CATAHOULA LAKE, if you believe the Indian legend, is actually very young. One day several centuries ago, the story goes, the ground cracked open without warning, swallowing an entire encampment in a single terrifying gulp. The Basin belched. And a deep new pocket of water bubbled up from the earth.They called it Cata-Oulou — sacred lake. Water so violently born, so bottomless, so burbling with blue crabs and catfish — it could all mean only one thing. The lake was a gift from the gods.
What Catahoula was like before the Lake we can scarcely imagine. A “graceful bead of granite, tubular in the main, but expanding slightly at the center” discovered in a grave at the Lake LaRose mounds — less than five miles away as the crow flies — is at least two thousand years old, and the area has likely been populated, albeit sparsely, for more than five thousand years.
But with the Mississippi switching deltas every few centuries, weaving wetland in its wake as it meandered of its own accord, even the highest ground, being barely above sea level, was at one point either underwater or buried beneath layers of silt, so we know very little about the culture of these early Catahoulans — almost nothing, in fact.
More recently, in the last thousand years or so, it was the Chitimacha who inhabited the maze of bayous and islands in the area, building mud-and-palmetto huts along the shores of Catahoula Lake, hunting white-tail deer and alligator, growing melon, corn and squash.
Remnants of the Chitimacha tribe’s once-vast territory are recognized today as a modest reservation in Charenton — thirty miles away — but they left no permanent trace of their days on Catahoula Lake. With land so liquid, how could they? It’s mud and goo all the way down. Salt domes and sinkholes collapse. Floods periodically inundate. And if you believe the old Indian legend, the very ground can crack wide open. One day there’s no lake. The next day there’s a deep one.