|Extinct as a tribe|
|Regions with significant populations|
|United States (Louisiana)|
|Native tribal religion|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Taensa (also Tahensa, Tinsas, Tensas, Tenisaw, Taënsa, grands Taensas (in French), Taenso, Takensa, Tenza, Tinza) were a people of northeastern Louisiana. They lived on Lake Saint Joseph west of the Mississippi River, between the Yazoo River and Saint Catherine Creek. Their settlements were in present-day Tensas Parish, Louisiana, as reported by Nicolas de la Salle in 1682. They numbered perhaps 1,200 people in several villages.
The Taensa are not to be confused with the Avoyel, also known in French as petits Taensas (English: Little Taensa) who were closer to the Tunica people and lived in present-day Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana (mentioned by Iberville in 1699).
The Taensa were visited by French Catholic missionaries around the year 1700, who settled among the Taensa, Tunica people, and Natchez. In 1699, the Taensa had seven villages. They lived along the Mississippi River south of the Tunica, near the Yazoo River.
In 1706, they were forced southward by the Yazoo and Chickasaw slave raids, after which they were among the Bayogoula. Soon after, the Taensa attacked and burned down the Bayogoula village. Later they fought with the Houma.
They settled on the Tensaw River (an eastern branch of the Mobile River named after them) north of Mobile Bay in 1715. In 1764, they were settled with the Apalachee and Pakana west of the Mississippi. Ultimately they merged with the Chitimacha, Atakapa, and Alabama on the Red River and Bayou Boeuf.
The Taensa were an agricultural and canoeing people who lived in large houses described as having walls of earth. It is more probable that these were made of wattle and daub structures roofed with mats of woven cane splits. Their chiefs had absolute power and were treated with great respect. This varied greatly from the custom among the northern tribes. Reportedly during a ceremonial visit to La Salle, the chief was accompanied by attendants who, with their hands, swept the road in front of him as he advanced.
The missionaries noted the complex religion of the Taensa. The tribe had retained chiefdom characteristics after they had disappeared elsewhere.
Their society had similarity to the Natchez people in its practice of sacrificial rites and hierarchical social classes. Their chief deities seem to have been the Sun and the Serpent. Their dome-shaped temple was surmounted by the figures of three eagles facing the rising sun, the outer walls and the roof being of cane mats painted entirely red. The whole was surrounded with a palisade of stakes, on each of which was set a human skull, the remains of a former sacrifice. Inside was an altar, with a rope of human scalp locks, and a perpetual fire guarded day and night by two old priests. When a chief died, his wives and personal attendants were killed so that their spirits might accompany him to the other world. At one chief's funeral, thirteen victims were sacrificed. When a Catholic priest stopped one of these ceremonies, the temple was struck by lightning. The Taensa took this as evidence that their traditional beliefs were valid. The lightning encouraged women to volunteer to be sacrificed.
In 1700, the French missionary Montigny recorded that many Taensa died of illness, probably an epidemic of smallpox. The Taensa, along with other Indians of the lower Mississippi River, were subjected to slave raids by the Chickasaw, for sale in the British slave trade via South Carolina. The Natchez and Yazoo often allied with the Chickasaw in attacking smaller tribes such as the Taensa and Tunica. During the Natchez War of 1729, the Taensa and Tunica were forced to migrate south into present-day Louisiana.
Their initial relations with the French were friendly, but the rivalry of European powers strained Indians throughout the region. The Taensa later moved to southwest Louisiana due to fighting with the Chickasaw and Yazoo tribe. Early in the nineteenth century, they petitioned the Spanish to allow them to enter Texas, but did not migrate. This was the last appearance of the tribe in historical records.
Language and hoax
French missionaries, François Jolliet de Montigny and Jean-François Buisson de St. Cosme, stated that the Taensa spoke Natchez. Both missionaries were learning the Natchez language. The widespread use of Mobilian jargon as a lingua franca throughout the area has led to the unsupported assumption (e.g. by Gatschet) that the Taensa (and other many other peoples of the lower Mississippi and Gulf Coast) spoke a Muskogean language.
In 1881 Jean Parisot, a French seminary student in Plombières, Frances, published a grammatical sketch, vocabulary and texts (including songs) of what he claimed to be the Taensa language. This produced an excitement and extensive debate among linguists. However, in 1908 and 1910 John R. Swanton exposed the language as a hoax. The hoax inspired debate in philology circles.
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- Taensa Indians from the Handbook of Texas Online