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Creek

"Creek," taken from Ochesee Creek, is the British name for the Ocmulgee River. The so-called Creek 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 Creek became known by non-Natives in the early 19th 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 17th and 18th centuries. Traditionally, Upper Creek lived along the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers, in Alabama. The Creek spoke two principal Muskogean languages.

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. Other ceremonies in the spring and early summer included "stomp dances." Another group of feasts culminated in the late fall Dance of the Ancient People.

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.

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. 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 made 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.

A dual division within most tribes manifested itself in the existence of red towns and white towns. Red was associated with war, 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. Games also had significant political and ritualistic significance. Unmarried women had considerable sexual freedom. 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.

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.

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; 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. Private homes were clustered in groups of up to four. 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.

Crops—corn, beans, and squash—were the staples. Hunting was important for meat and skins. Most men left the villages during the 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.

The Creek utilized the Choctaw trade language. Some groups exported flint and salt. A pictographic system represented historical events. Women made pottery, glazed with smoky pitch, and cane and hickory splint baskets. Men made large cypress dugout canoes. Except on the Georgia coast, where they used tree moss, women made their clothes largely from skins and textiles. Skirts that reached below the knee were tied around the waist. Men wore breech-clouts and often leggings. Some young men wore nose ornaments and enlarged their ears with copper wire. Both sexes wore buffalo hide and deerskin moccasins as well as extensive tattoos. Boys often went naked until puberty. Rank was reflected in clothing and adornment.

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. 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.

The 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 against one another. Early on, the Creek 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 17th and early 18th centuries, the Creek fought the Spanish as well as other indigenous groups, 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. The Creek took part in the 1715 Yamasee War, because years of British abuse, including slaving, rape, and cheating, had temporarily disrupted the Creek—British alliance. Following the Yamasee defeat, the bulk of the Creeks moved inland to the Chattahoochee River.

The Creek 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 18th 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 Creek 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 Creek) supported the United States and the Red Sticks the British. Despite early successes, the war was put down. As punishment, the Creek, both Red and White, were made to sign the Treaty of Horseshoe Bend, ceding 23 million acres of land. Many Creek 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, the Creek signed the Treaty of Cusseta (1832), ceding 5 million acres of land. Farcically, the treaty offered the Creek 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 Creek joined the Seminole in Florida while others made a last-ditch military stand. Forced relocation began in 1836. Native Americans 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 2 million acres along the Canadian River to the Seminoles. Although the Creek split in their allegiance during the Civil War, they suffered with the other members of the 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, pro-Northern, traditional faction emerged that took a hard line on land cessions, as did a moderate Muskogee party and a number of other parties. The Creek 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 Creek. 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 Creek again took up arms as part of the Green Corn Rebellion, a movement of African-Americans, Native Americans, 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.

Barry M. Pritzker


Further Reading
Iverson, Peter. "We Are Still Here": American Indians in the Twentieth Century. Arlington Heights, IL: Davidson, 1998; Power, Susan C. Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents and Winged Beings. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004; Rawls, James. Chief Red Fox is Dead: A History of Native Americans in the Twentieth Century. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishing, 1996; Debo, Angie. Road to Disappearance: A History of the Creek Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,1941; Green, Michael D. The Creeks. New York, NY: Chelsea House, 1990.
 

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