When Hernando de Soto became the first European explorer to reach what we now call the Natural State in 1541, he was disappointed not to find any great civilizations like the Aztecs or Incas, ripe with gold and glory to be seized. That is not to say, however, that he found an empty land untouched by man. Instead, he found a variety of native cultures who had made the land their own. These ranged from the fierce nomad warriors of the Tula tribe to the many towns of settled and strongly agricultural people of the Mississippian culture, where powerful chiefs ruled over a hierarchical society and received tribute from nearby villages, rich not in gold but in maize. De Soto and his men cut a bloody and violent swath through the American south, weakening and destabilizing most tribes they encountered. In return, however, de Soto and more than half of his 600 men died on the expedition with little gold or glory to show for their two years of exploration. So began the often-unhappy story of native contact with Europeans in Arkansas, a story that continues to unfold to this very day.
After de Soto’s failed expedition, Arkansas remained unseen by Europeans for another 130 years until a small group of Frenchmen, the Marquette-Joliet Expedition, came floating down the Mississippi River in 1673. It was here that they met the Quapaw, the tribe that made the most obvious contribution to the Arkansas of today: its name. The Quapaw were also called the OO-GAQ-Pa, meaning “down-river people,” which was warped by the Algonquian language speakers in the Ohio River Valley (native allies of the French) and then by the French themselves into “Arkansas,” which meant “south wind.” It is uncertain when the Osage arrived in Arkansas; some theorize that they are the descendants of the inhabitants of towns like Pacaha and Casqui that de Soto’s expedition recorded. According to the Osage’s own oral history, they migrated to Arkansas from the Ohio River Valley at a time that would likely place them in between the arrivals of de Soto and the Marquette-Joliet Expedition.
The Osage, however, were only one of the three major tribes in Arkansas. They inhabited most of eastern Arkansas, bordered by the mountains to the west and somewhat beyond the Arkansas River to the south. The northwest was Osage territory, a powerful and remarkably tall people who had built a trade empire to the north thanks to their strategic position on the Mississippi that allowed them to function as middlemen between European empires, especially the French, and the many tribes of the Great Plains. They lived primarily in Missouri, but their hunting grounds extended into modern-day Kansas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. The southwest of Arkansas was home to the Caddo, a sedentary people who stretched into modern-day Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. They had already lived in Arkansas for several centuries before de Soto’s expedition encountered them, though de Soto himself had died not long before. They were skilled agriculturalists, harvested salt from Arkansas’s bayous, made excellent bows from local bois d’arc wood, and built large dirt mounds to mark the ceremonial centers of their communities. The Cherokee also began to enter Arkansas history in the 1780s as they sought refuge from US expansion, forming a number of settlements around the St. Francis River and Crowley’s Ridge. After the New Madrid Earthquakes in 1811-12 badly damaged these settlements, many Cherokee moved to the Arkansas River, near modern-day Pulaski County. This movement, however, resulted in conflict with the Osage, and Fort Smith was built as a show of force to pacify the two tribes.
In 1818 the Quapaw signed a treaty in which they ceded 30 million acres of land in exchange for a one million-acre reservation between the Arkansas and Ouachita rivers. This situation lasted only six years before land-hungry settlers and territorial officials set their eyes on Quapaw reservation lands along the Arkansas River. The United States forced them to sign another treaty in 1824, ceding their reservation in return for land among the Caddo in Louisiana. The Caddo, for their part, had abandoned their centuries-old homes in the face of disease and Osage raids. In 1835, they too were forced to sign a treaty in which they relinquished all claims to territory in Arkansas. The Osage lost their trade power when Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase, as the US government had far more interest in taking their land than trading for goods. The US forced them to sell some of their lands in Arkansas near Cherokee settlements in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent further conf. The devastation of buffalo herds and other treaties further north left the Osage greatly weakened and impoverished. More than 30,000 Natives, many of them Cherokee, passed through Arkansas due to the Indian Removal Act, including along the infamous Trail of Tears. By the mid-1800s, all four tribes, Quapaw, Caddo, Osage, and Cherokee had ended up in Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
Of course, one article can present only the most meager summary of Native American history in Arkansas, if even that. Especially since the influence of Native peoples is all around the state, and historical study of them is ever-increasing. Various place names in Arkansas originated from the Natives other than just Arkansas itself: Ouachita, the Caddo River, Osage Creek, etc. The Toltec Mounds, as is fairly well known by this point, are a misnomer: the Toltecs were a civilization in central Mexico that had absolutely nothing to do with mound-building in Arkansas. There have been attempts to rename the site, but none so far have succeeded. Alongside Toltec Mounds are several lesser-known but remarkable scholarly endeavors related to Native American history in the state, like the Sloan Site, an approximately 12,000-year-old cemetery from the Dalton culture. It is quite possibly the single oldest known burial site in the Americas. An excavation of the site has provided a glimpse into a culture that dates back to the end of the last ice age.
In 2006, the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, in conjunction with the National Park Service, the Trail of Tears Association, and State Historic Preservation Offices from other states, began a survey of the likely routes of forced removal through Arkansas. This project was significant from both cultural and governmental perspectives, marking out historical sights and burial grounds so they can be respected and properly considered for public projects. The project individually mapped out the paths of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, you can find the Sequoyah National Research Center. Established in 1983 as the American Native Press Archives, the SNRC is now the largest collection of Native American expression (art and writing) in the world, with a particular focus on preserving Native newspapers, periodicals, and other publications. Their archive is home to papers from over 2800 titles, mainly from post-WWII to the present. As a result, their collection is ever-growing, making them an invaluable resource for Native American studies. Each summer, they have an internship program that hosts three tribally-affiliated students and teaches them basic archival and research techniques. The University of Arkansas also offers a minor in Indigenous Studies featuring more than thirty courses in the field.
Yet the presence of Native Americans is not confined to Arkansas’ past or its study. Over recent decades, tribes that once called Arkansas home are returning to become political, economic, and cultural forces in the state. The Caddo, for example, frequently visit their ancestral lands in Southwest Arkansas, sometimes as tourists, sometimes as representatives invited to speak on their history or showcase their culture. The Quapaw especially have set their eyes on reclaiming a place in the state: in 2014, representatives of the tribe, still based out of Oklahoma, attended the Clinton Library 10th Birthday event, calling it one part of their “cultural/historical homecoming.” In addition, they loaned three pieces of excellent and culturally significant pottery to the Clinton Library, saying, “We hope people will see them and remember that we are a part of the state’s history as well as its present.”
That same year, they purchased 160 acres of land near the Little Rock Port Authority’s industrial park following news that the area was suspected of holding several hundred Native American graves. They applied to make the land a federal trust, meaning that the Federal government would hold it for the benefit of the Quapaw tribe, and it would not be subject to state laws. In 2015, Pulaski county officials requested that the Bureau of Indian Affairs deny the applications over concerns that the Quapaw would build a casino on the land. The result was a protracted legal conflict that saw the Quapaw agree to sell back the land in 2019. Despite that battle, the Quapaw opened the Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff the same year. In the years since, the casino has seen great success, paying more than $2 million in gambling taxes in 2021. Doubtless, the Quapaw have no plans to stop their homecoming there. Native Americans have been a part of the land we call Arkansas for at least 12,000 years, and it seems that the role they play will only grow moving forward.
Image Courtesy of Holly Danielle Photography