Member of an American Indian people living in the lower Mississippi Valley. Descendants of the Mississippian Moundbuilders, they were once part of the Chakchiuma of east-central Mississippi, but separated and migrated into Louisiana in the mid-16th century. Their language, now extinct, was from the Muskogean family of languages which is spoken in southeast North America, and includes Creek and Choctaw. A sedentary farming culture, they produced woodcarvings, palmetto basketry, and cloth made from the fibres of Spanish moss. After European contact in 1686, epidemics, conflicts with whites, massacres, and the activities of slave traders brought them to near extinction by the 1800s. They now live on reservations southwest of New Orleans, and number some 6,800 (2000), but do not have federal recognition.
The Houma grew maize (corn), beans, squash, melons, and sunflowers, and hunted and fished. Their weapons included blowguns and bows and arrows, and they used dugout canoes. Houma villages were built on high ground away from the Mississippi River to avoid flooding. Their mound-shaped houses were made from wattle and daub and arranged in two circular rows around a central plaza. The chief's house and temples were erected on mounds overlooking the plaza. Religious rituals included the tending of eternal fires in the temples and ceremonial ball games. Their totem was the red crayfish. Tattooing was common, but an earlier practice of flattening foreheads died out in the 1700s. Although the Houma language and religion have disappeared, being replaced by Cajun French and Catholicism, their traditional skills and crafts have survived.
After separating from the Chakchiuma, the Houma migrated to the east bank of the Mississippi River. At this time they had an estimated population of 3,000. A French expedition under Henri de Tonti met them in 1686, but they were left alone until 1699 when the French asserted military control over the lower Mississippi. They also introduced an epidemic of dysentery that killed over half the Houma in 1700. An attack by the Tunica in 1706, who had been driven into their territory by the Chickasaw, reduced their population by half again. The survivors moved south and resettled just above New Orleans, where they allied with the Bayougoula and Acolapissa. Although they kept separate chiefs until the 1750s, they were increasingly referred to as the Houma and became allies with the French.
French colonization began in 1716. Plantation owners took over the land and their slaves introduced diseases such as malaria and leprosy to add to the outbreaks of smallpox and dysentery. Some Houma were also taken as slaves. By 1768 their population had been reduced to about 250. White settlement pushed the Houma northwards and in 1776 they sold most of their lands to two French Creoles. Some Houma moved west to Opelousa, but others remained in the area and were joined by numerous displaced peoples. In the 1790s this group began to migrate southwards, eventually settling west of New Orleans.
The Opelousa Houma were documented following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but later disappeared. The Houma of Louisiana are recognized by the state, but federal status was denied in 1994 because proof of descendancy from the historical Houma had not been established. Their federal status remained under appeal in 2001.