The Tunica were a powerful native presence in the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the early historic period. They were one of the most influential and organized tribes in an area that had suffered a catastrophic decline in population from prehistoric levels. The Tunica probably entered the valley from the west.
Tunica ancestors were first encountered in 1541 in northwestern Mississippi and eastern Arkansas by the de Soto entrada. These people, identified as the Quizquiz and perhaps also the Tanico, lived in large villages near the confluence of the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. They participated in the Mississippian cultural tradition characterized by dependence on corn agriculture, mound building, complex sociopolitical development, and specific artifactual traits such as shell-tempered pottery.
The Tunica were distinguished from their neighbors, however, in speaking Tunican, a language isolate—that is, a language that is not known to have been related to any other language group. This unique linguistic heritage provides further evidence that the Tunica were recent immigrants to the Lower Mississippi Valley during the late prehistoric period.
Disease and population decline apparently led to a breakdown of social and political structures during the seventeenth century. Refugees from Quizquiz-Tanico migrated to the Lower Yazoo River near its junction with the Mississippi River, where the French, who first identified them as the Tunica (Tonicas), found them living with other remnant groups in 1699. They resided at the Haynes Bluff mound site near Vicksburg and perhaps even added to the mounds as late as the eighteenth century. The Tunica, then, like the neighboring Natchez, may have been among the last of the Native American peoples who built mounds.
The Tunica and the French established friendly relations, and during the next several decades the Tunica became important trading partners of the French and reliable allies in their conflicts with the Natchez. In 1706 the Tunica moved yet again, this time to a point on the east bank of the Mississippi River opposite the mouth of the Red River in Louisiana. They lived at several locations near this important riverine junction for the remainder of the eighteenth century. Their most important settlement was the Trudeau site, which was occupied between 1731 and 1764. Trudeau was the provenience of the “Tunica Treasure,” an extraordinarily rich collection of grave goods that were found with burials at the site. The wealth and diversity of European artifacts demonstrate the Tunica’s success in dealing with the French.
During this period the Tunica had a highly developed entrepreneurial system. They procured and controlled the distribution of resources such as salt and horses that were vital to their neighbors, Indian and European alike. The Tunica also continued to provide important services to the French as guides and military allies.
The Tunica were so closely associated with the French that when the English gained control of the Mississippi Valley after the French and Indian War, the Tunica resorted to an uncharacteristic confrontation and attacked the first English convoy that attempted to ascend the river in 1764. The tribe briefly fled the Mississippi in fear of retribution but then returned and made peace with the English. However, the Native Americans chose to establish themselves as close as possible to the friendly French settlements. This was a time of diminishing economic and political influence for the tribe and of increasing acculturation to European lifeways.
By 1800 the Tunica had moved west of the Mississippi River to Marksville, Louisiana, where some remain today. They intermarried with peoples of other tribes, such as the Biloxi, Ofo, Avoyel, and Choctaw. They suffered a period of economic depression and social repression during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but have since undergone a renaissance after federal recognition as the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe in 1981.
The odyssey of the Tunica is documented in historical records and supported by archaeological evidence. The salient feature reflected in these movements is the preference, at least during the early and middle historic periods, for settlement at major junctions in the riverine system of communication. The selection of such localities enabled the Tunica to continue their entrepreneurial activities along established trade networks. When confronted with an adversarial situation involving either Native American or European antagonists, the typical Tunica response was to move to a new location that minimized the problem but still allowed tribe members to succeed in their role as middlemen between the natives and Europeans in both economic and military ventures.
The Tunica are one of the few Lower Mississippi Valley tribes to survive from prehistory to the present. Their ethnic continuity has resulted primarily from their adaptability to the new world of European influence, an entrepreneurial proclivity that enabled them to play an important role in that new order, and their ability to make successful choices in times of stress.
- Jeffrey P. Brain, On the Tunica Trail (1977)
- Jeffrey P. Brain, Tunica Archaeology (1988)
- Jeffrey P. Brain, The Tunica-Biloxi (1990)
- Jeffrey P. Brain, Tunica Treasure (1979)