|Native to||United States|
|Extinct||early 20th century|
Pre-contact distribution of the Atakapa language
Atakapa is an extinct language isolate native to southwestern Louisiana and nearby coastal eastern Texas. It was spoken by the Atakapa people (also known as "Ishak"). The language became extinct in the early 20th century.
Atakapa oral history says that they originated from the sea. An ancestral prophet laid out the rules of conduct.
The first European contact with the Atakapa may have been in 1528 by survivors of the Spanish Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. They made two barges, which were blown ashore on the Gulf Coast. One group of survivors met the Karankawa, while the other probably landed on Galveston Island. The latter recorded meeting a group who called themselves the Han, who may have been the Akokisa.
In 1703, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, the French governor of La Louisiane, sent three men to explore the Gulf Coast west of the Mississippi River. The seventh nation they encountered were the Atakapa, who captured, killed and cannibalized one member of their party. In 1714 this tribe was one of 14 who came to Jean-Michel de Lepinay, who was acting French Governor of Louisiana between 1717 and 1718, while he was fortifying Dauphin Island, Alabama.
The Choctaw told the French settlers about the "People of the West," who represented numerous subdivisions or tribes. The French referred to them as le sauvage. The Choctaw used the name Atakapa, meaning "people eater" (hattak 'person', apa 'to eat'), for these competitors. It referred to their practice of ritual cannibalism related to warfare. The Gulf coast peoples practiced this on their enemies.
A French explorer, Francois Simars de Bellisle, lived among the Atakapa from 1719 to 1721. He described Atakapa cannibalistic feasts which he observed firsthand. The practice of cannibalism likely had a religious, ritualistic basis. French Jesuit missionaries urged the Atakapa to end this practice.
Along the west coast, not far from the sea, inhabit the nation called Atacapas [sic], that is, Man-Eaters, being so called by the other nations on account of their detestable custom of eating their enemies, or such as they believe to be their enemies. In the vast country there are no other cannibals to be met with besides the Atacapas; and since the French have gone among them, they have raised in them so great a horror of that abominable practice of devouring creatures of their own species, that they have promised to leave it off: and, accordingly, for a long time past we have heard of no such barbarity among them.—Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz
The forest we were then in was thick enough so that none of my men could be seen. I formed them into three detachments, and arranged them in such a way as to surround these savages, and to leave them no way of retreat except by the pond. I then made them all move forward, and I sent ahead a subordinate chief to ascertain what nation these savages belonged to, and what would be their intentions toward us. We were soon assured that they were Atakapas, who, as soon as they saw us, far from seeking to defend themselves, made us signs of peace and friendship. There were one hundred and eighty  of them of both sexes, busy, as we suspected, smoke-drying meat. As soon as my three detachments had emerged from the forest, I saw one of these savages coming straight toward me: at first sight, I recognized that he did not belong to the Atakapas nation; he addressed me politely and in an easy manner, unusual among these savages. He offered food and drink for my warriors which I accepted, while expressing to him my gratitude. Meat was served to my entire detachment; and during the time of about six hours that I remained with this man, I learned that he was a European; that he had been a Jesuit; and that having gone into Mexico, these people had chosen him as their chief. He spoke French rather well. He told me that his name was Joseph; but I did not learn from what part of Europe he came.
He informed me that the name Atakapas, which means eaters of men, had been given to this nation by the Spaniards because every time they caught one of them, they would roast him alive, but that they did not eat them; that they acted in this way toward this nation to avenge their ancestors for the torture that they made them endure when they had come to take possession of Mexico; that if some Englishmen or Frenchmen happened to be lost in this bay region, the Atakapas welcomed them with kindness, would give them hospitality; and if they did not wish to remain with them they had them taken to the Akancas, from where they could easily go to New Orleans.
He told me: "You see here about one-half of the Atakapas Nation; the other half is farther on. We are in the habit of dividing ourselves into two or three groups in order to follow the buffalo, which in the spring go back into the west, and in autumn come down into these parts; there are herds of these buffalo, which go sometimes as far as the Missouri; we kill them with arrows; our young hunters are very skilful at this hunting. You understand, moreover, that these animals are in very great numbers, and as tame as if they were raised on a farm; consequently, we are very careful never to frighten them. When they stay on a prairie or in a forest, we camp near them in order to accustom them to seeing us, and we follow all their wanderings so that they cannot get away from us. We use their meat for food and their skins for clothing. I have been living with these people for about eleven years; I am happy and satisfied here, and have not the least desire to return to Europe. I have six children whom I love a great deal, and with whom I want to end my days. When my warriors were rested and refreshed, I took leave of Joseph and of the Atakapas, while assuring them of my desire to be able to make some returns for their friendly welcome, and I resumed my Journey.—Louis LeClerc Milfort
In 1760, the French Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire, coming to the Attakapas Territory, bought all the land between Vermilion River and Bayou Teche from the Eastern Atakapa Chief Kinemo. It was shortly after that a rival Indian tribe, the Appalousa (Opelousas), coming from the area between the Atchalafaya and Sabine Rivers, exterminated the Eastern Atakapa. They had occupied the area between Atchalafaya River and Bayou Nezpique (Attakapas Territory).
William Byrd Powell (1799–1867), a medical doctor and physiologist, regarded the Atakapan as cannibals. He noted that they traditionally flattened their skulls frontally and not occipitally, a practice opposite to that of neighboring tribes, such as the Natchez Nation.
The Atakapa traded with the Chitimacha tribe in historical times. In the early 18th century, some Atakapa married into the Houma tribe of Louisiana. Members of the Tunica-Biloxi tribe joined the Atakapa tribe in the late 18th century.
There were two varieties of Atakapa (i.e. dialects):
The Eastern Atakapa dialect is known from a French-Atakapa glossary with 287 entries written in 1802 by Martin Duralde. These speakers lived around Poste des Attackapas (Saint Martinville) which is now Franklin, Louisiana.
The Western Atakapa dialect is the best known with words, sentences, and texts recorded from 1885, 1907, and 1908 by Albert Gatschet. The main language consultant was recorded in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The last speakers were Louison Huntington, Delilah Moss, Teet Verdine, and Armojean Reon. An older vocabulary is in a list of 45 words recorded in 1721 by Jean Béranger. These speakers were captured around Galveston Bay.
While considered an isolate, there have been attempts to connect Atakapa with other languages of the Southeast. In 1919 John R. Swanton proposed a Tunican language family that would include Atakapa, Tunica, and Chitimacha; Morris Swadesh would later provide work focusing on connections between Atakapa and Chitimacha. Mary Haas later expanded the proposal by adding Natchez and the Muskogean languages, a hypothesis known as Gulf. These proposed families have not been proven.
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- Gatschet, Albert S., and Swanton, John R. (1932) A Dictionary of the Atakapa Language. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Athnology, bulletin 108. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.
- Goddard, Ives. (2005). The indigenous languages of the Southeast. Anthropological Linguistics, 47 (1), 1-60. JSTOR
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- A Dictionary of the Atakapa Language by Albert S. Gatschet and John R. Swanton, hosted by the Portal to Texas History
- John Reed Swanton (1919). A structural and lexical comparison of the Tunica, Chitimacha, and Atakapa languages. Govt. Printing Office. Retrieved 25 August 2012.
- Atakapa-Ishak Nation