MARKSVILLE, LA (WVUE) - It took the Tunica-Biloxi tribe in Marksville, La. decades to get federally recognized. And it might not have happened if a treasure hunter hadn't discovered a long-lost tribal burial ground. FOX 8's Dave McNamara shows us the "Tunica Treasure" in tonight's Heart of Louisiana.
You are hearing the voice of Chief Sesostrie Youchigant, recorded in 1930, the last known speaker of the Tunica language. The Tunica Indians first encountered Spanish explorers nearly 500 years ago in Northwest Mississippi. The tribe eventually moved south, down the Mississippi River, settling at Angola and nearby Trudeau and then moving across the river to Marksville.
"When the French first arrived, there was three major things that they wanted from the Tunicas, and that was salts, horses and hides," said Brent Barbry Sr. "And so the French knew that they were going to have to start trading things to the Tunica in order to get those three major things."
Barbry, who manages the tribal museum, is restoring many of those French goods, like copper kettles and French ceramics traded to the Tunica-Biloxi in the 1700s.
"Seventy percent of the artifacts were in broken pieces," he said.
The items are part of the Tunica Treasure. When a tribal member died, all of their possessions were buried with them.
"Like if they owned a rifle, the rifle would be on the side of them, one of the kettles would be on the side of their head, beads would be on their wrist or on their ankles," Barbry said.
But the location of that burial site at Trudeau near Angola state prison was lost over time. It wasn't until the 1960s that a treasure hunter - a prison guard - found the burial site. The discovery resulted in two tons of artifacts and a 10-year court battle for the Tunica to get their ancestors' possessions. The human remains had been tossed into the river.
"He wasn't interested in the human remains," Barbry said. "He was interested in the artifacts because he knew he could get money for the artifacts."
Beginning in the 1920s, the Tunica-Biloxi struggled for the next 60 years to become a federally recognized tribe. They had a tough time proving their tribal history. That all changed with the discovery of the Tunica treasure. In a way, the treasure hunter had done the tribe a favor.
"And this gave us proof that it was definitely us, because one thing the Tunicas had was a trademark and the artifacts had trademarks on them, as well," Barbry said.
That trademark is a band of dots pressed into the tops of Tunica-made pottery. For the past 20 years, Barbry has been working his way through thousands of artifacts. He's 80 percent finished, and he's impressed that his ancestors took the time to decorate these objects.
"If you look at the treasure, they were rich," Barbry said. "They were a rich tribe, and it also lets you know that they were very good traders."
With each piece of the past, Barbry hopes that younger tribal members will have pride in their own history, and that all of us will gain a deeper understanding of our first Americans.
You can see the Tunica treasure in the Tribal Cultural and Educational Center Museum in Marksville.