Creek (Native Americans of the Southeast)

Creek (Crek), taken from Ochesee Creek, the British name for the Ocmulgee River. The so-called Creeks were actually composed of many tribes, each with a different name, the most powerful of which was called the Muskogee (or Mvskoke), itself a collection of tribes who probably migrated from the Northwest. With the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole, the Creeks became known by non-natives in the early nineteenth century as the Five Civilized Tribes.

The Creek Confederacy was a loose organization that united many Creek and non-Creek villages. Muskogee-speaking towns and tribes formed the core of the confederacy, although other groups joined as well. It was founded some time before 1540 but strengthened significantly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tribes of the Creek Confederacy included the Alabama, Mikasuki, Yuchi, Shawnee, Natchez, Koasati, Tuskegee, Apalachicola, Okmulgee, Hitchiti, and Timucua, as well as many others. Through intermarriage or adoption, some of these people ultimately became part of Muskogee towns, whereas others, including escaped slaves and whites, lived among them as ethnic minorities.

Location Traditionally, Upper Creeks lived along the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, in Alabama. Their two main towns were Tukabahchee and Abihkba. The Lower Creeks lived along the Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers in eastern Georgia and along the coast. Their main towns were Coweta and Kashita. Today, most Creeks live in east-central Oklahoma, with much smaller groups in Alabama and Florida.

Population There were perhaps 22,000 people in the Creek Confederacy in the mid-sixteenth century,of whom roughly 80 percent were Muskogeans. In 1990 there were about 30,000 enrolled Creeks, over half of whom lived in Oklahoma.

Language Creeks spoke two principal Muskogean languages.

Historical Information

History Creek people probably descended from Mississippian Temple Mound Builders, entering their historic area from the west. Hernando de Soto passed through the region in 1540. In the colonial wars, Creeks were traditional allies of the British, although they were often successful in playing the European nations off against one another. Early on, the Creeks were grouped very informally into a "lower" section, located in eastern Georgia and more accommodating to Anglo society, and an "upper" section, more traditional and resistant to assimilation.

As British allies in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Creek fought the Spanish as well as other Indian tribes, such as the Apalachee, the Timucua, the Choctaw, and the Cherokee. They also absorbed some of the tribes they defeated in battle, such as part of the Apalachicola and the Apalachee about 1704. Creeks took part in the 1715 Yamasee war, as years of British abuse, including slaving, rape, and cheating, temporarily disrupted the Creek-British alliance. Following the Yamasee defeat, the bulk of the Creeks moved inland to the Chattahoochee River.

Creeks were more cautious about choosing sides in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Few favored the colonists, however, which was reason enough for the victors to demand land cessions after the fighting. In the late eighteenth century, the Creek leader Alexander McGillivray dominated the confederacy’s diplomatic maneuvering and attempted to reorganize its political structure to his advantage. In 1790 he signed a treaty, later repudiated by the leaders of the confederacy, accepting U.S. protection and involvement in the people’s internal affairs.

Many Creeks resisted joining Tecumseh’s plan for a united Indian attack against the Americans, but in 1813 and 1814 they mounted their own military challenge. This was actually a civil war resulting from continuing diplomatic pressures and relentless encroachments from the Georgians as well as their own political and economic decline. The White Stick faction (mainly Lower Creeks) supported the United States and the Red Sticks the British. Despite early successes, the war was put down. As punishment, the Creeks, both Red and White, were made to sign the Treaty of Horseshoe Bend, ceding 23 million acres of land. Many Creeks migrated to Florida around that time to become part of the newly formed Seminole people.

In 1825, 13 chiefs ceded all remaining Creek lands to the state of Georgia. These chiefs were later condemned by their people for high treason, and two were shot. Although the treaty was illegal, the state of Georgia proceeded to act as if it owned the land, and the United States soon backed the state, calling for complete Indian removal. President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Non-natives obtained the remaining Indian lands in the usual way: fraud, intimidation, and outright theft.

In 1832, Creeks signed the Treaty of Washington, ceding five million acres of land. Farcically, the treaty offered the Creeks a choice to remain or move and stated that white usurpers would be removed if the Indians chose to stay. In the mid-1830s, more Creeks joined the Seminoles in Florida while others made a last-ditch military stand. Forced relocation began in 1836. The Indians were taken to a place between the Canadian and the Arkansas Rivers. Of the roughly 14,000 who were relocated, almost 4,000 died of starvation, disease, exposure, and heartbreak during the march and shortly after their arrival in Indian Territory.

