North American Indians: Indians of the Southeast Woodlands

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Culturally and linguistically diverse Native American communities of various sizes recognize the area now known as the southeastern region of the United States as their ancestral homeland. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, several are federally recognized groups, while other communities continue to press for state and federal recognition. While those that have governmental recognition are officially identified as "American Indian tribes" or "bands," members of these groups self-identify in a number of ways, but most often by means of group names, which are either indigenous or commonly accepted English terms. Depending on personal preference, individuals also may employ such terms as First Nations, First Peoples, Indigenous Nations, Native Americans, or Indians. Certain of these First Peoples of the Southeast count as many as tens of thousands of members, while many more individuals living in the region claim some measure of Native American heritage.

Historically, the Native American religious traditions of this region included a variety of ritual practices, beliefs, and narrative traditions, and this is still the case today. Individual communities each have distinct religious systems, and there continues to be diversity within communities as well. A variety of Christian denominations flourish, in addition to contingents of people who maintain indigenous religious systems. There also are people who draw comfortably from both types of systems throughout their lives.

Research suggests that there are some elements of religious systems that are, and have been, common to most southeastern groups. Certain ritual activities, cultural narratives ("myths"), and beliefs that reflect recurrent themes are discernable, and oral transmission of knowledge continues in many communities. However, what the anthropologist John R. Swanton observed in the 1940s is still the case today: while "the background of the religious beliefs of these tribes and their medical practices[are] similar, the religious attitude seems to [vary] considerably from one tribe to another and the ceremonial patterns [are] often markedly distinct" (Swanton, 1946, p. 805).

The "Southeast Woodlands" and First Peoples

It is difficult to speak about groups and precise land area when discussing First Peoples of the region, past and present, and benchmark surveys do not always agree. Generally speaking, scholars have identified the Southeast as that sector of North America bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico at the east and south, by the longitude 95° west, and by a latitude between 35° and 40° north. Historically as many as 170 tribes are thought to have made the Southeast their home, with the following language families represented: Algonquian, Caddoan, Iroquoian, Muskogean, Siouan, Tunican, and Yuchean. Today, depending on criteria, estimates of communities in this large area range from the mid-twenties to fifty.

The process of colonization had manifold effects on the First Peoples of this region. In certain cases, distinct indigenous linguistic and cultural social units joined together as nations to meet the challenges posed by European colonists. Other politically and ceremonially autonomous groups linked by such factors as language and geography coalesced in a like manner. Most groups were organized by means of matrilineal clans, which provided a ready-made organizational structure for such amalgamations as the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole, and Choctaw. For example, the Cherokee, or Tsa:la:gi nation was formed from many towns or villages of people who referred to themselves as Ani:Yunwiya (the Principal People) and spoke three dialects of what is now called the Cherokee language. The term Cherokee is of uncertain origin, and all three terms are still in use today, though Cherokee and its Cherokee translation, Tsalag or Anitsalagi, predominate.

A different model is presented by the towns, or talwa (tvlwv) of distinct peoples who, in order to repel outside threats, formed what became known as the Creek Confederacy. These included communities speaking the Muskogean linguistic family languagesMvskoke (Muskogee), Alabama, Koasati, Apalachee, Hitchitee, and Mikasuki, in addition to, at some point in time, members of Yuchi, Shawnee, Natchez, Guale, Yamasee, Cusabo, and Tawaso groups (Lewis and Jordan, 2002, p. 5). The terms Mvskoke, Muskogee, and Creek can refer to the people, the language, or both.

Some of these amalgamations were decimated by warfare and disease, as were many autonomous communities before them. Others were torn asunder by the U.S. government policy of forced removal during the 1830s. Consequently, until that time the contemporary South was populated by groups that for the most part now have larger populations in Oklahoma. Because indigenous peoples that now have communities in the Southeast as well as in Oklahoma once belonged to the same cultural units, they have shared common elements of religious systems, although time and place have created differences. In Oklahoma, close proximity to other groups from the Southeast created further augmentations of belief and ritual. During the twentieth century, particularly the second half of the century, many eastern and western communities increased efforts to strengthen their ties.

Despite adversity, contingents of certain nations were able to maintain a presence on some portion of their ancestral lands, and over time solidify this presence. Currently, many indigenous religious systems are undergoing revivals as part of wider cultural revitalizations. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (North Carolina), the Poarch Band of Creeks (Alabama), the Seminole Tribe and Miccosuke Tribe (both in Florida), the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, as well as the Coushatta, Chitimacha, and Tunica-Biloxi Tribes (all in Louisiana), are testaments to the resolve of indigenous southeastern nations to retain their religious, social, and political identities while undergoing cultural change.

Lengthy legal or legislative actions often were required to guarantee and insure the rights associated with such group identity, and circumstances could and did change. To give one example, the Catawba people of South Carolina banded together for survival with several North and South Carolina peoples in the first half of the eighteenth century. The Catawba Indian Nation was terminated as a federally recognized tribe in 1962, recognized by the federal government again in 1993, and received a monetary settlement to resolve a land dispute that began in 1840.

Other communities have worked for full recognition of their collective identities as well. At the start of the twenty-first century, North Carolina groups such as the Lumbee (who list approximately fifty thousand members), Haliwa-Saponi, Waccamaw, and Coharie, as well as the Pamunkey and Mattaponi of Virginia, are recognized by their respective states even as they continue to seek federal recognition. The fact that they are not always supported in their efforts by federally recognized Native American communities speaks to the complexity of identity issues in the United States; the ongoing efforts of such groups also highlight the complex and often contradictory systems of classification by which federal and state agencies determine Native American identity.

Overview of Archaeological and Historical Data: Contact, Colonization, and Cultural Negotiation

Standard archaeological timelines, often constructed with a strong teleological component assuming Western civilization as the goal, have traced the history of religious traditions in the Southeast by means of a developmental societal pattern, with the religious systems reflecting changes in other social spheres as societies "progress" toward "civilization" in terms of complexity and technology. Typically, five periods of human occupation are delineated in the region: Paleo-Indian (c. 90007000 bce), Archaic (c. 70001000 bce), Woodland (c. 1000 bce700 ce), Mississippian (c. 7001500 ce), and Historic (c.1500 cepresent). Generally speaking, scholars have linked the religious behavior of communities in the region to subsistence activities in each of these periods.

Because of the archaeological evidence that led to such a timeline, the concept of a "Southeastern Ceremonial Complex" or "Southern Cult" was popular in the field of archaeology for many years. As originally conceived, the theorybased on archaeological evidence from "late prehistoric sites"was that during the Mississippian and early historic periods the societies in what is now the southeastern United States shared many similar material characteristics, suggesting broader religious and political affinities (Muller, 1989, pp. 11, 19). Common religious features included the development of a chiefly/priestly social class, veneration of and tribute to a sun deity tied to corn production, and ritualized burial techniques. In addition, shell gorgets and other items from these periods bear common artistic motifs such as spirals, circles, and spiders, which scholars speculate have spiritual significance. The theory still has its adherents, but contemporary scholarship has greatly abridged its explanatory capacity. While there were iconographic similarities across the region during the Mississippian period, it remains unclear to what extent ritual activities and beliefs can be interpolated from archaeological data.

Although Spanish political influence was temporary in most areas of the present-day Southeast other than Florida, the travels of the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto throughout the region in the 1540s would prove to have more lasting consequences. As other expeditions followed in his wake, the ensuing combination of warfare and epidemics devastated numerous groups. In the seventeenth century certain southeastern peoples were decimated (Yamasee, Timicua) while others were forced to emigrate and reside with confederacies of nations or emerging nation-states (Tuscarora, Yuchi). Within societies that avoided these two fates, in addition to the obvious effects of such upheaval and depopulation, in some cases the transmission of religious knowledge to younger generations was interrupted.

Religious-studies scholar Joel W. Martin argued in the late 1990s that such factors led to the fourth in a series of religious revolutions, the first three of which coincided with the transitions from the Archaic period to the historic period. According to Martin this resulted in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century "postholocaust, village-based religions" of such groups as the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muskogee (1997, p. 156). This theory is suggestive and situates postcolonial history in the much longer time span of human occupation of the region; further questions remain, however, as to the extent of regional homogeneity (as discussed above).

