Parish. Its monthly payroll is over a million dollars. Income from the gaming, restaurants, and hotel is dedicated to furthering the economic independence of the Sovereign Tunica-Biloxi Nation, and its people.

The Grand Casino Avoyelles in Marksville, Louisiana, the first land-based casino in Louisiana.

At the dedication and ribbon ceremonies, Louisiana's Commissioner of Administration paid tribute to the determination and perseverance of Chairman Barbry, calling him, "the strongest Indian leader of the century."

In 1730, a French colonial governor wrote that "the Tunica Chief was the greatest entrepreneur in the Mississippi Valley." Perhaps it is true that history is not only a continuum, but that it also repeats itself.

References Cited

Biedma, Luys Hernandez de

1904 Relation of the Conquest of Florida Presented by Luys Hernandez de Biedma in the Year 1544 to the King of Spain in Council. Translated by Buckingham Smith. In Narratives of the Career of Hernando De Soto, Vol. II, edited by Edward G. Bourne, pp. 3-40. Trial Maker's Series, New York (Spanish original: 1554).

Charlevoix, Pierre Francois Xavier de

1872 History and General Description of New France, Vol. VI, translated and edited by John Gilmary Shea. Reprinted 1902 by Francis P. Harper, New York (French original: 1744).

Elvas, A Gentleman of

1904 True Relation of the Vicissitudes that Attend the Governor Don Hernando De Soto and Some Nobles of Portugal in Discovery of the Province of Florida Now Just Given by a Fidalgo of Elvas. Translated by Buckingham Smith. In Narratives of the Carrer of Hernando de Soto, Vol. I, edited by Edward G. Bourne, pp. 3-223. Trail Maker's Series, New York (Portuguese original: 1557).

Garcilaso de la Vega, El Inca

1951 The Florida of the Inca. Translated by John G. Varner and Jeanette J. Varner. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Gravier, Father Jacques

1861 Journal of the Voyage of Father Gravier of the Society of Jesus, in 1700, from the Country of the Illinois to the Mouth of the Mississippi, Addressed to Father de Lamberville, and Sent from the Fort of the Mississippi, 17 Leagues from Its Mouth in the Gulf or Sea of Mexico, Feb. 16, 1701. In Early Voyages Up and Down the Mississippi, edited by John Gilmary Shea, pp. 115-163. Reprinted 1902 by Joseph McDonough, Albany.

Haas, Mary R.

1950 Tunica Texts. University of California Publications in Linguistics 6 (1):1-174.

La Source, Rev. Dominic Thaumur de

1861 Letter to the Bishop of Quebec Concerning a Voyage Down the Mississippi in 1699. In Early Voyages Up and Down the Mississippi, edited by John Gilmary Shea, pp. 79-86. Reprinted 1902 by Joseph McDonough, Albany.

Le Page du Pratz, Antoine Simon

1774 The History of Louisiana. English translation published by T. Becket, London (French original: Histoire de la Louisiane, Paris 1758).

Swanton, John R.

1911 Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley and Adjacent Coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Bulletin 43, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

1946 The Indians of Southeastern United States. Bulletin 137, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

For Futher Reading

Brain, Jeffrey P.

1970 The Tunica Treasure. Lower Mississippi Survey, Bulletin 2, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge.

1973 Trudeau: An 18th Century Tunica Village. Lower Mississippi Survey, Bulletin 3, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge.

1979 Tunica Treasure. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 71, Harvard University, Cambridge.

1988 Tunica Archaeology. Papers of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 78, Harvard University, Cambridge.

1990 The Tunica-Biloxi. Chelsea House Publishers, New York.

Brain, Jeffrey P., Alan Toth, and Antonio Rodriguez-Buckingham

1974 Ethnohistoric Archaeology and the De Soto Entrada into the Lower Mississippi Valley. The Conferenc e on Historic Site Archaeology Papers 7:232-289

Keslin, Richard O.

1964 Archaeological Implications on the Role of Salt as an Element of Cultural Diffusion. Missouri Archaeologist 26.

Truex, Faye and Patricia Q. Foster (editors)

1987 The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe: Its Culture and People. The Tunica-Biloxi Indians of Louisiana, Marksville.