Once there, the people began to rebuild, accepting missionary schools and reestablishing towns, fields, and government. Christianization proceeded rapidly after removal. In 1856 the Creek lost over two million acres along the Canadian River to the Seminoles. Although the Creeks split in their allegiance during the Civil War, they suffered with the other Five Civilized Tribes, which had largely supported the South, and lost land, goods, crops, and political power.

The 1867 constitution of the Muskogee Nation reaffirmed the sovereignty of tribal towns and provided for a democratic governmental structure. Following the war, a full-blood, pronorthern,traditional faction that took a hard line on land cessions emerged, as did a moderate Muskogee Party and a number of other parties. Creeks also pressed for intertribal cooperation among Oklahoma tribes. Their land base was gradually whittled away until they lost all of it in 1907, as well as their political independence, when Oklahoma became a state.

From 1907 until 1970, the federal government recognized only the Creek Nation, an entity of the accommodationist Lower Creeks. Its principal chiefs were appointed by the U.S. government. Around 1900, an Upper Creek named Chitto Harjo (Crazy Snake) led a rebellion against allotment, the process that gave tribal holdings to individuals and made the "surplus" available for non-native purchase. In 1917, the Upper Creeks again took up arms as part of the Green Corn Rebellion, a movement of African Americans, Indians, and whites dedicated to obtaining federal help for the rural poor.

In the 1930s, three tribal towns, including the Alabama-Quassartes, opted out of the Creek Confederacy to accept charters under the Indian Reorganization Act. Many people left the Creek communities for cities during and after World War II. By 1970, 95 percent of preallotment tribal land was owned by non-natives, and non-natives held petroleum leases worth $50 billion. In 1970, a new law allowing for the democratic election of the principal chief gave rise to the Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

Religion The Green Corn ceremony, also called the Busk, marked the new year. It was both a thanksgiving ceremony and one of renewal. Some participants drank a black drink that was mainly caffeine and that induced vomiting when consumed in quantity; it was designed to purify the body. The ceremony also included dancing, fasting, feasting, games, and contests. It ended with a communal bath and an address from the head chief. Most crimes were forgiven at that time. Other ceremonies in spring and early summer included "stomp dances." Another group of feasts culminated in the late fall Dance of the Ancient People. Most dances were both social and ceremonial, and most councils and ceremonies began with the black drink (or "white drink," as they called it, reflecting its role in purification).

The supreme being, "master of breath," presided over the Land of the Blessed Dead. It received an offering of the first buck killed each season and also a morsel of flesh at each meal. Its representative on earth was the Busk fire. There were also many spiritual beings, particularly dwarfs, fairies, and giants. Priests and doctors underwent a rigorous training period that included healing techniques, songs, and formulas. Numerous diviners, weather control experts, and religious advisers claimed religious identity as well.

Government Tribal towns (talwas) were the main political unit. Each contained about 100 to over 1,000 people, and each was politically sovereign, the alliance among them determining the nature of the confederacy. Towns chiefs (mikos) were largely chosen by merit, although membership in a white clan was an advantage. The power of the chiefs was to influence (and to carry out certain duties), not to command. They were head of the democratic council, which had ceremonial and diplomatic responsibilities. Decisions were taken by consensus. There was also a subchief and a war chief. A town crier announced governmental decisions to the people.

The council met daily in the square ground or the town house. The people drank "black drink" and smoked tobacco before each important council meeting. Part of the council was a group of elders known as the Beloved Men. There were also Beloved Women, although women generally did not have formal power. Another council, composed of white clan members, oversaw internal public works affairs.

Customs A dual division within most tribes manifested itself in the existence of red towns and white towns. Red was associated with war, and white with peace. There were also about 40 matrilineal clans, unequal in prestige, with animal names. Clans were the fundamental social unit.

Lacrosse games were played between towns of different divisions, in part to relieve tensions. The many pregame ceremonies included preparations administered by medicine men. The goals were up to a quarter-mile apart; 60 or so people played on a side. Games were quite wide open and rough. They also had significant political and ritualistic significance. A great deal of personal wealth was often bet on games.

