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The Coastal Indians of Texas


Karankawa Indians
The Karankawa
Atakapan Indians
Handbook of Texas Online - Cancepne/Atakapan

Outline of Class Discussion

The Atakapans
  • Atakapan is a language, not really a tribe; language may have been related to languages of Southeast
  • Located upper coast/southeast Texas; lived from Houston to east into Louisiana
  • "Atakapan" is a Choctaw word for "man-eater"
  • "Akokisas" were Atakapan speakers - bands along coast that lived like Karankawa
  • hunter/gatherers; lived in small huts; did not farm
  • Different environments so different lifestyles; some like Caddo, some like Karankawa
  • north of Akokisas, other bands and tribes of Atakapan speakers including the Patiris along the Trinity River, Bidias who were part of Caddo confederacy and lived like Caddo including farming, and Deadoses
  • Most campsites along Trinity and Sabine Rivers
  • Atakapans made and used dugout canoes
  • were short, stocky
  • tattoos on their bodies, wore very little clothing, but descriptions rare
  • no known surviving Atakapans; exterminated by mid 1800s

  • To south of Caddo, the Karankawa
  • Origin of name unknown but supposedly means "dog-lovers" - bred fox-like and coyote-like dogs
  • They first Indians of Texas to meet Europeans - Cabeza de Vaca, Estebanico, and rest of guys (1528)
  • May have had earlier contact with Spanish slave raiders
  • Although Cabeza de Vaca wrote favorably about them, they became known as atrocious, ferocious cannibals, but there is no indisputable evidence of these European descriptions
  • Cabeza de Vaca wrote that when some of his men resorted to cannibalism due to starvation, the Indians were appalled
  • Lived along the coastal prairie from Galveston to Corpus Christi
    Several archaeological sites:
    Rockport Focus - green glass points and beads, pottery
    Aransas Focus and San Antonio Bay similar to Rockport though no pottery
  • At least five groups of Karankawa, autonomous but shared common language and culture
  • Five groups: Coco, Hans, Kohanis, Korenkake (Karankawa proper), and Kopanos (Copano Bay)
  • All spoke little-known language, Karankawa; only about 100 words of the language have been preserved.
    Physical appearance:
  • One reason Europeans found Karankawa scary was their physical appearance
  • They were big! - over 6 feet tall, some reports of 7 feet tall (average Europeans well under 6 feet); well built
  • Add to that - men usually naked although women wore deerskin skirts and Spanish moss with breechclout ("pabigo") from birth
  • Then add pierced nipples and lower lip with cane inserted, tattos, paint all over bodies (men and women)
  • Married women painted all body; maidens simple stripe on foreheads to chin
  • Covered with shark oil to repel mosquitos
  • Other people who looked like Karankawa lived in Caribbean, so some suggest came from there originally
  • Others think they came from further west (displaced Coahuiltecans)
  • From wherever they came, no one scared the Europeans more
  • Descriptions included:
    "men are so atrocious" - de Solis
    "all...bad tempered and ungrateful" - de Solis
    "most savage looking human beings I ever saw..." - Texas Ranger Noah Smithwick
    "peculiar and striking" - John Jenkins
    "unique in their gluttony" - Father Morfi
    "they...go naked in most burning sun..." and bath in ice in winter - de Vaca
    "There arises from their bodies such a stench that it causes become sick at the stomach." - Father Morfi
    "eternally damned" - Roy Bedichek
    But Cabeza de Vaca also wrote: "of all the people in the world, they are those who most love their children and treat them the best."
    Karankawa Culture:
  • Cabeza de Vaca described them as a merry, generous people
    They rescued him and his me, nursed them, welcomed with dance ("mitote"), shared what they had
  • Most of food came from hunt/gathering as they moved in bands in search of food
  • autonomous bands of 30-40 people although some new evidence of larger villages of 100)
  • fish, turtles, oysters, other shellfish, bison, deer, antelope, bear, wild hog, grasshoppers, berries, nuts, alligators
  • used bow and arrows to fish as well as cane traps