British, French, and Spanish forces arriving in the Southeast encountered diverse sociopolitical entities with longstanding ties to the land. Yet the peoples of the region were not passive observers; among indigenous groups, there was a gradual shift in power relations that initially favored those groups able to manipulate European governments and pit them against each other. Indigenous communities also had longstanding alliances or disputes in the region, which colonists were able to exploit to their advantage. This was the case especially once the British gained control of the region in 1760s after the war against the French and their Native American allies. All the while, people were on the move and new alliances were being formed. For example, Muskogee people immigrated to Florida in the eighteenth century, incorporated (in some cases forcibly) people from Yamasee, Apalachee, and other communities, including Africans, and became known as Seminoles.

In the early nineteenth century, increasingly encroaching colonial settlements and government designs on natural resources such as farmland and gold resulted in land loss for many groups who had survived earlier hardships. This period coincided with sustained Christian missionary efforts among groups throughout the Southeast. The prevalent ideology of the times inextricably linked Christianization and "civilization," and students in missionary schools were taught all aspects of "civilized" social behavior. European American observers dubbed the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muskogee, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations the "Five Civilized Tribes," because they felt that these groups best approached the appropriate level of cultural development.

Even these nations eventually were targets for forced removal. Although many missionaries saw this as the only solution, a small number were actively involved in the efforts of nations to retain their homelands. In the 1830s the majority of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muskogee, and Chickasaw nations, who had for the most part preserved their homelands and remained relatively autonomous until that time, were forcibly marched to territories in Oklahoma. These involuntary emigrations resulted in great loss of life, and each has become known as a Trail of Tears, though frequently history texts focus only on the Cherokee Removal. The Seminole nation resisted such efforts, and the U.S. military ultimately succeeded only partially in removing them.

The cultural impacts of Christianity upon southeastern communities have been complicated and multiple. The focus on acculturation created conflicts, and in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early to mid-twentieth centuries, the result in sectors of many communities was a de-emphasis on traditional beliefs and practices in favor of Christianity. However, there were individuals and contingents throughout the Southeast who steadfastly maintained indigenous religious systems, though they often did so away from the gaze of observers, scholarly and otherwise. On the other hand, in some cases (as with the Choctaw and Cherokee) Christian churches actually have worked to preserve cultural and group identity by incorporating local languages into services or by being a focal point for communities (see, for example, Pesantubbee, 1999).

Contemporary Landscape

The Mississippi Choctaw reservation is about seventy miles northeast of Jackson, mostly in Neshoba County. Of the approximately 9,000 Choctaw people living there, the majority identify themselves as Christian. While there is a range of denominations, Baptist, Catholic, and Pentecostal denominations dominate. However, people in certain communities, such as the Bogue Chitto, have steadfastly maintained their traditions, and refused to accept Christianity (Mould, 2003, p. xxiv). Additionally, since the 1970s there has been a resurgence of interest in "distinctly Choctaw" culture in Mississippi, where in addition to all-night sings at churches and other community-based events, an annual Choctaw Labor Day Festival features social dancing, traditional crafts, food, and stickball alongside country music and other standard attractions (Lambert, 2001, p. 317). Other activities such as sweat lodges also are gaining in popularity, though opinions are mixed as to whether or not this affects the uniqueness of Choctaw traditions (Mould, 2003, p. 204).

Similar events also take place on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina, in Swain and Jackson counties (about sixty miles west of Asheville), where approximately 7,000 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (of a total membership of 13,000) support at least twenty-two churches. Baptist churches are the most numerous, and there are several different Holiness tradition churches, as well as those of other denominations. Since the late twentieth century, certain townships (though members of all townships are involved) have been at the forefront of efforts to revive or preserve particular cultural elements such as traditional dancing, the Green Corn Ceremony, and the Cherokee language. As they have for centuries, religio-medicinal specialists continue to work and pass on traditions to younger generations; in a like manner traditions such as anetso, the Cherokee ball game, and its associated ceremonial cycle continue to be maintained in some townships.

In Alabama, approximately 1,500 Mvskoke people (of approximately 2,200 members) predominantly associate with Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Holiness, and Episcopal churches. They reside near Poarch, Alabama, in Escambia County, fifty-seven miles east of Mobile. In recent decades specialists from Oklahoma have been retained to revive various cultural activities, including the Mvskoke language and sweat bath activities. Religio-medicinal specialists have continued to work in this community as well (see below).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 1,200 to 1,500 Seminole and Miccosukee (Mikasuki) people live in Florida, many on three reservations: Brighton (northwest of Lake Okeechobee), Big Cypress (the northeast edge of Big Cypress Swamp), and Dania, or Hollywood (outside Hollywood, Fla.). Perhaps between 15 and 20 percent do not officially affiliate with either tribal entity; according to one source, approximately 60 percent of the Seminole people in Florida are non-Christian (Beck et. al, 1996, p. 245). Today, they are known as the Seminole Tribe. Though initially considered by the federal government as just a splinter Seminole group, the Miccosuke Tribe of Florida gained a corporate charter and drafted a constitution in 1961, and they established separately in 1965 along the Tamiami Trail highway. The Miccosuke people distinguish themselves from Seminoles culturally; their Hitchiti language, ilaponki, is spoken by about two thirds of the larger group, with the rest speaking Mvskoke.

Supernatural or "Other-Than-Human" Beings

Many First Peoples of the Southeast reference a "supreme being," but often the term connotes a more abstracted power, force, or perpetuity. These beings or entities can be beseeched for assistance and are considered important forces in many peoples' lives. Though different terms can be used to refer to them, a select few are the Cherokee term une:hlanv´:hi (translated as "Provider," from the verb "to provide"; also translated "Creator") and the Mvskoke terms Hesaketvmesē (translated as "Breath Holder," "Master of Breath," or "Breath") and Ibofanga (translated as "the existence of all things and energy within all things," or "the one above us" (Kilpatrick, 1991, p. 58; Fixico, 2003, p. 3; Swanton, [1928] 2000, p. 481).

The Choctaw term for this entity most often cited is hvshtahli [hvsh-táh-li ] and is translated as "Great Spirit," with the caveat that this term was a pre-Christian concept (Haag and Willis, 2001, p. 334). According to one source, it also can be translated as "governor of the world, whose eye is the sun"; both this term and the term for sunnanapisa (the one who sees)express the distinction that the sun was an aspect of a more abstract force and not in and of itself a deity or focus of worship (O'Brien, 2002, p. 3). Similarly, the Chickasaw term for this supernatural being, Luak Ishto Holo Åba, is translated as "the great holy fire above," and the Natchez term, Uwa'shīł, as "Big fire" (Swanton, [1928] 2000, p. 482).

Cultural narratives often are populated by a variety of other beings that may be more regularly involved with humans or beseeched for assistance. They are not worshipped, but are respected for their power and abilities, both positive and negative. Defying characterization as "good" or "evil," they have the capacity to help as well as harm humans, especially if they are not treated with proper respect.

These can be natural elements, "archetypal forms" of animals or human-like beings such as Corn Woman (see below). Depending on the religious system, natural phenomena including the sun, thunders, and running bodies of water such as rivers and streams are considered sentient beings (Cherokee, Choctaw, Natchez, Mvskoke). All of these beings can be understood as "other-than-human persons," to use A. Irving Hallowell's term from his seminal article on Ojibwe traditions ([1960] 1975, p. 145).

Narrative Traditions and Cosmology

Southeastern communities traditionally have transmitted a variety of historical accounts, cultural narratives, and items of religious knowledge orally. Though the proliferation of scholarship has made written accounts readily available over the last century and a half, in many cases the preferred mode of transmission continues to be oral. The term "cultural narratives" is used in the context of this article to refer to what are commonly called "myths"; this term implies cultural significance without assigning a truth-value. While there are a variety of such cultural narratives, several southeastern communities share certain narratives in common, though individual details differ.

Certain of these narratives are of a sacred character, and are equal in significance to narratives contained in the holy books of other cultures. As is the case in any religious community, individuals in southeastern groups interpret these narratives in a variety of ways, both literally and metaphorically, and incorporate other information in their assessments. These narratives can be used to explain current circumstances, for instance how a people came to live where they do, and why they perform certain activities, be they subsistence-related or ceremonial. Other narratives, which sometimes are humorous, allegorically highlight human foibles or are etiological.

Both Cherokee and Mvskoke cultural narratives present cosmologies that recognize different worlds, or planes, including the world humans now inhabit, an underworld, and a world above the sky. The middle world is conceived as being a flat surface surrounded by water, over which a stone sky vault arches and tilts daily to allow beings and forces to pass between worlds. Other groups of human-like beings also inhabit the middle world, including the Little People (Cherokee, Yun:wi Tsun:sdi ´), recognized by many groups. Mostly keeping to themselves, they are sometimes mischievous; on occasion their presence is more dangerous.

Cherokee cosmology posits a tiered series of planes culminating in the seventh height, or galv':ladí (galunlati ), which translates as "above" or "above everything," located above the sky vault; this is home to various forces such as thunder and the sun, as well as for archetypal animals (Kilpatrick, 1991, p. 58; Irwin, 1992, p. 240). Typically, the underworld does not have a negative moral value. Certain beings such as large horned snakes and panthers make their home in the underworld, accessed through rivers, streams, and waterfalls. However, even such dangerous beings possess ambiguous attributes; the large horned snake (Cherokee, uk:tena ), for example, has a jewel-like crest on its forehead that is prized for its powers. The Mvskoke narrative tradition speaks of the tie snake as another such being.

Creation of the World and the Appearance of Humans

According to one Cherokee cultural narrative, the world of human habitation was created when animals living in galv':ladí felt crowded and sent a water beetle to search for a place to live below the sky vault, where all was water. The water beetle retrieved mud from the bottom of the water, and this mud was fastened to the sky vault with four cords, one at each cardinal direction. Individual Mvskoke narratives differ somewhat in describing the creation of the world, but several examples revolve around an animal or bird (e.g., crawfish, dove, pigeons) procuring the dirt or blade of grass that would be used to create the earth. The Seminole oral tradition describes the creation of the earth from the back of the Great Turtle, who emerged from the sea. His shell cracked and four giant ant brothers put it back together; though the turtle perished, he decreed that Earth Children should walk over it. They emerged from beneath an earth mound that had formed on this surface. There are Alabama, Chitimacha, Natchez, and Yuchi versions of this "earth diver" narrative form as well.

Cultural narratives also locate inhabitants in the southeastern region. While some narratives describe migration from elsewhere at a distant time in the past (Mvskoke, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw), others state that present-day southeastern locales are in fact ancestral homelands (Mvskoke, Cherokee, Choctaw). Thus, in several cases, emergence from the earth is either stated (Mvskoke, Choctaw) or implied (Cherokee). The existence of different narratives about single events within religious systems should not be misconstrued as problematic, nor considered as logical flaws in the system. For example, the presence of two different creation stories as well as two flood narratives woven together in the Book of Genesis does not typically result in such conclusions about Judaism and Christianity; nor does the existence of Four Gospels do so for the latter.

In these southeastern narrative traditions, animals existed on the earth before humans, and engaged in a variety of activities that humans would as well, including conducting councils, staging dances, and engaging in athletic contests. Humans arrived on the earth soon after, and quickly began to wear out their welcome by killing animals, competing with them for resources, and driving them from their homes. Many of the animals played a role in alterations to both the landscape and the way of life in the world of human inhabitation.

According to a Cherokee narrative, the animals, meeting in emergency council, determined to thin out the human population by devising individual diseases. Hearing of the animals' plans, the plants decided to come to the aid of the humans by providing themselves as medicines to cure the various diseases. Thus humans gained a valuable ally. At least one Mvskoke cultural narrative relates how plants made a pact with a "Holy Man," or Mēkko-hoyvnēcv (King passing through) to cure people together (Lewis and Jordan, 2000, pp. 7476).

Narratives Concerning the Corn Woman

In most southeastern traditions, a significant narrative recounts the selfless, ultimately sacrificial act of a Corn Woman who in life provided food from her body and in her death the plants for cultivation to sustain her people (Cherokee, Mvskoke, Natchez). Though it varies somewhat within and between communities, the basic storyline is that one or two sons (in one Natchez version it is twin girls, in another it is a single boy) spied on their mother or grandmother as she privately rubbed her body to produce corn (and sometimes beans as well). They were shocked as they saw the food emanate from between her legs (in at least one Cherokee version it is said to have come from her vagina; in Mvskoke versions it came from either between her legs as she scratched her thighs, or from her feet; and in a Natchez version it issued from her anus). Fearing this trusted woman was a witch, they refused to eat the food, and then either she offered herself to them as a sacrifice (Natchez, Mvskoke, Cherokee), she did so after they resolved to kill her (Cherokee), or she sent them off to live elsewhere for a time (Mvskoke).

One further version of the narrative, from the Koasati people (of present-day Alabama), tells of an old woman who provided food for orphans, though she had been shunned because of sores and uncleanliness. Choctaw narratives attribute the origin of corn to the daughter of a Choctaw sacred being who, after being fed by two hunters, instructed them to return to their meeting place at the next midsummer moon. When they did they discovered a corn plant, which they cultivated.

In Cherokee and Mvskoke versions of the Corn Woman narrative, there appears to be a link between the production of corn and menstruation. Interestingly, both Cherokee and Shawnee narratives feature menstruating women defeating malevolent beings (such as a stone-covered cannibal or great horned serpent). It seems clear that these are expressions of women's poweralthough scholars continue to debate the narratives' perspectives on this power (i.e., whether or not it is portrayed positively or negatively). Either way, women play key roles in these foundational narratives; in the former cases the women provide a staple crop for the benefit of future generations, and in the latter they defeat enemies threatening their communities.

Medico-Religious Specialists and Medicinal Traditions

Generally speaking, ritual specialists seek the intercession of supernatural beings in the affairs of humans; they can offer prayers, divine information, and administer medicinal substances. Such specialists can be either male or female. These activities and the forces and beings they involve are part of religious systems that encompass both positive and negative elements. Due in part to the common English translation of these activities as "conjuring," and an unfortunate focus upon its negative aspects, many observers have mislabeled the activity "witchcraft." Such beliefs are still strong among some circles in southeastern communities, though they are rejected as superstition by others in the same communities. Many people find traditional and Christian activities complementary, and certain contemporary practitioners report that Christian beliefs power their abilities.

Such Cherokee practitioners often are known in English as "conjurers" or those who "doctor"; they are identified by terms that designate their particular abilities and specialties. For example, religious studies scholar Lee Irwin culled terms from several works, including ada'nunwisgi (healers or curers); amayi didadzun:stisgi (the one who "takes them to water"interpreted as "priest"); and didaʾnunwiski (sing., well-known and mature healer) (Irwin, 1992, pp. 244245). This final term was translated by Cherokee studies scholar Alan Kilpatrick as "knowledgeable shaman" (1991, p. 50). Some specialists focus primarily on divination, which can include locating lost objects, diagnosing disease, or predicting the date of an individual's death.

Formulaic utterances, or idi:gawé:sdi (often called "songs" or "formulas"), are integral to any healing activity, as well as to other pursuits such as hunting or warfare. They are standardized speech acts that incorporate elements of prayer, entreaty, and instruction on producing desired effects, as well as directions for preparation and usage of medicines. Through the use of formulas, ritual specialists can seek the intercession of supernatural beings and effect circumstances in the course of human events. With the creation of the Cherokee syllabary by Sequoyah in 1821, many specialists began writing these formulas in notebooks.

In Mvskoke culture, Heleswv (medicine) is utilized in individual cases of illness, as well as for activities such as ball games. Tools include specially prepared sticks, crystals (sabiā), and horns made from pieces of a special horned snakethe latter are used to extract negative substances from ill patients. These crystals were once in use among several groups in the region, including the Cherokee, Mvskoke, Alabama, and Natchez.

For Mvskoke people, the ideal of hecvs, or "seeing," involves the simultaneous recognition of the presence of a variety of beings and forces, both physical and metaphysical, and of the "totality of Ibofanga ['the one above us']" (Fixico, 2003, pp. 7, 11). Religio-medicinal specialists are divided into three categories, though the first, the heles-hayv (medicine maker), can possess the abilities of all three. The other two specialists are the "owalv (prophet or seer)" and the "kerrv (one who knows)," or Kerrata (key-tha) (Lewis and Jordan, 2002, p. 39; Fixico, 2003, p. 3). These individuals can be male or female. Unlike the Cherokee tradition, written books with songs and words ("formulas") are considered a sign of weakness.

Choctaw terms applied to human beings, such as ishtahullo ("being endowed with occult power"; see also stahullo, "witch," below), also refer to the power of natural forces such as thunder, or to the power provided by dreams. The word ishtahullo can be applied to all women generally, as well as to particular men and women of distinction, including at least one Jesuit missionary (O'Brien, 2002, pp. 3, 4, 7, 8). Its roots refer to generative principles and the genitalia associated with them (hullo, menstruation, and hasi, penis or vagina) (O'Brien, 2002, p. 5). At one time a number of medicinal and ritual specialists were active in Choctaw society; though the designations have differed, many sources agree on three groups rendered in Choctaw and English by one scholar as "alikchi (physician), apoluma (conjurer), and stahullo (witch)" (Noley, in Mould, 2003, p. 121). According to one Choctaw source, contact produced a kind of assimilation of all three functions into single individuals, though today most such individuals are gone (Denson in Mould, pp. 121, 122). Some medicine men and women do continue to practice, however; and at present according to one scholar, the term hopaii, which once meant "prophet," now means "witch," someone who harms others by means of supernatural powers (Mould, 2003, pp. 121, 126).

In all southeastern communities where such individuals are still active, their presence often goes unnoticed by researchers and other visitors, because most of these specialists do not seek publicity. While some do publicize themselves, often the most powerful and respected individuals go out of their way not to draw attention to themselves. This unobtrusiveness in many cases shields them from the nuisance of curious visitors and allows them to concentrate all their energy on the important tasks they are called upon to perform. Those entrusted with transmission of cultural narratives also may adopt this strategy, in part out of a sense of propriety. Historically, incorrect conclusions about the survival of cultural traditions have resulted from long-standing precepts regarding appropriate times and places to discuss such information as well as people with whom it should be shared. These attitudes continue to impact both ethnographic and missionary enterprises in indigenous communities.

Ritual Activities

There are several activities that southeastern communities practice in common. One key activity is ritual immersion or laving in naturally running water (Cherokee, amó:hi atsv':sdi, "going to water"), which can be performed daily by solitary individuals in order to maintain health and well-being. People also can enjoin ritual specialists to accompany them in order to diagnose conditions, administer medicinal treatments, and beseech other-than-human persons for assistance. On ceremonial occasions such as green corn ceremonies, entire families might join together in this activity, as would groups on the occasions of births, marriages, and deaths. In the past, on particular occasions people took sweat baths in special structures before the ritual immersion (Cherokee, osi ), and this latter practice has been revived lately among some groups, but, as discussed above, not without controversy.

For a range of conditions, psychological as well as physical, medicines prepared from plant substances are either ingested or applied externally to those in need by ritual specialists, and this practice almost always is accompanied by the recitation of formulas. Scarification or scratching is another activity that has been used in medicinal and religious contexts to aid in general healing or in specific treatment routines. It is usually performed with comb-like instruments and accompanied by the application of medicine on the scratches. Community dances, once weekly events lasting through the night, typically have incorporated expressions of thanksgiving, celebrations of human achievement, and ribald social commentaries, in addition to specific dances of a social nature in which dancers imitate particular animal movements. Finally, though there is a paucity of research in this area, scholarship suggests that women in most southeastern groups made use of menstrual huts, and that these structures were places of instruction and communion.

Green Corn Ceremonialism

Ceremonial activities tied to the first harvest and consumption of green corn once were widespread religious events throughout the Southeast, although as noted above by Swanton, particularities of meaning and performance often have differed. Dances and several other activities marked the yearly occasions. These harvest thanksgiving ceremonies, such as the Mvskoke posketv, are commonly known as "green corn ceremonies" or just "green corn"; in some communities these events also initiate the new year. These names refer to the central activity of the celebration, the preparation and consumption of boiled or roasted green corn, symbolic of the first fruits of the harvest.

A key ceremony was the kindling of new fires from a central, consecrated fire, after all old fires had been extinguished. Other activities have included dancing, singing, and ritual cleaning of homes. An emetic (often containing Ilex vomitoria ) was at one time utilized to cleanse male individuals, both physically and spiritually, during this ceremony. Interestingly, one Oklahoma Mvskoke individual has suggested that at least in cases with which he was familiar, the substance was not an emetic and the vomiting was "a cultural, not a biological act" (Howard and Lena, 1984, p. 43). In addition, drinking a green corn medicine was at one time a common requirement before tasting the corn.

The posketv (mistransliterated as "Busk" by some observers) or Green Corn Ceremony is the most visible of the Mvskoke stomp dances, and is held in July. Still actively observed in many Mvskoke dance grounds in Oklahoma, and increasingly in Alabama communities of the Poarch Creek band, the ceremony includes activities such as dancing, fasting, stickball, and the ingestion of the vsse medicine. This substance, mistakenly referred to by many observers as the "black drink," is made from a red root and is more the color and consistency of a brackish tea; it is actually commonly known within communities as the "the white drink" (Swan, in Swanton, [1928] 2000, p. 548). While several observers have attributed this name to the substance's properties of "purification," it might be more accurate to think of it in terms of the regulation of interpersonal and therefore societal harmony (Martin, 2000, p. 95)

For Seminole and Miccosuke people in Florida, the Green Corn Dance continues as a time for renewal of both humans and certain medico-religious tools. These ceremonies have continued to be public occasions in Florida. Over the course of four days (including the weekend) at the time of the new moon either in late June or early July, elders meet in council, and men fast, participate in sweat baths, and ingest an emetic. Both adults and children are "scratched" or undergo scarification, to revitalize the blood, though in more recent times women and girls have not participated. Boys and girls are honored for growing into new phases of their lives, and two kinds of ball games are played during the weekends: a more lighthearted single-pole game between men and women, and a rougher game between teams of men who compete to score goals at either end of a playing field.

As one source noted, each stomp ground does things a bit differently, and these variations can be likened to those between denominations (Beck et. al, [1977] 1996, p. 254). At the end of the Dance, a medicinal specialist gives a summation of the proceedings as he offers prayers of thanks to the corn and the "The Mighty One" (Beck et. al, [1977] 1996, p. 256). The medicine bundlecontaining all substances necessary for success in a wide range of endeavors and for the general health of all community membersalso is renewed with blessings before sunrise on the final day of the Dance. The same source reported that only two medicine men were still knowledgeable about the medicine bundles and their renewal during the Green Corn Dance (Beck et. al, [1977] 1996, pp. 250, 245).

Current Scholarship on Religious Traditions of the Southeast Woodlands

Though elements of several religious systems are isolated and categorized above in this article, each community combines them into internally logical systems that provide meaning as well as help to define individuals, groups, and the relationships of existence. Providing important counter-perspective to existing and ongoing scholarship, many of the significant recent works on the religious systems of southeastern groups have been authored or coauthored by indigenous scholars or elders who write about their own cultures and who elucidate indigenous epistemologies. In addition, a lively debate has developed regarding the 1976 book The Southeastern Indians, by the historian Charles M. Hudson. As the historian James T. Carson noted of this text, "Hudson crafted what has become the orthodox interpretation of not just Creek religion but southeastern cosmology as a whole by combining Swanton's work on Creek religion with his colleague James Mooney's observations of the faith of Eastern Cherokees" (Carson in Swanton, [1928] 2000, p. vi).

Hudson, it should be noted, made no such claims about his book. He did rely heavily on Cherokee materials, and less so on Mvskoke materials, in the chapters "The Belief System" and "Ceremony"; elsewhere in the book he provided ample individual examples from many southeastern nations (see Hudson, 1976, pp. 120183; 317375). Mary Churchill, a religious studies and women's studies scholar, published an interesting 1996 article critiquing Hudson's work, focusing upon notions of "purity" and "pollution" in the Cherokee universe, to which Hudson responded with an article of his own (see bibliography). The increase in area scholarship that began in the 1980s continues to produce more varied studies and highlight additional perspectives, ensuring continued scholarly interest and theoretical development while complementing the large body of valuable existing work.

See Also

Cherokee Religious Traditions; North American [Indian] Religions, article on History of Study.


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Michael J. Zogry (2005)

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North American Indians: Indians of the Southeast Woodlands