In addition to games, people participated in archery and other contests.

Unmarried women had considerable sexual freedom. There was also a class of prostitutes. Men could marry more than one wife. Marriage was formalized by gift giving, repeatedly in the case of multiple wives. Divorce was unusual, especially if there were children. Both parties were killed or punished in cases of adultery, unless they could escape punishment until the next Busk. Rape, incest, and witchcraft were capital offenses, as was nonseclusion during a woman’s periods. Infanticide was permitted within the first month of life. Widows or divorcees were obligated to remain single for four years, but a widower could remarry in four months. Men generally avoided their mothers-in-law out of deference.

People bathed before eating. Women made pottery, baskets, mats, and other such items; prepared food and skins; made clothing; helped with the communal fields; and grew all the garden crops. Men also helped with the communal fields, and they hunted, fished, fought, played ball games, led ceremonies, built houses and other structures, and made tools. Men also carried skin pouches containing medicines, tobacco, and knives that hung by their sides. The dead were buried with their possessions beneath houses, in a sitting position and with reddened hair. Only the worthy could made it to the land of the dead, located beyond the Milky Way. Strict mourning rites were observed.

Dwellings Fifty towns, each with between 30 and 100 houses and located on river or creek banks, formed the original core of the confederacy. Each town was organized around a central square or plaza, which contained several features: a circular town (or hot) house at least 200 feet around, with 12-foot walls, a 12-foot roof, no windows, a small smoke hole, and beds around the walls; a game field; and a summer ceremonial house, or square ground.

The square ground was actually four sheds around a square of one-half acre or so, in the center of which was the sacred fire. The single-story buildings were about 30 feet long and roughly 25 feet high; they had clay walls and a gabled bark roof. Walls came within about 2 feet of the roof, for circulation, and the front was left open. Some of the sheds were divided into compartments, and they also had tiered benches or beds. Supporting timbers were often painted or carved with human and animal designs.

In cold or bad weather, the council met in the hot house, around a spiral-shaped or circular fire, and ceremonies were also celebrated here. In summer the square ground served these purposes. Both the hot house and the square ground were built atop mounds prior to the eighteenth century.

Private homes were clustered in groups of up to four. They were pole framed with plastered walls and grass or mats on the outside. Gabled roofs were covered with bark or shingles. Each reasonably prosperous family had a winter house and a summer house, both generally rectangular. A third structure was a two-story granary, one end of which was used for storing grain and roots (lower) and for meetings (upper). The other end, with open sides, was a general storage area (lower) and a reception area (upper). A fourth building, if one could afford it, was a storehouse for skins. The four buildings were placed to form a square, after the ceremonial square ground design.

Diet Crops—corn, beans, and squash—were the staples. Corn was consumed in many, perhaps over 40, different ways. The people had both private gardens and communal fields. Women gathered persimmons, nuts, sweet potatoes, wild rice, acorns, and grapes, among other foods. Nut oil was used in food preparation. Hunting was important for meat and skins. Most men left the villages during winter to hunt. Women often accompanied the hunting parties, mostly to attend to the meat and skins along the way. The people also ate fish.

Key Technology Hoes and digging sticks were the most important agricultural tools. Animals were shot, trapped, and snared. People fished with hook and lines, spears, bow and arrows, weirs, hand nets, baskets, and narcotic roots. Women made coiled pottery, wove mats, and spun material for clothing.

Other important technologies included the fire drill, steatite (soapstone) pipes and pots, flint points, and wooden and horn utensils. Bows were generally made of hickory, and arrows were pointed with fish bones and flint. Blowguns, 8-10 feet long, were used mostly for shooting small animals and birds. Musical instruments included drums, flutes, and tortoise-shell ankle rattles. Bead belts may have served as records of events. Baskets and other items were made of cane.

Trade Creeks utilized the Choctaw trade language. Some groups exported flint and salt. Their pipes came from the Cherokee and Natchez, and/or they traded for catlinite pipes from the early eighteenth century on. In the early contact period, Creeks traded horses (obtained from Apalachee Indians) to British Carolinians for guns and other goods.

Notable Arts People in some towns carved figures of a nonreligious significance, perhaps to honor a dead warrior. A pictographic system represented historical events. Women made pottery, glazed with smoky pitch, and cane and hickory splint baskets.

