Friday, April 11, 2014

The Karankawa Indians

The Karankawa Indians lived along the Texas Gulf Coast. The first written account about them was by the explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca in the 16th century who was taken captive by them. The Karankawa helped Jean Laffite recover after the hurricane in 1818. By 1860, just before the American Civil War, they no longer existed at all. Some say they had been completely exterminated. That is not necessarily the case. But any surviving members of their tribe must have been completely assimilated. Their way of life and their language were gone forever.

Karankawa encampment
image from
According to Cabeza de Vaca, the Karankawa were very tall, well over six feet. The men went naked and were covered with tattoos, and their nipples and lower lips were pierced. They covered their bodies with alligator grease to keep themselves from being bitten by mosquitoes.

Without any modern technology or medical care, the Karankawa were an amazingly hardy people. Cabeza de Vaca, who served as their slave for a time, observed that they could go out in the heat of the sun completely unaffected. In the winter, they bathed in frozen water, breaking the ice with their bodies. The elements did not seem to trouble them at all.

The word Karankawa means "dog-lover", and the Karankawa always had dogs with them. The dogs were a fox and coyote hybrid, ad they shared in the food of the Karankawa.

The Karankawa used dugout canoes to fish and hunt for oysters, clams, mollusks,turtles and porpoises, as well as the more common types of fish. When they went inland, they also hunted for deer, bear, and ducks. They were nomadic and changed their location according to the seasons and where food was most plentiful at the time.

Some people accused them of being cannibals, but that is not true. In fact, when Cabeza de Vaca related that his shipwrecked crew resorted to eating dead members, the Karankawa were quite shocked. They would never eat their own people. They did occasionally eat certain organs of beaten enemies, but that was not as a food source. That was to magically gain the power of their enemies.

This is something we should think about for a moment, because it is a problem we are dealing with even now as we speak. People forget the true meaning of cannibalism. It means eating your own kind, feeding on members of your own group. It does not mean eating somebody who is outside your group.

Many people are confused about this, not the least the Buddhists and those "enlightened souls" who recognize that other living beings have feelings. There is the circle of life, where being feeds on being. And then there is the circle of those we offer protection and whom we consider our peers.

It is not cannibalism to eat a cow, even though we understand that cows have intelligence and feeling. It is cannibalism to eat a member of your own family, tribe or larger group with which you are identified, such as all humans. The circle that you extend your protection to and claim as your own may be small, or larger, but it cannot include all living things, because life feeds on life.

Here is an article written by my father, Amnon Katz, that explains this better:

This brings us back to the meaning of piracy. Piracy would mean preying on your own. Privateering means preying on enemy ships. The whole difference between the two is where you draw the circle. If the Spanish are your allies, then preying on them is piracy. If they are your legally acknowledged enemies, it is privateering.

When the government of the United States chased Jean Laffite away from Barataria and later from Galveston, they were choosing piracy over privateering, or cannibalism over eating their enemies' organs. They preferred to fund their military expansionist ambitions by taxing their own people, instead of allowing their friends and allies and their own people to prey on acknowledged enemies. They were siding with Britain and Spain against the American people.

And that in a nutshell is the difference between feeding on the in-group and feeding on those outside the circle.

If we go against cattle ranchers and independent farmers, if we save all the marine life, and give land only to large factories that will exploit it to the max, in the end there will be nothing left to eat but each other.

The Karankawa Indians were not exterminated because they ate too much, used too many resources or destroyed the land. It is because they were too modest in their aspirations that they were not allowed to exist at all. The same is true for Jean Laffite and his establishment, and the privateering way of life.



  1. Excellent article, Aya! I never really knew the difference between piracy and privateering. This is interesting to me because of the issue with the Somali "pirates" that have been in the news the last few years.
    Thanks for including the link to your father's essay. I just skimmed through it, but have to run back to work, but I will definitely be reading it this weekend!

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I'm so glad you got a chance to read this.

      The difference between piracy and privateering has been intentionally obscured by the government over time. Privateers had a letter of marque from a government they served that allowed them to attack enemy ships -- and only enemy ships. The provision for issuing letters of marque is still there in the constitution. I believe the last time one was issued it was to an air dirigible or blimp during WWII.

  2. Today people are considered hardy for being able to walk in the heat, or travel in the snow, but I have done both. I know people in my own family who say the heat gets to them, but I think it is because they have not been out in it as much as me. I think walking all my life in all types of weather has made me more adept to handling all types of weather. I prefer a warm day over a cool one, so many it is my preference, but I have always loved the heat.

    1. Hi, Julia. You are a healthy person who spends a lot of time walking out of doors, and I am sure that helps to keep you even healthier. It is a good habit to have.

      However, keep in mind that Cabeza de Vaca was a hardy explorer who had survived a shipwreck and had many other adventures, and he still felt awed by the abilities of the Karankawa to withstand both extreme heat and extreme cold while walking around completely naked. They seemed to be hardier than most Europeans in the 16th century.

    2. Yes, being naked adds another dimension to this. I just think even by today's standards Cabeza would be hardy too. People complain if it hits seventy, and look at you like you are lulu because you want to take a walk in the park. I just feel like today people want to do nothing without air conditioning, and do not even try to acclimate themselves to the climate they choose to live in, which is a warm place like Southern California. I mostly run the air conditioner because I get moaning and groaning about it from others if I don't, but I rarely turn it on if I am by myself.