Published on October 25, 2010 by John
The Native Americans known as the Creek received their tribal name, pronounced as spelled, from early English traders because they built most of their villages on woodland rivers and creeks. In reality, the Creek were not just one group but consisted of many different bands and villages with many names. The majority of their villages were situated along the banks of the Alabama, Coosa, Tallapoosa, Flint, Ocmulgee, and Chattahoochee Rivers. Their ancestral territory included what now is most of Georgia and Alabama, as well as small parts of northern Florida, eastern Louisiana, and southern Tennessee. The various bands are discussed as two branches, the Upper Creek, mostly in Alabama, and the Lower Creek, mostly in Georgia. The Native name for the most powerful band of Creek, sometimes applied to other groups as well, is Muskogee. From Muskogee comes the name of one of the important language families: Muskogean. Other important Muskogean-speaking tribes were the ALABAMA, COUSHATTA, CHICKASAW, CHOCTAW, and SEMINOLE. In historic times, the Alabama and Coushatta, along with the Muskogee and many other Creek bands, were part of a loose organization referred to by scholars as the Creek Confederacy.
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The Creek, along with the other tribes mentioned, are part of the Southeast Culture Area, and all of them shared many cultural traits (see SOUTHEAST INDIANS). Since the Creek were the most widespread and powerful of all these tribes, they are cited in many books as representing the typical Southeast Indian way of life. It is thought that the Creek were descendants of the MOUND BUILDERS who lived in the Southeast in prehistoric times. As indicated, the Creek lived along the rivers and streams coursing through the piney woods of their extentive territory. The villages were the main political unit. Each had a chief called a micco. He was not an absolute ruler as in other Southeast tribes, such as the NATCHEZ and TIMUCUA, but had functions more like those of a modern-day mayor. A council of elders, the Beloved Men, helped him make decisions, and a town crier announced the decisions to the other villagers. The villages were organized into “red towns” and “white towns”. In the “red towns” lived the warriors who launched raids for purposes of honor and revenge; ceremonies such as war dances were held there. In the “white towns” lived the peacemakers who kept track of alliances and gave sanctuary to refugees; ceremonies such as the signing of treaties were held there. Each village had a town square at its center with earthen banks where spectators could sit. The square was used for ceremonies and games. Each village also had a central circular house with clay walls and a cone-shaped bark roof about 25 feet high, the ceremonial lodge, as well as a shelter for the old and the homeless. Other houses were grouped in clusters of four small rectangular, pole-framed structures with bark-covered, slanted and peaked roofs. One of these clusters had tiers of benches and served as a meeting place for the Beloved Men. The other clusters of houses served as homes for individual families. Each family had a winter house, a summer house, a granary, and a warehouse. The winter house and summer house were built with closed mudpacked walls for insulation from the cold and heat. The summer house doubled as a guesthouse. The granary was half-open, and the warehouse was open on all four sides like a Seminole chickee. The major form of social organization beyond the family was the clan, each of which had an animal name. In the case of the Creek, as with many other agricultural tribes, one’s ancestral identiﬁcation and clan membership was determined by the mother and not the father. Marriage with someone in one’s own clan was forbidden. The Creek were skilled farmers, growing corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, melons, and sweet potatoes. Each family planted and tended its own garden. But everyone helped with a communal ﬁeld and contributed to communal stores that were used to feed warriors, the poor, and guests. They supplemented their diet through hunting and gathering.
The Green Corn Ceremony was the most important of the many Creek ceremonies. It is also called the Busk, from the Creek word boskita, meaning “to fast.” Other tribes of the Southeast also practiced this renewal ritual, which took place over four to eight days near the end of the summer when the last corn crop ripened. In preparation for the ritual, men made repairs to the communal buildings; women cleaned their houses and cooking utensils, even burning some possessions, then extinguished their hearth ﬁres. The highest-ranking villagers, including chiefs and shamans plus elders and warriors, all fasted. They then gathered at a feast where they ate corn and participated in the lighting of the Sacred Fire. They also drank the Black Drink, a ceremonial tea made from a poisonous shrub called Ilex vomitoria, tobacco, and other herbs, which induced vomiting and supposedly puriﬁed the body. Some participants danced the Green Corn Dance.
Then other villagers joined in the ceremony. They took coals from the Sacred Fire to rekindle the hearth ﬁres and they cooked food for an even bigger feast, this time of deer meat. Games, such as lacrosse and archery contests, were held. There was more dancing. Villagers closed the ceremony with a communal bath in the river for puriﬁcation. At the end, the entire village was ready for a fresh start of the new year. All past wrongdoings were forgiven, except murder.
The Early Colonial Years
The ﬁrst known European to make contact with the Creek was the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who passed through their territory in 1540. In his journals, he wrote about their tall physique and their proud bearing, as well as their colorful dress. Because of their central location in the Southeast—between English, Spanish, and French settlements—the Creek played an important role in colonial affairs in later years. For most of the colonial period, the Creek were allies of the British. Early British traders cultivated a relationship with them by giving them European tools and other goods. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, Creek warriors joined Carolina militiamen in attacks on Indians who had been missionized by the Spanish, such as the APALACHEE and Timucua.
Creek warriors also launched attacks on the Choctaw, allies of the French. They also battled the CHEROKEE regularly.Some Creek bands sided with the victorious British forces in the French and Indian War of 1754–63. Some bands later joined the losing British troops against the rebels in the American Revolution of 1775–83. Yet many village leaders hedged in choosing sides in these conﬂicts in order to play the various powers against each other to their own advantage.
The Creek War
In the early 1800s, the SHAWNEE Tecumseh traveled south to seek allies for his rebellion against the United States. Again many Creek leaders hedged. But during the years immediately following Tecumseh’s Rebellion of 1809–11, many Creek joined forces in their own uprising, which became known as the Creek War of 1813–14. The Red Sticks (as whites called the militants after the tall red poles erected as declarations of war, or as a means of time-keeping using sticks to record the number of days of a war expedition), wanted war with the whites; the White Stick faction, as they became known, wanted peace. Two mixed-bloods, Peter McQueen and William Weatherford, led the Red Sticks; Big Warrior, a fulllooded Creek, led the White Sticks.
The first incident concerned another full-blooded Creek by the name of Little Warrior, who had led a band of Creek against the Americans in the War of 1812. O n the trip back from Canada after the engagement, his men killed some settlers along the Ohio River. The White Stick faction arrested and executed him for his deeds. Soon afterward, Peter McQueen led a force of Red Sticks to Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico, where the Spanish gave them guns. This group then raided a party of settlers on Burnt Corn Creek in July 1813. The most famous incident of the Creek War occurred the following month. William Weatherford, also known as Red Eagle, led a force of about 1,000 Red Sticks against Fort Mims on the Alabama River. Black slaves reported to the commanding ofﬁcer of the garrison, Major Daniel Beasley, that Indians were crawling toward the fort in the high grass. Yet Beasley failed to order the outer gates closed. The attack soon came, and Beasley himself was killed in the ﬁrst onslaught. The settlers took cover behind the inner walls and held the warriors at bay for several hours. Eventually, flame-tipped arrows enabled the attackers to break through the defenses. Once inside Fort Mims, they killed about 400 settlers. Only 36 whites escaped. But the Red Sticks freed the black slaves.
Federal and state troops were mobilized to suppress the uprising. General Andrew Jackson, whom the Indians called “Sharp Knife,” was given the command. Davy Crockett was one of his soldiers. There were many more battles. In November 1813, soldiers drew the Red Sticks into a trap at Tallasahatchee, then relieved the White Stick village of Talladega, which was under attack by a party of Red Sticks. In December, Red Eagle managed to escape troops closing in on his hometown of Econochaca by leaping off a bluff into a river while mounted on his horse. In January 1814, there were two indecisive battles at Emuckfaw and Enotachopco Creek.
The ﬁnal battle took place at Horseshoe Bend in March 1814. There, Jackson’s men moved into position around the Red Sticks’ barricades, removed their canoes, and attacked. Fighting lasted all day until the Indians, with most of their warriors killed, retreated. Red Eagle survived, however, because he had departed before the attack to inspect other fortiﬁcations. Red Eagle surrendered several days later. He walked into Jackson’s camp and announced, “I am Bill Weather ford.” To punish the Creek, Jackson forced them to sign the Treaty of Horseshoe Bend, which took away 23 million acres of land—from both the militant Red Sticks and the peaceful White Sticks.
In 1830, Andrew Jackson, who was now president of the United States, signed the Indian Removal Act, beginning a period of relocation of eastern tribes to an Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River. The Creek thus lost their remaining ancestral lands to whites. Many lost their lives too. During their forced march in 1836 and soon after their arrival in the Indian Territory, about 3,500 of the 15,000 who were forced to leave the Southeast died from exposure, hunger, disease, and bandit attacks. The Cherokee called their journey the Trail of Tears, a phrase sometimes applied to the removal of the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole as well. After their relocation, these tribes came to be called the “Five Civilized Tribes” by whites because they adopted many of the customs of the settlers around them. The Indian Territory was supposed to have been a permanent homeland for Native Americans. Yet after many reductions in its size, in 1907, it became the state of Oklahoma. This event took place six years after a Creek by the name of Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake) led a rebellion against the allotment, or the breaking up of tribal holdings to give them to individuals, which made it easier for unscrupulous non-Indians to take over the lands. In the Snake Uprising, as newspapers called it, the rebels harassed whites and destroyed their property until overwhelming government forces rode in to arrest them.
The following is a traditional song by a Creek woman:
I have no more land
I am driven away from home
Driven up the red waters
Let us all go
Let us all go die together.
Chitto Harjo was an Upper Creek, the more traditional tribal faction. In 1917, the Upper Creek and more progressive Lower Creek became embroiled in a conﬂict referred to as the Green Corn War. The political struggle between the two groups lasted until tribal reorganization in the 1970s.
The Creek have rebounded from the loss of their lands and traditional way of life. Early in the 20th century, tribal members recognized the need for education and began learning the skills necessary to cope in the culture that had displaced their own. As a result, many Creek have succeeded in a variety of well-paying ﬁelds, such as medicine and law.
Creek Indians, among other Oklahoma Indians, are part of the largest class-action suit ever ﬁled by Indians,started in 1996. The plaintiffs claim that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs has mismanaged billions in funds owed them from the federal government’s leasing of trust lands for oil, gas, timber, and other resources. The government, through legal procedures, has managed to delay a decision in this case for a decade.
Some Alabama-COUSHATTA are joined with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in the present-day Creek Confederacy, which has its seat of government at Okmulgee in eastern Oklahoma. The Mound Building there, built in the shape of an ancient mound, houses the tribal ofﬁces. Scattered pockets of Creek also maintain tribal identity in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
Source: ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES by CARL WALDMAN