Native Americans of the Southeast

The Southeast cultural area may be thought of as comprising several distinct environmental zones. The Appalachian Mountains run northeast to southwest; their highest point is a 6,684-foot peak in North Carolina. Here such southern hardwoods as chestnut and hickory meet more northerly species, such as birch, sugar maple, and hemlock. The mountain region includes numerous well-watered plateaus and valleys, such as the Cumberland Plateau, the Appalachian Plateau, and, to the west, the Great Valley. Well west of the mountains is the great Mississippi River. Preeminent southeastern rivers include the Shenandoah, the James, the Savannah, the Roanoke, the Coosa, and the Tennessee.

East of the mountains, the Piedmont Plateau is located between the mountains and the coastal plain. Its heavy forests, mainly of oak, pine, sassafras, sycamore, and gum, contained a great quantity and diversity of animal life. Descending still lower, below the fall line, the mild, wet coastal plain itself extends inland for between 100 and 300 miles. Salt marsh, lagoons, and swamps characterize the coastal regions from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. Cypress, cane, and palmetto grow in the southern part of the plain, and cypress and red gum in the river valleys; conifers and scrub oak dominate the somewhat higher interior.

At least in the early historic period, the four major languages of southeastern Indians were Muskogean, spoken by, among others, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks; Algonquian, spoken mainly by coastal Indians of Virginia and North Carolina as well as the interior Shawnee; Iroquoian, spoken by the Cherokee and other tribes in the north and northeast of the region; and Siouan, spoken by people living in South Carolina and on the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts. There were several linguistic isolates as well.


At least 150,000 people, and perhaps ten times that number, probably lived in this region of over 400,000 square miles in the fifteenth century. In general, the area was hospitable to humans, providing a variety of large and small animals, fish, marine life, wild fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Most southeastern Indian tribes adopted large-scale agriculture after about 900, and some also developed large towns and highly centralized social and political structures.

Contact with non-natives began in the early sixteenth century. By the eighteenth century, extensive involvement with non-native traders, combined with population loss from disease and slave raiding, had fundamentally altered Native American societies. Radical dispossession occurred in the 1830s, after which most southeastern Indians rebuilt their lives in Indian Territory (Oklahoma). A relative few remained in the southeast, to continue living as Indians as best they could, but many of the old tribes simply disappeared.

The first people appeared in the southeast at least 11,000 years ago, perhaps from the north but more likely from the west. Early people hunted and then fished for and gathered their food. Initial game included species that have since become extinct. People constructed material items from stone, bone, and wood. Pottery appeared well into the onset of this period, around 2000 B.C.E.

The two definitive technological innovations of the period were the spear thrower, or atlatl, and the grinding stone. The former consisted of a wooden shaft used to provide extra force and range for a wooden spear tipped with a stone point. Armed with this implement, early hunters had little trouble bringing down white-tailed deer and other game. Grinding stones, made of stone or wood, along with stone pestles, were used to pulverize seeds and nuts prior to processing and cooking.

Depending on location and time of year, bands lived either in their constituent nuclear families or occasionally, after about 6000 B.C.E., together as a group. Tribal organization was unknown until the natural abundance of certain places was great enough to produce early civilizations such as Adena (circa 800 B.C.E. to 200 C.E.) and Hopewell (circa 300 B.C.E. to 700 C.E.). Both cultures peaked around the beginning of the present era. Although centered in the Ohio Valley (Adena) and Mississippi-Ohio Valleys (Hopewell), their influences were felt strongly in much of the southeast.

Adena and Hopewell people tended to live in permanent villages. Adena people built earthworks and burial mounds, some up to a quarter of a mile long and shaped like animals, over their dead, to whom much ritual attention was paid. These people enlisted the assistance of shamans to mediate between the human and nonhuman worlds. Copper ornaments and "stamped," or imprinted, pottery were produced. Society may have been hierarchically ordered. Hopewell was also characterized by mound building, advanced art, and, later, by extensive agriculture.

As early as 2500 B.C.E., but especially during the Adena and Hopewell periods, southeastern Indians participated in a number of interregional trade networks. Items such as Gulf Coast conch and other shells, mica and other stone, and clay items moved north into the Midwest, Northeast, and even the Far West. In exchange, obsidian, copper, iron, quartz crystals, and other goods moved back into the south. Most exchange took place between groups of related families rather than among professional, long-distance traders.

Corn was introduced into the southeast from the Midwest in the early part of the first millennium, although large-scale agriculture and its often-related societal centralization did not truly begin until about 900. The bow and arrow was also introduced into the region, probably from the eastern woodlands, around this time. By about 1200 many people were growing the famous triad of corn, beans, and squash.

Concurrent with the rise of large-scale agriculture, most southeast tribes had developed matrilineal clans, which were often grouped into two opposing divisions—red and white—to counter the tendency to overcentralize power. The tribes themselves, in fact, were loose aggregations of clans. Descent was reckoned through the mother’s line, and her brothers were often more important to a child than was his or her biological father. Clan membership generally established one’s role or position in rituals and in society in general.

Late in the first millennium, some tribes had built on technological advances such as the bow and arrow, flint hoes, and a hardier type of corn to construct highly centralized, hierarchically ranked societies (chiefdoms) led by powerful, even absolute, chiefs. Members of the elite classes received tribute in the form of goods and services from the common people. Palisaded urban centers of up to tens of thousands of people contained a ceremonial plaza with mounds on which the temple and chief’s and priests’ houses stood. The people built temples on mounds of up to 300 acres in size, grew fields of crops up to several square miles in area, and had a rich artistic and ceremonial life. These "Mississippian" cultures, which peaked between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, were likely influenced by people from Mesoamerica.

Among the chiefdoms, religion was characterized by the existence of three cults, or modes of religious expression. One featured large, flat-topped temple mounds located in the ceremonial grounds. The Mound Builders expressed their core idea—the primacy of purity over pollution—by placing layers of white (purity) sand over red (disorder) clay. A second cult revolved around warfare and the glorification of the warrior; a third featured stone, wood, and clay figurines used to represent ancestral spirits.

By the dawn of the historical period, Mississippian culture was in general decline, although burial customs were still often elaborate. Most religious activity in the region was centered around the idea of the sun as life-giver and chief deity. A priesthood conducted rituals in which the sacred fire, as a representative of the sun, figured prominently, as did corn. Shamans, or conjurers, interceded with the spirit world to cure disease, divine the future, and control the weather. The ceremonial round began generally in the spring and culminated with the Green Corn Ceremony (described under the discussion of the nineteenth century), although various other dances might continue into the fall. Leaders conducted business and rituals in the ceremonial plaza, or Square Ground.

Most late prehistoric southeastern Indians lived in permanent villages, built in river valleys wherever possible. Towns, consisting of houses or groups of houses, with a social and ceremonial center, were often strung out for miles. The classic dwelling was made of pole frames covered with branches and vines and then a layer of mud or clay. Summer houses were generally rectangular, with gabled, thatched roofs. Circular winter "town" houses were plastered inside and out. Materials such as animal hides, grasses, bamboo, bark, woven mats, and palm leaves might also be used in their outer construction. Many people also built houselike storage structures in addition to the dwelling unit. Large towns contained huge town houses, with up to several hundred seats, for conducting business and rituals. Sweat houses were also common.

Most southeastern Indians were farmers of corn, beans, squash, and sometimes sunflowers. Surplus grain was often stored in special granaries. Men hunted large (deer, bear, buffalo) and small (beaver, otter, squirrel) game. As in most native cultures, animal products such as sinew, oil, and horn were used extensively for various purposes in addition to food and clothing. Hunting took place between planting and harvest and especially in winter, when the people often left the villages in small hunting parties.

Important wild plant foods included hickory and other nuts, acorns, persimmons and other fruits, berries, wild rice, and mushrooms. Shellfish was an important staple in certain areas. Birds, especially the turkey, played an important role in diet as well as decoration. Depending on location, southeastern Indians used different techniques for capturing fish, including weirs, spears, and poison. Most cultures utilized tobacco.

Stone and bone remained important raw materials into the historical period; they were used to make mortars, clubs, scrapers, adzes, axes, and various other tools as well as arrowheads. People made wooden stools with legs. Cane was a widely employed raw material, used in making baskets and mats, houses, arrows and darts, containers, musical instruments, and many other items. Men and boys used blowguns and darts to bring down birds or small animals, and women manufactured pottery, twilled baskets, and wove mats. Cypress was the favored wood for canoe manufacture, although pine, poplar, and other woods were also suitable, and bark canoes were also used in the interior.

Although most clothing was made from skins, mainly deer, women also used the inner bark of the mulberry tree to make items such as hair nets and some textiles. Bear or buffalo robes were important winter garments. Some people also made ornate feather mantles or cloaks from turkeys and other birds. Men generally wore breechclouts and perhaps shirts, shawls, or cloaks. Leggings were more common around the Gulf region. Women generally wore a short skirt as well as a mantle or tunic, although there were considerable regional variations. Moccasins were used mainly for travel. Personal ornamentation, especially in the form of shell beads, pearls, and copper, was common. Body paint was generally reserved for special occasions, although elaborate tattooing was widespread.

Intercourse between the tribes included regular trade fairs. Items of the hunt—primarily hides, meat, and animal products—were exchanged for manufactured items such as pipes, bowls, dishes, and spoons. Also, coastal tribes offered shells, fish products, and "black drink" leaves to peoples of the interior, who provided red pigment, pottery, and feather cloaks. Salt, copper, wood, and mica were other important items of exchange. Even catlinite pipes from Minnesota were seen at some trade fairs, which were also occasions to feast and visit. The Choctaws created a language that was used as a lingua franca in regional intertribal trade.

Clan vengeance was a primary motivation for war. Weapons included the bow and arrow and assorted clubs, spears, knives, and hatchets. Hide shields were also used. The practice of warfare varied from place to place, but there was often a great deal of ritual preparation, and warriors often left distinguishing signs to show who had committed the violent deeds. Some carried along a sacred war ark filled with various medicines. Prisoners, if there were any, were often taken home and tortured or sold into slavery. Scalping was common, at least in the early historic period; it constituted, along with other practices, war honors. War parties were often led by war chiefs.

A form of modern-day lacrosse was the most common game played by southeastern Indians. Indeed, more than a game, it had considerable significance in the realms of social custom and ceremony. Two sticks were generally used, as was a deer-hide ball. The sides consisted of different divisions or towns. Among some tribes, a great deal of ceremonial preparation took place for up to a week or more before a game, and medicine men played an important role before and during play. Gambling was extensive. Play was very rough, and severe injuries, sometimes leading to death, were not unusual. Most, although not all, such games were all male. There were separate games for women, and people of both sexes played many games besides stickball. In particular, chunkey, a variety of the hoop-and-pole game, was widely played.

By around 1600, the power of the chiefs, still mainly band leaders, ranged from advisory—with power, such as it was, being held mainly by a representative council—to absolute. Some tribes associated in confederacies, such as the Powhatan, Natchez, Calusa, Cofitachiqui, and Creek. Among the Creek, up to 50 or more towns spoke different Muskogean and even non-Muskogean languages. Professional interpreters were employed to maintain effective communication between the constituent elements. Towns assumed an identity characterized by war (red) or peace (white).

The arrival of Columbus in 1492 inaugurated the contact period in southeastern history. News of the effects of this event on the offshore native people—massive death, mistreatment, and enslavement—may have reached Florida well before the actual arrival of Europeans. By the time of the 1519 Juan Ponce de Leon expedition and other Spanish explorations well into the interior soon after, many Indians knew enough to fear the intruders. Despite efforts to protect themselves, many Indians suffered violence and death from non-native depredations and disease.

As contact between Indians and Europeans became more regular after the mid- to late sixteenth century, Indian culture itself began to change. Indian societies were drawn into increased trade with French and British adventurers, who arrived in the seventeenth century to join Spanish traders, missionaries, and colonists. At the same time, the Indians continued to die in large numbers from disease and were increasingly forced to deal with other problems, such as factionalism, fraud, land grabbing, and the introduction of alcohol. Several aspects of traditional culture, such as clan and political structure, began to break down, and overall conflict increased.

By the mid-eighteenth century there was a thriving regional trade in deerskin and other products. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of skins went to Europe every year. The effects of this trade completed an essential transformation in southeast native life. Native manufacture of certain items ceased, since they were more readily obtained through trade. As the deer disappeared, many Indians began to raise cattle for meat and skins. Also part of regional trade was the traffic in slaves, in which Indians participated as buyers and sellers as well as victims. Some southeastern tribes, but especially the Seminole, welcomed African Americans into the ranks of tribal membership. Populations moved or were moved to suit trade and political exigencies.

In some respects, however, native culture remained solidly rooted in its traditions. The classic Green Corn ceremony (or Busk), for example, which flourished in the nineteenth century, had its origins deep in Mound Builder culture. Held when the new late corn crop ripened, the four-day ceremony was a thanksgiving for the crop, a time for purifying or renewal, and a new year’s festival. There were many variations on the ceremony, but, in general, the precise starting day was ascertained first of all. Housing was found or made for all visitors, followed by a great feast.

Men then repaired and cleaned the public places and women the homes. Men separated from women and children and began a fast while religious leaders prepared an emetic, high-caffeine black drink. All fires were extinguished. Then the priest and his assistants, dressed in special clothing, kindled a new sacred fire, from which all home fires were lit. The ceremony concluded with a sermon by the chief, the green corn dance itself, a ritual immersion in water, and a feast that included the new corn. Most past wrongs were forgiven, and most exiles could return.

Meanwhile, loss of native land accelerated, especially after the Indian defeat in the pivotal Battle of Horseshoe Creek in 1814. Despite the fact that at least the larger, so-called civilized tribes had adopted a lifestyle very similar to that of their non-native neighbors—including slave-based agriculture, literacy, Anglo-style government and laws, and, to some extent, Christianity—they were almost completely dispossessed in the 1830s. The Trail of Tears, a term originally depicting the removal of the Cherokee to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), is now applied to the removal of the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole as well (from their hideouts in Florida’s Everglades, some Seminoles were able to resist removal). Tens of thousands of Indians were forcibly uprooted, and significant numbers of them died in transit or shortly after their arrival.

Indians rebuilt their lives out west, reestablishing their villages, towns, fields, and institutions. They fared poorly during and following the Civil War, in which many supported the Confederacy. Indian casualties were relatively high, and further dispossession and forcible removal followed the fighting. Missionaries redoubled their efforts. Toward the end of the century, the government decided to break up the reservations and terminate tribal governments. Oklahoma became a state in 1907. By the 1950s, much of the Indian-held land had been lost to non-natives, mostly through fraud and tax default. Oklahoma Indians became increasingly polarized. Wealthier people gravitated toward Anglo society, whereas poorer Indians continued to resist allotment and hold tenaciously to a more traditional Indian identity.

Today, most "southeast" Indians live in Oklahoma. Traditional culture is preserved in varying ways and to different degrees. Although most Indians are Christians, many tribes celebrate traditional rituals, such as the Green Corn ceremony, as well as pan-Indian ones. There are also tens of thousands of Indians in most southern states, notably Florida, North Carolina, and Mississippi. Even many contemporary southeastern tribes that are not federally recognized retain their Indian identities to varying degrees.

Next post:

Previous post: