Iberville, commandant of the newly constructed fort, declared friendly intentions of the French by smoking the ceremonial calumet with the visiting dignitaries.
For Indians, this ceremonial gesture was as serious as business ever gets: Smoking the pipe represents a sacred trust between the two groups of people, that members of each group are bound to help members of the other under any circumstance. Even though six outposts were established within the first few years, few “settlers” were willing or able to do even the minimal amount of work required to produce their own food.
As the French expanded their base of control, some Indian Nations simply packed up and moved, not wanting even to be near the French and their strange religion and habits.
But dislocated Indians had to live somewhere, and they invariably wound up in the proximity of other Indian communities, threatening the resources of the people who were already there.
They cut pine trees to build Fort Maurepas, the first of several forts in the region.
Without even so much as a “Bon jour” to the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Natchez and other nations they had invaded, they planted their flag and declared that tens of millions of acres of land in the Louisiana Territory now belonged to France.
After all, they were sworn to friendship through the calumet.
The exchange of gifts was not entirely one directional.
When their wishes were denied, soldiers often turned to rape and other forms of brutality against Indian women.
For more than 20 years, the French interlopers regularly faced starvation.
Most lacked the knowledge or energy required even to gather nuts and berries or to scoop up the bountiful shellfish that proliferated in the waters around the Gulf of Mexico.
Soldiers at the forts considered a good day’s work was getting drunk by noon and then talking an influential Indian into supplying women to satisfy their sexual appetites.
The French brought some of their own presents, and bestowed upon Indian communities the traditional European hospitality, including dysentery, smallpox, cholera, Christianity, horses and pigs, rats and cockroaches.