Transportation Men made large cypress dugout canoes. Some early chiefs may have been carried on litters. Creek horses came from Mexico and the Spanish southeast; Lower Creeks had no horses until the eighteenth century.

Dress Creeks generally made a greater use of leggings than did many nearby peoples. Except on the Georgia coast, where they used tree moss, women made their clothes largely from skins and textiles. They also roached their hair. Only prostitutes painted their faces. Women sewed clothing with a bone awl and sinew thread. Skirts that reached below the knee were tied around the waist.

Men wore breechclouts and often leggings. Some young men wore nose ornaments and enlarged their ears with copper wire. Many men shaved their heads, except for two thin strips of hair running from temple to temple and straight down the top of the head. The hair at the ends was allowed to grow long. Some men wore moustaches. There were turkey feather cloaks for ceremonial purposes.

Both sexes wore buffalo- and deer-hide moccasins as well as extensive tattoos. Boys often went naked until puberty. Rank was reflected in clothing and adornment.

War and Weapons There were three levels of warriors: war chiefs, big warriors, and little warriors, depending on their level of accomplishment. Most fighting took place in spring. The purpose was generally honor and revenge. Men painted their bodies black and red for war. In addition to their weapons, they brought blankets, cordage, leather for moccasin repair, corn, and the sacred ark with them. Weapons included bow and arrow, knife, tomahawk, war club, spear, and shield. There were a number of pre- and postwar rituals.

A successful war party left signs to indicate who had done the deeds. Parties that resulted in the loss of many men, no matter how successful otherwise (captured horses, war honors, and so on) were considered failures. Enemies were often scalped and dismembered; those remaining alive might be enslaved or whipped and otherwise tortured by the women, unless they could escape. Enemies in the historic period included the Apalachee, Cherokee, and Choctaw.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Headquarters for the Creek Nation of Oklahoma is in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The land base encompasses roughly 143,384 acres, all held in trust, in eight counties of northeast Oklahoma.

The Kialegee Creek Tribal Town is located in Wetumka, Oklahoma.

The Thlopthlocco Creek Tribal Town is located in Okemah, Oklahoma.

The Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town is located in Henryetta, Oklahoma.

The Poarch Band Reservation is located near Atmore, in Elmore and Escambia Counties, Alabama. Established in 1984, it consists of 213 acres. Its total population was roughly 1,875 people in the early 1990s, although the 1990 Indian population was just 149.

Economy Individuals may apply for funds for various emergencies and pressing needs. Most jobs are with the tribal government, farms, and bingo halls.

Legal Status The Creek Nation of Oklahoma, the Poarch Band, the Kialegee Tribal Town of the Creek

Nation, the Thlopthlocco Tribal Town of the Creek Nation, and the Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town (see Alabama) are federally recognized tribal entities.

Unrecognized Creek communities include the Principal Creek Indian Nation East of the Mississippi, in Florala, Alabama; the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe East of the Mississippi, Inc., in Cairo, Georgia; the Creeks East of the Mississippi, in Molino, Florida; the MaChis Lower Alabama Creek Indian Tribe, in New Brockton, Alabama; the North Bay Clan of Lower Creek Muskogee Tribe, in Lynn Haven, Florida; the Star Clan of Muskogee Creek Tribe of Pike County, in Goshen, Alabama; and the Florida Tribe of East Creek Indians, in Bruce, Florida.

Daily Life Several former tribal towns (talwas), now rural communities, retain some centuries-old traditions. The annual cycle of native activities revolves around a traditional stomp ground. Other activities include a rodeo and an annual festival. Facilities include an excellent health care complex, over a thousand new homes, a museum, and a library.

From his 1971 election as principal chief into the 1990s, Claude Cox, a Methodist church leader, created a political party with a base of Lower Creeks that has dominated the Creek Nation and led it into a quasi-alliance with the Republican Party. The mainly Upper Creek opposition held that the Creek Nation was illegal under the 1867 constitution, but the dominant faction simply rewrote the constitution; the new document was adopted in 1979. Members of both groups sit in the National Council.

There is little trace of aboriginal culture among the Poarch Band. They receive federal grants for education, health care, and economic development. Their Thanksgiving powwow is based mainly on Plains Indian traditions.

Next post:

Previous post: