Native American Government: Mississippian Chiefdoms
Native American Government: Mississippian Chiefdoms
Emergence of Agriculture. Between 200 b.c. and a.d. 700 the native people of eastern North America began to adopt agricultural techniques and increased the prominence of harvested plant food like squash and sunflowers in their meals. Between 700 and 1200 the Woodlands cultures began to add cultivated corn and beans to their diets. By 1200 Indians in the east were growing corn almost everywhere that the climate would allow, from the present American border with Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The availability of a reliable source of vegetable food allowed the population of Woodland communities to expand dramatically. As the population grew, these societies required more complicated systems of government. In some locations these societies developed severely stratified social classes and a hierarchical political structure. These societies were called chiefdoms.
The Chiefdom. In a chiefdom a paramount chief of great authority required the population of his adherent villages to provide him with a portion of their crop. Some chiefs also took a percentage of each individual’s kill from hunting. This offering to the paramount chief is called tribute. The paramount chief then redistributed some of the tribute to his family. He also redirected the tribute to the towns of the chiefdom through his under-chiefs. These subordinates to the chief were often related to the paramount chief by blood or marriage. The chief also used tribute for public purposes. He conveyed it to other peoples in diplomatic ceremonies or redistributed it to members of the society who could not provide for themselves. The larger chiefdoms were capable of organizing, collecting, and redistributing sustenance for thousands of people. Between the eighth and fifteenth centuries large and powerful chiefdoms dominated many areas of eastern North America. The period of the great chiefdom is called the Mississippian era because most of these societies were located on the major river ways of the Mississippi River watershed. The largest and most powerful chiefdom, Cahokia, was located along the Mississippi itself, just outside of present-day St. Louis. Cahokia’s population climbed as high as thirty thousand to forty thousand by the thirteenth century, making it the largest settlement in North America and one of the largest cities in the world at the time. Cahokia was so large and influential that it attracted tribute from towns and villages from several miles away. The hierarchical structure of the chiefdom brought a system of social order to thousands of adherents living in dozens of villages around the central residence of a chief. However, this order originated out of the authoritarian rule of the paramount chief. Consequently, chiefdoms were fragile sociopolitical structures that could collapse from various internal and external forces. Droughts, disease epidemics, and war always had the potential to bring on an implosion of the chiefdom.
Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. The chief held the power of life or death over every member of his chiefdom and over prisoners captured in wars against neighboring tribes. The Mississippian societies were characterized by a similar set of religious beliefs, burial rites, and symbolic artwork that archeologists refer to as the Southeastern ceremonial complex. Most Mississippian societies worshiped a sun god and maintained a fertility cult. Many of the paramount chiefs, such as those of the Natchez, often claimed to be descendants of the sun. The people of the chiefdom therefore treated the chief and his family as divine beings. When the paramount chief died, the people of the chiefdom often killed his wives, children, and servants so that they could join him in the afterlife. Since food production was organized by the chief and his subordinates, some people were free to become specialized potters, artists, and sculptors. At the same time organized agricultural production allowed these societies to use available labor and technological ability to build massive public-works projects such as the temple mounds of Cahokia, Moundville, and Etowah. The largest mound in North America, Monks Mound in Cahokia, covered more than eighteen acres and was over one hundred feet tall. The mounds were used as temples and residences for the chiefs and priests of Mississippian societies. The temple mound was built as a place to honor the god of the sun and was symbolic of the divine power of the paramount chief.
Decline and Collapse. By the time the Spanish began widespread colonization in the sixteenth century, almost all of the major chiefdoms had collapsed and splintered into remnant groups. The specific reasons for the decline and fall of the great chiefdoms is still unclear. Some scholars argue that the populations of the chiefdoms were decimated by diseases brought to the Americas by European explorers, fishermen, and castaways. Depopulation by disease, combined with devastating civil wars, could have caused the collapse of the tributary system of food production and distribution. Other students of chiefdoms suggest that some of them failed because of a crisis in the succession of leadership from one paramount chief to another. Other theorists contend that the simple structure of a chiefdom was inherently unstable and that chiefdoms often developed, disintegrated into smaller groups, and then reemerged again in a natural cycle. Whatever the cause of their demise, the disappearance of the chiefdom resulted in a political and social leveling of the peoples of the Woodlands region.
Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995);
Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976).
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