The Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma, also known as the Downstream People, whose tradition has it that their ancestors moved south down the Mississippi River to this state, have begun heading downstream again, down the Arkansas River from Oklahoma.
The tribe, which co-sponsored a barbecue at the Governor’s Mansion last Friday as part of Clinton Presidential Center anniversary festivities, called its appearance a “homecoming” to the tribe’s ancestral land. Tribal Chairman John Berrey said the event was the latest move in the tribe’s evolving relationship with the state.
The Quapaw, who once inhabited a large part of Arkansas, left Little Rock 180 years ago after signing, under duress, a treaty with the U.S. government. An earlier treaty had pushed the Quapaw to land east of Rock Street and south of the Arkansas River. Despite efforts in 1830 by Chief Saracen, who is buried in Pine Bluff, the Quapaw were never able to reclaim land as their own in Arkansas and eventually ended up in Oklahoma, where they now have trust land near the Kansas and Missouri state lines.
But the Quapaw again own land in Arkansas, 160 acres south of the Little Rock airport, on the old Thibault Plantation. They bought the land in two parcels of 80 acres in April 2013 for $597,000.
The Quapaw operate two casinos on their land in Oklahoma, so it’s been naturally assumed that the tribe will seek to build one here. Berrey said the tribe is weighing its options on whether, and how, to develop the land. It may want to protect it as well as develop it, such is its significance to the tribe and Native American history.
The land has been occupied since prehistoric time by native people, with evidence dating back 3,000 years, according to Dr. John House, an archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey. House has worked intermittently on the Thibault site and nearby land since 2007, digs done in cooperation with former Thibault owners Ken McRae and Joe Selz and the owners of the adjacent Welspun pipe plant.
House was able to relocate a 19th century African-American cemetery on the property, which also has the ruins of the Thibault plantation house.
When the Smithsonian’s Edward Palmer came to Arkansas in 1883 to study the Indian mounds of Arkansas, the J.K. Thibault family showed him pottery they had dug from small mounds on the plantation. They loaned the vessels — grave goods — to the Smithsonian; they later were donated to the Arkansas Museum of Science and History, now the Museum of Discovery, which deaccessioned them to the Archeological Survey. Some of the vessels were the subject of an essay by W.H. Holmes in the Journal of American Ethnology in 1886, making them some of the first Arkansas artifacts to be written about in a scientific publication.
Berrey said the site has “huge potential in a cultural way” as well as a place for the tribe to open a casino. He claimed that his ancestor, Chief Heckaton, knew the ancestors of Congressman-elect French Hill, who is descended from Don Joseph Bernard Valliere d’Hauterive Valliere, both connected to Arkansas Post. “We want to remind [people] of our history and establish ourselves in the community,” the chairman said.
To buy the land, however, the Quapaw engaged in a little deception, pretending to be owners of a dog-food company in Texas. They did so, Berrey said, to keep the land price down. The sellers did not know until they saw the check from the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma that they’d sold Indian land to Indians.
Berrey said he was unsure what legalities were required should the tribe want to build a casino on their Arkansas land. If they were to offer Class III gaming (such as slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette), the tribe would have to enter into a compact with Arkansas and that compact would have to be approved by the Department of the Interior. The state would share in revenues generated by the games.
In Oklahoma, revenue from Quapaw gaming, which started six years ago, has been a boon to the tribe, Berrey said. Its firefighting team was the first responder after the Joplin tornado and has been recognized for its work. The tribe has its own health insurance, and all are covered under a policy superior to the Bureau of Indian Affairs health system. There are 500 Quapaw students getting financial aid in college, Berrey said. The tribe numbers 5,000 and occupies land at the northeast corner of Oklahoma, near the Missouri and Kansas state lines.
At the picnic last Friday, the Quapaw presented a bottle in the form of a human head and a red and buff slip bowl, both from Carden Bottoms in Yell County, and a bird effigy bowl from Mississippi County to the Governor’s Mansion as a loan from the tribe and the UA Archeological Survey Museum in Fayetteville. The pottery dates to between the 15th and 17th centuries.