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Native American Government: The Southeast

Native American Government: The Southeast


The Region. After the decline of the great Mississippian chiefdoms, the native population of the southeastern part of the present-day United States was dispersed into dozens of different bands and villages. Occasionally these small groups coalesced into larger cultural units called tribes. Through this process several large and powerful tribes, comprised of thousands of people, emerged about the same time that Europeans were beginning to colonize the Southeast. The Creek Indians were an example of this process of amalgamation. They were a conglomeration of formerly autonomous villages and peoples such as the Alabamas, Euchees, and Hitchitis. These peoples had their own cultural traditions and spoke different languages and dialects. Over time, though, these combinations of smaller groups developed common cultures and systematic methods of regulating behavior and preserving order. Although the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and other southeastern Indians maintained their own unique political traditions, some aspects of their governments were common throughout most of the region. These customary practices facilitated the preservation of the social and spiritual state of balance and harmony that was essential to native life.

Localized Government. As was the case with many native peoples, the clan was the primary form of social organization and the main source of institutional order among the southeastern tribes. However, some matters involved all members of a community. These concerns were managed by the town or village council. Generally speaking, the villages of the southeastern tribes in the precolonial period were self-governing and autonomous. Before 1600 they rarely united in combined council for concerted action. There were no national governments to speak of at this time. The center of political activity in a southeastern village was the council house. In most of these groups the entire adult community met to decide important political or diplomatic questions. The villages reached decisions through a process of prolonged discussion and debate. The objective of the council was to reach a consensus, a course of action that most or all of

the community agreed upon. Although the town councils were comprised of the entire population of the village, they were usually particularly influenced by three groupsthe priests, the clan elders, and a group of beloved men who had achieved great deeds as warriors or civil leaders. Although these men held considerable sway, all men and women were allowed to express their opinions. Some women, such as the beloved women of the Cherokees, held a particularly strong voice among the civil councils of their communities. Of course the process of consensus required individual members of the council to compromise their positions in order to reach agreement. Debates over the appropriate course of action might continue for days, and the development of a consensus would often require entrenched dissenters to withdraw from the debate.

Leadership. Although southeastern communities were predominantly egalitarian, there were certain individuals of office or influence who were able to persuade others to follow a proposed course of action. These leaders usually achieved their position from their past success in war, administration, oratory, or diplomacy. Most of the villages selected a principal chief. Among some tribes the post historically belonged to a particular clan. In those cases the office was hereditary, and under the matrilineal system succession fell to the chiefs nephew, his oldest sisters son. If this nephew was ill-suited for leadership, however, he could just as easily be passed over for a more capable man. The chief held his position at the will of the community. If he lost the confidence of the people, he could be removed from leadership. The principal chief was assisted by a professional speaker who articulately presented the chiefs positions and thoughts for him at council meetings. The chief rarely spoke in council. Therefore, it was up to the speaker to persuade the council to follow his chiefs proposed course of action.

Moieties. Southeastern Indians conceived of the oversight of war and civil government as distinctly separate functions that required different groups of leaders. This had the effect of preventing one individual or one group from acquiring an unhealthy monopoly of power, a circumstance that native people feared. These social divisions of responsibility were called moieties; the term implies the division of a society into halves. The white or peacetime moiety was strongly influenced by a group of sage and experienced clan elders and was responsible for all governmental activities except war. The red moiety, dominated by younger warriors, ascended to leadership when the village became involved in hostilities with other villages or tribes. Among the Creeks a civil chief presided as head of a council of clan elders. These men were experts in diplomacy and administration. The white council was responsible for divvying up agricultural lands between clans, for accumulating and distributing the towns food surplus, and for maintaining trade and diplomatic relations with other peoples. The red moiety was divided into rigid ranks of military leadership. In times of war the red moiety would ascend temporarily to almost an authoritarian leadership of the nation. Upon a decision to go to war by the white moiety, the highest ranking military man, the big or great warrior, as he was called, would take over the reins of government. When peace was restored, the white government returned to national leadership.

The Green Corn Ceremony. Southeastern societies celebrated a particularly important annual event, the Busk, or Green Corn, Ceremony, that functioned to clear the air of all ill feelings in the community. During this harvest festival all animosities, conflicts, and offenses (except murder) were symbolically exorcised. Over several days each community would ignite a new ceremonial fire, conduct rituals of spiritual cleansing, give thanks for its harvest, hear from its priests a recitation of the laws and history of the people, and receive admonitions from the spiritual leaders about the importance of forgiveness and renewal. The Green Corn Ceremony allowed each individual to begin the year untainted and revived, and it signified a return to the precious and fragile state of natural balance and harmony.


Michael D. Green, The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982);

Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976);

Rennard Strickland, Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975);

John R. Swanton, The Indians of the Southeastern United States (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1946).

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