  • used dugout canoes to travel - Europeans feared, could arrive without sound, detection almost impossible; seemed to magically disappear
  • skilled archers with powerful bow that was 5-6 feet long made from cane
  • also used lances and clubs
  • Karankawa had rich social and artistic lives
  • No tribal government but did gather for events and warfare
  • Used smoke signals to communicate over long distances
  • many ceremonial dances and festivals
    Like Caddo, men drank "black tea"; some dances lasted for days
    Had competitive games; wrestling so popular that neighboring tribes referred to them as "Wrestlers."
  • crafts included making tortoise shell and gourd rattles, whistles, flutes
  • odd, distinctive pottery with inside coating of asphaltum, a natural tar that washes onto Gulf beaches
  • also coated inside of basketry
  • made ornaments of seashell, stone, bone and wood
  • also engaged in trade with nearby Coahuiltecans and Tonkawas; Cabeza de Vaca became trader; wanted skins, red paint, canes, sinew, flint
  • Nomadic lifestyle restricted material possessions
  • Always on the move, rarely remained at a single campsite for more than a few weeks
  • Also kept housebuilding and keeping minimalistic
    Houses called "ba-ak"
    10-12 feet in diameter huts covered with hides and mats
    Earth floofs
    Poles twisted together to travel in dugouts - woman's work
  • Probably not matrilineal - married couples became part of husband's band
  • Generally monogamous but could divorce easily if no children; divorce rare if there were children
  • Some Europeans reported wives sold, traded and offered selves to get things
  • Little known about marriage ceremonies
    Men took their wives from another band, not from their own
    For several months, a man sent his new wife to take food to her family
    the woman would then bring back food for the couple to eat
  • Did have "in-law taboo" - husband could not speak to or enter home of in-laws (wives no restrictions)
  • Children nursed up to 12 years since adults had to go without food for days, child would die or be weakly if not suckled
  • Children two names - one used, one secret with magical significance
  • Magic and supernaturalism important to Karankawa life
    Two main deities - Pichini and Mel
    Shaman powerful - got power as result of elaborate ceremony
    When shaman died, cremated, one year of mourning
    Then another ceremony to make power pass onto his relatives by drinking his ashes
  • Also elaborate funerals for young men and boys while old not mourned
  • Also "ordeals" to qualify for chieftainship and/or puberty rights (some confusion about this)
  • Had two chiefs in each band (war and civil) although little authority except in war (no women chief known)
  • War taken seriously
    Although friendly when Europeans arrived, that did not last and became dangerous foes
    Described as inhumane, cruel, and ferocious in war
    Although accused of cannibalism, no evidence
    Many Indians ate bits of victims to capture enemy's courage, but not cannibalism
    No eyewitness accounts at any rate
    In 1684, French expedition led by Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieru de La Salle, established Fort St. Louis on Garcitas Creek near Matagord Bay in heart of Karankawa country; while La Salle gone, attacked settlers killing all but six children who were taken captives; later rescued
    Spanish established missions near former Fort St. Louis, both became known as La Bahia because of locations near Matagorda Bay; established specifically to civilize and Christianize the Karankawas and make them Spanish subjects; but hostilities; 1726 gave up, moved mission to Guadalupe River
    New mission in 1754 (Nuestra Senora del Rosario de los Cujanes on San Antonio River) but short-lived; 1781 closed due to Indian desertions
    Third mission (Nuestra Senora del Refugio) build 1791 but Comanche attacks caused depopulation
    Spanish little success in converting
    Disease depopulated
    1819 confrontation with Jean Lafitte's pirates costly; major defeat for Karankawa
  • There are no known Karankawa alive today
  • Last known killed 1858 by Juan Cortina
  • But to end, retained their traditional culture
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