Remembering Bulbancha, the place of many tongues: A tour of New Orleans Unlike any other

After getting rained out one Friday evening, I met up with Alaina Comeaux, who leads the Decolonized Walks of Bulbancha, on a Sunday morning in the French Quarter. The walk was well-attended, and people continued to walk up on the unseasonably hot morning as I munched on my croissant. There were children there and seniors, students, and locals. Once we were all assembled (though the walk works by suggested donation, an RSVP is required to keep the walks at a manageable size), Comeaux began to tell us why and how this project began.

Alaina Comeaux and others decided to found the Walk at the time that the City Of New Orleans was planning the tricentennial celebration.

“We knew that the tricentennial would incorporate a lot of native erasure,” says Comeaux, and the walk is intended to counter that erasure.

The name itself honors the precolonial community that was at the site of New Orleans. Bulbancha is a Choctaw word which means “place of many tongues” because Bulbancha was, surprise surprise, a trading port for many different peoples, of distinct heritages and linguistic groups.

Bulbancha was not necessarily a permanent residence for any one group of people, though it hosted peoples from the Chitimacha, Choctaw, Ishak, Tunica, and Natchez nations, to name just a few. (Comeaux herself is Acadian-Creole Métis of Ishak descent). The river was known by this community as Malboncha, which means “river of many tongues” (“Mississippi” is also a native word, but not one that comes from the Bulbancha area)

As part of “decolonizing” preconceptions of New Orleans, the walk is centered on indigenous ways of knowing and speaking. Comeaux, who has degrees in history and anthropology, has described her frustration with not only the dominant narratives around New Orleans’ colonization, which minimizes native resistance and cultural complexity but also the Western fixation with written records, which are absent from many Native traditions. This has meant that academia, already white and male-dominated, has relied on colonizer’s points of view to inform the historical record—thereby relying on indigenous people’s slavers and oppressors to narrate their own story.

Though to a western audience, oral records may be received with skepticism, this may be a question of receiving them out of context, in a society where oral histories are valued less than written ones. Consider, for instance, that ‘The Odyssey’ and other epic poems were part of an oral tradition long before they were written down—though the feat of memorization today seems fantastical.

The walk began at the statue of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville (Bienville) on Decatur—the so-called “founder” of New Orleans, who declared this land French territory.  The statue shows a proud Bienville in imperial French regalia proudly standing over a hunched, sitting Native American man.

“There’s a lot about this which is inaccurate,” says Comeaux. For one thing, the plinth lists the founding of the French colony as 1717. It wasn’t—it was 1718.

More seriously, however, the tableaux on the plinth shows a proud European conqueror standing over a native man, symbolizing French domination over native life. However, when Bienville arrived in Bulbancha, to ingratiate himself with the native peoples Bienville dressed as a native man and had his body tattooed with snakes from the neck down. Rather than humbly accepting Bienville’s European authority, Comeaux mentions accounts of different tribal leaders encouraging Bienville to shower them with gifts and throw lavish parties in their honor, and the honor of their second- in command, and their families too.

“Basically they tried to see how much they could get out of him,” says Comeaux, and Bienville racked up expenses in this pursuit. The people of Bulbancha, who were in contact with people on Alabama “knew what was coming” when facing European interlopers.

After all, Bienville did not discover the high ground that is now New Orleans as if “by magic,” explains Comeaux. He heard about it from indigenous people who lived in what is now Mobile, Alabama.

A large part of the walk examines the tensions between current research methods and respecting indigenous oral traditions. Comeaux describes numerous accounts of different professors refusing to acknowledge historical events that were not documented by European colonizers. In the modern era, this is also compounded by an apparent lack of interest in precolonial Bulbancha society.

However, oral accounts can be incredibly accurate, in a cultural context where they comprise the historical record. Consider the case of the Yurok, Quileute, Tillamook, Coquille and other tribes on the Northwest coast of the continental US, all of whom shared histories of tsunamis and earthquakes. Until geologists looked seriously at these stories, it was assumed that large earthquakes were highly improbable in this region. We now know this is not the case.

Similarly, in Louisiana Comeaux says that for many years historians discounted the Native people’s accounts that their ancestors hunted mammoths. However, Comeaux continues, this was recently confirmed in the fossil record after mammoth/mastodon remains were found in Louisiana.

Each Bulbancha walk is slightly different. On the one before the one I attended, the group passed by the Cabildo in the French quarter only to observe revelers dressed as French colonists—gowns, corsets, fans and all. The revelers, naturally, were all white. The serving staff was black. Comeaux naturally took that opportunity to speak about modern colonialism. It’s always best, as a narrator, to show rather than tell.

When our group arrived at Jackson Square, looking out at the Cabildo, where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, Comeaux spoke about the changes that American governance brought to the indigenous communities. The US rarely respects any treaty signed with Native American Nations, and to this day shows very little respect for tribal land.

The US in the modern era can “recognize” tribes, but this comes with a mix of benefits and negatives. The federal government established laws that required a “blood quantum”- though Native Americans had traditionally not used quantifications of their lineage to become members of a tribe. This has meant that tribes that merged for survival, as well as tribes that frequently intermarried with people of African descent were impeded by this process, including tribes in Louisiana. And by refusing to acknowledge people of mixed heritage, the Native Americans in early New Orleans began to be erased while a sizable community still lived within New Orleans.

However, Comeaux informs us, the legacy of Bulbancha, as well as the mix of African cultures that it melded with, are still with us today. It is in our food—gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya and sausages all come from Native American and African culinary traditions, while crawfish boils combine a native style of cooking, the broil, with cayenne pepper, a spice that was used in the region long before the arrival of Bienville. Corn and potatoes also come from the Americas, and the crawfish, naturally, is native.

That heritage is also in the cultural institutions alive in New Orleans today—the French Market was the site of pre-colonial trade between tribes. People traded salt, different types of wood, buffalo meat and skins, quills, baskets, pottery, plants, and medicinal goods. (the site was slightly off of the current site, more like where Café du Monde stands today).

The question is not whether the impacts of Bulbancha are with New Orleans today. The question is whether New Orleans—its government, residents, and tourists, can begin to give Bulbancha’s legacy the respect that it is due.

Note: Comeaux is currently working on a way to bring the “walk” to folk with limited mobility. To stay tuned, you can visit the facebook page here.

Jesse Lu Baum is a queer writer and cartoonist originally from Brooklyn, New York. Her writing has been featured in publications such as, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Mid-City Messenger and Preservation in Print. Aside from writing, she has also worked as a non-profit home repair person, a theater bartender, and a research assistant. If you liked this piece, you should check out Jesse’s other work here.

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