The Atakapa (pronounced "uh-TAK-uh-paw", also spelled Attakapa, Attakapas, Attacapa, formally known as the Ishaks, pronounced "ee-SHAKS", translated as The People ) were a Southeastern culture of Native American tribes and with a common language that lived along the Gulf of Mexico. Very little is known about them.
Their territory ranged from Atchafalaya River in Louisiana to Trinity River and Galveston Bay in Texas. They hunted small game, and ate fish, roots, berries, and shellfish and also planted crops. Though the tribe's population at various times was speculated in tens of thousands, historians agree those numbers had dwindled to mere hundreds when Louisiana was undergoing colonization in the 1700s and different bands migrated westward.
The Choctaw Indians told the French settlers about the "people of the West" , who represented numerous subdivisions or tribes and called them Atakapa. The French referred to them as "le savage". The name Atakapa is a Choctaw name meaning 'people eater' (hattak 'person', apa 'to eat'), which is a reference to the practice of cannibalism exercised by Gulf coast peoples on their enemies. French historian Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, who spent 16 years in Louisiana, from 1718 to 1734, wrote:
In 1528, one Western Atakapa tribe or subdivision saved the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca and his mates from ship-wreck and starvation. De Vaca remained with them until 1535. Cabeza de Vaca described Ishaks as "well built".
In 1703, Bienville sent three Frenchmen up the Sabine River who met one Western Atakapa tribe or subdivision and in 1714 this tribe is one of 14 that come to De l'Epinay, who was acting French Governor of Louisiana between 1717 and 1718 , while he is fortifying Dauphin Island, Alabama.
In 1760, the French Gabriel Fuselier de la Claire, coming to the Attakapas Territory, France, 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 Atchalafaya River and Sabine River exterminated the Eastern Atakapa who occupied the area between Atchalafaya River and Bayou Nezpique (Attakapas Territory).
It is believed that most Western Atakapa tribes or subdivisions were decimated in the 1850s mainly from disease and poverty. However, many descendants still exist and fight for a recognition of their identity. Numerous descendants today share a mix lineage of African-American and Atakapas-Ishak Indian, making it difficult to get federal recognition.
Many names of present day towns can be traced back to the Ishaks. The town of Mermentau is a corrupted form of the local chief Nementou. The word Plaquemine of Bayou Plaquemine Brûlée means "persimmon" in the Indian language. Bayou Nezpiqué was named for an Indian with a tattooed nose. Bayou Queue de Tortue was believed to have been named for Chief Celestine La Tortue of the Atakapas nation. The name "Calcasieu" comes from the Atakapa language katkosh, for "Eagle", and yok, "to cry".
On October 28, 2006, the Atakapa-Ishak nation met for the first time in over 100 years as "One nation". There were 450 people who represented Louisiana and Texas. The mistress of ceremony and newly appointed Director of Publications and Communications, Rachel Mouton started out by introducing Billy LaChapelle who opened the afternoon with an Atakapa prayer in English and in the Atakapa language.
The author is one of the descendants of "Alexandre of Attakapas", Nezat Alexandre, born 1781 in Attakapas Post and died 1824 (Source Hebert).