Long before the indigenous people of southeastern North America first encountered Europeans and Africans, they established communities with clear social and political hierarchies and rich cultural traditions. Award-winning historian Gregory D. Smithers brings this world to life in Native Southerners, a sweeping narrative of American Indian history in the Southeast from the time before European colonialism to the Trail of Tears and beyond.
In the Native South, as in much of North America, storytelling is key to an understanding of origins and tradition—and the stories of the indigenous people of the Southeast are central to Native Southerners. Spanning territory reaching from modern-day Louisiana and Arkansas to the Atlantic coast, and from present-day Tennessee and Kentucky through Florida, this book gives voice to the lived history of such well-known polities as the Cherokees, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws, and Choctaws, as well as smaller Native communities like the Nottoway, Occaneechi, Haliwa-Saponi, Catawba, Biloxi-Chitimacha, Natchez, Caddo, and many others. From the oral and cultural traditions of these Native peoples, as well as the written archives of European colonists and their Native counterparts, Smithers constructs a vibrant history of the societies, cultures, and peoples that made and remade the Native South in the centuries before the American Civil War. What emerges is a complex picture of how Native Southerners understood themselves and their world—a portrayal linking community and politics, warfare and kinship, migration, adaptation, and ecological stewardship—and how this worldview shaped and was shaped by their experience both before and after the arrival of Europeans.
As nuanced in detail as it is sweeping in scope, the narrative Smithers constructs is a testament to the storytelling and the living history that have informed the identities of Native Southerners to our day.
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In the beginning there was the water and the air. Water beings and air beings punctuated the vast expanses of water and air. Some of these beings were humanlike, others resembled animals. In time, these beings began having families. Some hunted for food, others traveled, and still others led efforts to develop cultural and ceremonial traditions that bound communities together in a common sense of belonging that was rooted in geography, or a sense of place.
The Yuchis and Tuskegees, Native Southerners who became part of the Creek Indian Confederacy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, told and retold versions of this story to their children and grandchildren. It's a story of beginnings, of origins. Elders committed these stories to memory, eventually entrusting future generations with the retelling of such narratives — a responsibility that continues into the present.
Like the Yuchis and Tuskegees, Native communities throughout the Southeast nurtured origin stories. Native polities such as the Natchez, Hitchitis, Alabamas, Koasatis, Catawbas, Nottoways, Waccamaws, and larger societies like the Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Cherokees, all developed oral traditions that helped to explain the origins of the universe and the place of kinship groups in the world, and gave meaning to life on earth.
The origin narratives nurtured by Native Southerners (and recorded, albeit imperfectly, by Europeans and Euroamericans) between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were thousands of years in the making. Stories about how a people came into existence connected spiritual beliefs and ceremonial systems, gave meaning to social, cultural, and political structures, and provided clues to Indigenous belief systems in pre-Columbian North America. Origin narratives also overlapped with stories about binary opposites, such as concepts like good and evil, light and darkness. In other words, origin narratives did more than simply tell a story about the beginnings of the universe and human existence; they gave meaning and purpose to cultural life, helped to structure social and political conventions, and connected people to a place and a community.
The dynamism of the cultures that Native Southerners developed throughout the Southeast prior to European colonialism gave them the ability to use stories to explain historical developments, such as the refinement of spear point technologies and the introduction of the bow and arrow, or changes in agricultural practices that revolved around the three sisters of corn, beans, and maize. Native storytelling therefore informed political and cultural identities, in addition to transmitting scientific and medicinal knowledge from one generation to the next.
This chapter takes an intentionally broad approach to the notion of "origins." While the following analysis reflects on the well-worn Question of "where the Indians came from," it also presages the analysis In subsequent chapters by reflecting on social, political, and Technological changes in the Native South. Borrowing from the insights of archaeologists and anthropologists, it's possible to extrapolate meaning from human behavior and to try to understand how Native Southerners articulated new beginnings in their political and ceremonial traditions. Finally, the chapter concludes with a brief summation of Western scientific arguments about Native American origins. These theories cannot be ignored because they constitute a part of the enduring legacy of settler colonial logic and the drive to empirically know, categorize, and confine Native people. As this portion of the chapter reveals, Indigenous leaders, elders, and intellectuals continue to meet such efforts with critiques of their own.
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The oral traditions that Native Southerners developed over many centuries helped to give meaning to a collective sense of beginning and an understanding of place in the world. Stories focusing specifically on the creation of the universe and human societies fall under one or a combination of the following genres: earth emergence stories, earth-diver creation stories, deluge stories, migration narratives, human creation associated with the Sun or Moon, and corn mother narratives.
Earth emergence tales (stories about the emergence of a people from an opening in the ground) and earth-diver narratives (involving animals diving into primordial waters) were the two most common types of origin narratives associated with the societies of the Native South by the seventeenth century. As in other parts of Native North America, variations on these narrative genres emerged over time, with different types of stories overlapping and complementing one another. For example, if we return to the Yuchi it's possible to identify oral traditions that emphasize earth-diver tales. Similarly, members of other groups, like the neighboring Cherokees, nurtured earth-diver narratives but also incorporated other oral traditions, such as deluge stories and migration narratives, perhaps reflecting how Cherokees incorporated the origin legends of Europeans into their own narratives of beginnings.
Increasingly after the seventeenth century, both small and large polities in the Native South had their origin stories and beliefs filtered through the ethnographic writings of colonial military officers and officials, ethnologists and missionaries, and more recently, professional anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians. This has proven to be the case with, for example, the Natchez. Seventeenth-century French observers interpreted Natchez origin stories through the lens of Catholicism. French missionaries and colonists sometimes recorded Natchez origin narratives in language that reinforced their own Christian beliefs about the origins of the world. For instance, one historian has noted that French colonists observed that "the Natchez followed a moral code of divine origin that was not unlike those found in the Old Testament."
Disentangling the threads of Native American and Christian culture remains one of the major challenges confronting students of the Native South. The Natchez, for example, didn't passively allow the French to interpret their oral traditions; instead, they actively sought ways to incorporate outside belief systems into existing traditions to empower elders and medicine men and women to better address new social problems, such as the spread of diseases like smallpox.
Other challenges also exist for students of the Native South. From the sixteenth century, the loss of knowledge that occurred in Indigenous communities across the Southeast following the invasion of European colonizers and the forced relocation of slaves from Africa to the Americas meant that origin narratives became fragmented at times. The anthropologist Charles Hudson made such observations during his fieldwork among the Catawbas. Hudson claimed that many people didn't seem particularly interested in their origin stories. Hudson was not the first (and by no means last) anthropologist to make such observations. In the early twentieth century, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Frank Speck lamented what he believed was the distinct lack of insight among the Catawbas about their origins, something he attributed (in an overly racialized and condescending way) to the Catawbas being "lax and shiftless in vital concerns."
Catawba people did in fact have narratives about their origins. Some of these stories reveal the influence of Christianity in the Native South. For instance, twentieth-century Catawbas recounted how their ancestors were connected to the "Lamanites" — a group of apostate Hebrews who migrated to the New World — a belief that can also be found in Mormon theology and which is a reflection of the porous and adaptable nature of oral storytelling.
If Catawba origin narratives highlight the significance of cultural syncretism in the Native South, the oral traditions of other Native Southerners display similar complexity and a range of possible cultural influences. The multiethnic Creek Indians — a group that included people who spoke the Muscogee (Muskogee or Maskókî), Hitchiti, Euchee (Yuchi), Natchez, and Alabama languages — developed a number of narratives to help explain the origins of their ancestors. These cosmogonies, or creation stories, have long been nurtured by Creek people in oral storytelling and scattered through written ethnographies dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Creek creation narratives focus on two major traditions. In the Eastern Creek tradition, narratives emphasizing earth-diver creation stories predominate. The Yuchis, the Hitchitis, and the Tuskegees, for example, developed earth-diver creation stories to account for their origins. Among Creek people, earth-diver creation stories posit a beginning point in which only the sky, water, and the beings inhabiting each space exist. Many Creek origin narratives focus on a crawfish diving into the water several times and ultimately succeeding in pulling a piece of the earth to the surface of the water. Shortly after the earth is created, the Yuchi origin narrative instructs that the first humans came into being.
The Alabamas, Koasatis, and Muscogees also developed creation stories that emphasize their emergence from the earth. Earth emergence narratives share many similar plotlines. Muscogee narratives usually don't speak of the earth's creation before human beings. In fact, both Alabama and Muscogee narratives highlight the emergence of humans from underground. These original people are said to be made from the earth's clay and to emerge from a cave. Such traditions hold clues to the importance of the land in providing a sense of geographical rootedness and go part of the way to understanding the importance of communal agricultural activity in Creek communities. Slight variations in earth emergence stories exist; the Alabamas, for instance, developed stories about "the Great Spirit" who made the universe and its human inhabitants, while the Muscogees emphasize the Rocky Mountains as the backbone and foundation of the earth.
In the Western Creek tradition, groups such as the Kashitas emphasized migration in their origin narratives. Such narratives presented a story of the first humans emerging in the West shortly after the formation of dry land. One of these narratives recounted the emergence of the Kashitas and their eastward migrations. In other instances, non-Creek people recorded stories of east-west migrations as part of Creek origin legends. During his travels through Georgia and Florida in 1773 and 1774, the naturalist William Bartram speculated that "the Creeks or Muscogulges, arose from, and established itself upon, the ruins of the Natches." Bartram contended that Creek informants told him that after some people established settlements, others continued migrating in a northeasterly direction.
The people of the Creek Confederacy were not alone in sharing migration narratives about their origins with Europeans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The neighboring Cherokees (Tsalagi, or Ani-Tsalagi, the plural of "Cherokee") also developed a variety of origin narratives that including stories about travel, migration, and resettlement. The Cherokees, an Iroquoian-speaking people, had called the southern Appalachians home since at least the year 1000. The Cherokees developed a matrilineal clan system. Cherokees belonged to one of seven clans — Aniwahya (Wolf), Ani Tsiskwa (Small Bird), Anikawi (Deer), Anigilohi (Twister or Long Hair), Anisahoni (Blue), Anigatogewi (Wild Potato), Aniwodi (Red Paint) — and lived in "demographically amorphous" towns nestled along riverbanks.
One narrative recited to explain the origins of the Cherokee people is the story of a mythical ancient priesthood, the Ani-Kutani. Eighteenth- century ethnographers claimed that Cherokees recounted stories of this ancient priesthood migrating from a mythical island and settling in the southeast. However, the Ani-Kutani became excessive in their exercise of power, prompting a bloody uprising that led to their overthrow and gave rise to the communal, consensus-seeking form of politics that emerged in Cherokee towns by the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
The most popular Cherokee creation stories focus on earth-diver narratives. Some of these stories emphasize the motif of the sun-catcher. Historically, Cherokee creation stories are recounted at night and during the winter to ensure listeners had the fire of life rekindled inside of them. Of all the Cherokee origin narratives, the most famous is that which tells the tale of a time when everything was covered by water. This narrative is similar to that recounted by the Yuchis and involves the belief that all living things lived in Galunlati, the sky vault. The narrative recounted how Galunlati became overcrowded, prompting a quest for more space. At first the animals populating Galunlati sent a Water Beetle to dive into the waters to search for more space. When the Water Beetle returned he spread a small amount of mud over the surface of the water. Over time, this mud became the muddy beginnings of the earth. In fact, the earth was so muddy and soft that it could not support any animals and so was affixed to the sky vault by four cords — areas of the earth in which mountains emerged. Once the muddy earth was secured, Grandfather Buzzard was sent to investigate a patch of earth that would eventually become the Cherokees' southeastern homeland, a homeland illuminated by Sister Sun who was pulled out from behind a rainbow.
What of the first Cherokee people? Cherokees developed narratives that told of the Great Spirit who made all the plants and animals and who also made the first man and woman. As is the case for other Native Southerners, a number of these Cherokee narratives survive today and highlight both the durability of Indigenous belief systems and the religious syncretism, or the blending of Indigenous and Christian beliefs, in the oral traditions of Native Southerners after the sixteenth century.
Missionaries, botanists, and ethnologists diligently recorded oral traditions about horned serpents and the Great Spirit. Such narratives emphasized how the "red man" constituted the first human. These types of narratives also provided a platform to explain the origins of corn, squash, and beans in the Native South. Indeed, stories about corn reinforce the importance of agriculture and buttress a sense of place among Native Southerners. Choctaws, for example, told of a crow bringing the first corn seeds after a "great flood," or of Choctaw ancestors finding corn at the sacred mound site of Nanih Waiya. While these stories differed, they both refocused the listener's attention on an important agricultural staple after a journey that ultimately connected people to a specific place.
The Cherokee narrative of Kana'ti, the "lucky hunter," and his wife, Selu (or Corn), remains one of the most famous in American folklore. Like the Choctaw stories above, the tale of Selu and Kana'ti explained how the Cherokees acquired game and corn. It also outlined a rationale for the gendered division of labor in Cherokee society — men hunt, women tend to the crops. But the story of Kana'ti and Selu offered more than this. It constituted a story of transformation that pivots dramatically when Kana'ti and Selu's only son discovered the Wild Boy by a riverbank. The Wild Boy sprang from the blood of game that Kana'ti killed and which Selu cleaned by the river. Kana'ti and Selu believed they'd tamed the Wild Boy, but the Wild Boy had not been tamed. He was not only wild, but cunning, and possessed magical powers. Kana'ti and Selu thus gave the Wild Boy a name appropriate to the traits he displayed: Inage-utasunhi, "He-Who-Grew-Up-Wild."
Inage-utasunhi led his brother into mischief as they followed their parents, discovering how Kana'ti procured game and how Selu collected corn by rubbing her stomach and acquired beans after rubbing her armpits. On seeing this, the boys decided to kill Selu because they became convinced she must be a witch. On discovering the boy's intent to kill her, Selu instructed them that once she was dead they should clear a piece of land in front of their home and drag her body in a circle seven times. She instructed the boys that after completing this task they should stay up all night and in the morning there would be ample corn. But the boys ignored Selu's instructions, instead dragging her body in a circle twice, and clearing seven small spots. This story explained to Cherokees why corn grew only twice a year and in limited places.
The story of Kana'ti and Selu also provided Cherokees with an outline for the administration of justice, while the adventures of Kana'ti and Selu's sons appeared in other narratives, such as the story of Anisgaya Tsunsdi (Little Men), or Thunder Boys. At the heart of Cherokee oral tradition was an effort to explain creation, account for the origins of the Cherokee people, and to underscore the importance of balance and harmony in the Cherokees' relationship with local ecologies. Cherokees who adopted identities as men and women played different, albeit complementary, roles, in Cherokee society. Thus, Cherokee oral tradition taught people the importance of communal responsibilities and reciprocity. To maintain harmony in Cherokee society, opposites required constant balancing.
Like the Cherokees, the Choctaws developed creation narratives that, as noted above, explained the origins of corn. They also developed stories that recounted earth-emergence and migration tales of Choctaw beginnings. Choctaw society was matrilineal in nature. Choctaw matrilineal clans included the Wind, Bear, Deer, Wolf, Panther, Holly Leaf, Bird, Raccoon, and Crawfish. Geographical divisions were also important to the Choctaws. By the eighteenth century, Choctaw geopolitics was structured around the Okla Hannalli (people of six towns), Okla Tannap (people from the other side), and the Okla Fayala (people who are widely dispersed).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Native Southerners"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
TWO: The Chiefdom Era,
THREE: Captivity, Colonialism, and Coalescence,
FOUR: Petite Nations, Towns, and Clans,
FIVE: War, Revolution, and Pan-Indianism,
SIX: Tribal Nationalism, Removal, and Diaspora,