The Untold Indigenous Roots of Zydeco

Many Louisianans and Texans enjoy and celebrate Zydeco, yet few are aware of its roots. When a large number of enslaved Africans were brought to the Lower Mississippi River Valley during the early years of the French colony of Louisiana, especially beginning in the third decade of the 18th century, a process of transcultural exchange began that has often been characterized as primarily, if not exclusively, emerging from contact between Europeans and Africans.

Similar historical readings have resulted in a long-standing bias in the study of popular music in the Gulf South—as well as other parts of North America—obscuring a vast spectrum of indigenous traditions and how they have influenced the music we hear today.

 Buckwheat Zydeco

A few recent works in music history have made strides toward a greater recognition of indigenous cultures and their enduring impact on Louisiana, and as simple as it may seem, such recognition is a necessary antidote to the inherited trope of the "vanishing Indian": "Although their political presence waned, Native Americans never disappeared from the region." The Difficulties of “Creole” The contentious term of "Creole" has sometimes played a crucial part in disguising Native American identity, in addition to a judicial system that superimposed racial categories that bureaucratically obliterated people's diverse family origins.

The notion of “Creole” appears in a variety of ways across the Americas, depending on the historical context of each place and arising from each unique articulation of interacting communities. In Louisiana, it is frequently used as a linguistic and cultural contrast to “Cajun,” however the significance of this comparison is widely debated.

If one asks those who identify as “Creole,” the phrase is most likely to refer to persons “with roots in Louisiana and who self-identify as Creoles of Color—meaning they identify as a racial mixture of Indigenous, African, French, and Spanish, with the potential of other ethnic heritages.” According to Janet Ravare-Colson, Assistant Director of the Louisiana Creole Heritage Center, Creoles have been misrepresented, particularly in books focusing on New Orleans Creoles, [and] the depictions that most Americans have of Creoles are very stereotypic and do not promote diversity of Creole experiences, particularly in rural southwestern and northwestern Louisiana.

As Creoles migrate away from the New Orleans Creole hegemony, they begin to move away from the black-white Creole identity dichotomy, which is considerably stronger in big urban regions due to political and legal frameworks that sustain state rules around race and ethnicity. The black-white dichotomy has been prominent in discussions of cultural expression and cultural production systems, particularly in discussions of music history.

For example, the genre of "Country" music has frequently been cast as a "White" style of music, in contrast to the Black blues tradition, despite the fact that some of its characteristics (e.g., the use of flatted thirds and sevenths, as well as note bending in instrumental solos) clearly draw on the latter. Maintaining such strong racial classification borders across musical genres misses the lengthy history of transcultural exchanges.

Aside from jazz and Cajun music, there is a relatively undiscovered link between Louisiana First Nations and zydeco, particularly the Ishak (Atakapa), whose traditional grounds reach from Southwest Louisiana into Southeast Texas. Hubert D. Singleton (1926-2009), the most prominent Ishak activist of the last century, of Lake Charles, Louisiana, even titled his magnum opus on the Ishak, one of several volumes he published on the tribe, The Indians Who Gave Us Zydeco: the Atakapa-Ishak of Southwest Louisiana and Southeast Texas.

A check at the places where zydeco began in both Texas and Louisiana reveals a close overlap with traditional Ishak areas; nonetheless, explanations of zydeco, even when ethnicity is acknowledged, frequently make little or no mention of First Nations. This is most likely owing to a widespread failure to identify Native aspects of Louisiana Creole ethnicity and culture.

atakapa ishak

Some people have a tendency to see people of African and Native origin only as black, ignoring their Native roots. This is reflected in how such characters are viewed in American culture in general.

One notable by-product of this cultural confluence emerged in southwest Louisiana, original home of the Atakapa Tribe. the Atakapa-Ishak (uh-TAK-uh-paw – ee-SHAK), are a Southwest Louisiana/Southeast Texas tribe of ancient Indigenous people who lived in the Gulf of Mexico’s northwestern crescent and called themselves Ishak. The name means The People.

Zydeco, the dance of the youths, was a lively social dance with powerful beats and passionate movement. "Shi" (rhymes with "sky") is the Atakapa word for "dancing," and "ishol" is the Atakapa term for "the youths." The first Europeans to contact the Atakapa were Spaniards in 1528, who mistranslated "shi ishol" as "zy ikol." Four hundred years later, descendants of Atakapas and Africans would still sway to the loud music, but with a somewhat different name: Zydeco.

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Singleton claims that "The dance, like the Dance to Otsitat, could be religious in nature (Dance to the One Who Stands Above). That was the most solemn event of the Attakapas, and it comprised prayers conducted by the local chief with his arms and gaze elevated. ... The Dance of the Old People was another social event. The historical Attakapas referred to it as pum wash washi. It was a solemn occasion during which only the elderly danced. The Dance of the Young People was a third social, which we know was held on a monthly basis. Shi ishol was the name given to it by the Attakapas. Unlike the (previous) socials, it was a fun dance that everyone liked and looked forward to each month." 

According to Singleton, when the Spanish arrived in Louisiana in the 1690s, they modified the pronunciation of shi ishol to zy ikol. Then, "when the French first succeeded the Spaniards in Louisiana, they altered zy ikol to zy d'kol, and from that form today's... zydeco derives." Today, 'zydeco' is accepted as the name of both the music and the event at which it is performed, and it is also used to describe what people do when they arrive.

Some sources claim Zydeco has African orgins (which is highly untrue) but one thing for sure is that customs that are devired from Indigenous people tend to get overlooked and Africanized. Will Creoles and Indigneous customs will ever seen as Creole or "Black" be seen as just Indigenous? Comment your thoughts below.

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