By Taelor Smith
Of all the activities to experience at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, a trip to the Akokisa Indian Village may be the most memorable. From the moment hikers head down the forested Homestead Trail and cross the threshold to the Redbud Hill Homestead, they’re treated to a hidden world preserved in time.
The Akokisa were a sub-group of Atakapa-speaking natives who inhabited coastal prairies of southeast Texas. They lived undisturbed for many centuries until European exploration brought change to the region. Although Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was the first to notate them in the 1530s, a French officer named Francois Simar de Bellisle gave the most detailed account of the tribe. Writings from these explorers depict the Akokisa as a hardy people well-known for tanning bear skins and traveling in giant cypress wood canoes. Jones Park staff member Jason Naivar says when faced with opposition, they could be fearless warriors.
“De Bellisle was the first to document that when the Akokisa were victorious in battle, they would eat the flesh of the fallen warriors or chief,” Naivar says. “They did not do this for sustenance, but instead for a spiritual reason. Some accounts claim it was to absorb their power, while others state it was to keep their enemies from the afterlife. It is still being debated to this day.”
As nomads, the Akokisa traveled from Spring and Cypress creeks to spend summers near Galveston Island. With the change in location and technological advancements, food sources varied. In their earlier days, between 100 and 800 A.D., the Akokisa hunted deer and bison, but as time went on, their diet grew to include aquatic shellfish. Wild edibles were a mainstay in their diet, as they foraged nuts like acorn, black walnut, and greenbrier root that were carbohydrate-dense.
Colonizers forced the Akokisa out of the region within a short time, though evidence has shown tribal members were able to merge with other Native American groups in east Texas.
Jones Park staff, led by former Precinct 4 employee Carmine Stahl, first broke ground on the Akokisa Indian Village in 1987. Stahl researched the tribe extensively to recreate the village. Darlene Conley, the director at Jones Park, says Stahl’s in-depth findings helped create new programs that connected history and nature.
“He knew so much about Texas history, wildlife, and wild edibles, and that’s how we based a lot of our programs here at Jones Park, by tying in Texas history with nature and how the two go hand-in-hand,” Conley says.
When exploring the Akokisa Indian Village, visitors will find a council lodge, lean-to, brush arbor, chief’s hut, chickee, and sweat lodge. What’s remarkable is that park staff used historically accurate methods and materials to build the structures.
Experts believe the Akokisa tribes lashed together tree saplings by burying the ends and tying them to bend at the top. More young trees were laid horizontally around the structure to serve as a frame, and then strategically covered by palmetto fronds and bound with sinew. These dome-like dwellings, known as “wikiup,” were sturdy, yet mobile. More importantly, the structure provided protection from rain and shade from the heat. To maintain the structures, Jones Park staff use materials found in the park and a nearby oil field to rethatch the village structures each year.
Precinct 4 honors the Akokisa and many other local tribes during Native American Heritage Day. First held at Jones Park in 2018, the event continues to grow significantly and is now hosted on the second Saturday of September annually.
The celebration boasts activities that accurately reflect Native American culture, including dances by the Chikawa Aztec Dancers, animal tracking, archery, and basketry. Naivar says attendees often leave with much more knowledge and interest in Native Americans.
“A lot of Texas history taught in schools only hints at Native American heritage, and is mostly about colonial events and people,” he says. “When visitors find an event where they’re able to learn about a different culture, they want to get involved.”
There’s always so much to learn and appreciate while journeying the trails of Jones Park. Visitors are welcome to travel back in time to the days when Native Americans ruled the land. The village is open to the public each Wednesday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Live demonstrations of early settler’s skills are held on the second Saturday of the month at the same time.
Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center is located at 20634 Kenswick Dr. in Humble. This premier 312-acre Harris County Precinct 4 nature preserve is free and open daily from 8 a.m. to dusk. To learn more about Jones Park, visit www.hcp4.net/jones.