views updated May 17 2018


ETHNONYMS: The Yuchi refer to themselves as Tsoyaha (Offspring of the Sun), but this name is not known to their neighbors. In Eastern North American languages a local version of Yuchi is used. Early historical sources contain variations of the name "Chisca." Yuchi and Euchee are alternative spellings used by the Yuchi.


Unless described as moribund, the features of Yuchi culture and society described here should be considered to have been vital during the period 1990-2000.

Identification and Location. The Yuchi live in portions of Creek, Tulsa, and Okmulgee counties in the state of Oklahoma. Lacking recognition by the U. S. government as a separate tribe, the Yuchi were incorporated in 2001 within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Prior to the 1830s they lived in autonomous towns throughout southeastern North America. At the time of their removal to the west most Yuchi towns were along the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers. At contact with Europeans, the Yuchi were concentrated on the upper and middle Tennessee River.

Demography. The size of the Yuchi community is difficult to calculate because in the absence of a federally recognized tribal government a modern census has not been undertaken. Knowledgeable community members and ethnographers estimate a late twentieth-century population of about five hundred people actively participating in Yuchi community life, drawn from a population of two thousand to three thousand people with Yuchi heritage.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Yuchi language is a linguistic isolate. Suggestions of linkages at a deep level to the Siouan language family have not been demonstrated and are increasingly in doubt. About ten speakers were fluent in Yuchi at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

History and Cultural Relations

In the colonial era the Yuchi ranged widely in areas north of Spanish influence. At contact they were neighbors of Muskogean-, Algonquian-, and Cherokee-speaking populations. After that time they were regular congeners of the mobile Shawnee, with whom they remain allied into the early twenty-first century. As allies of the English, the Yuchi participated in expeditions aimed at destroying Spanish missions. During the early settlement of Georgia the Yuchi assisted the English colonists, particularly the Salzburgers, who settled in the 1730s near their town on the Savannah River. In the later 1700s the Yuchi relocated into western Georgia and Alabama, where they increasingly participated in the alliance of autonomous towns that came to be known as the Creek Confederacy. Before being forced west of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory in the 1830s, many Yuchi people moved into Florida, where they became Seminoles.


Since their arrival in Indian Territory the Yuchi have lived in three major settlements in the northern part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Each of these communities has a town square and is led by a traditional chief. The easternmost settlement, known as Duck Creek, is south of Bixby, Oklahoma. South of the city of Bristow is the settlement known in English as Sand Creek in the western part of Yuchi territory. At the center of Yuchi country, near Sapulpa, is the largest settlement, known as Polecat Town. Polecat Town is viewed as the Yuchi "mother town" from which the other towns derived.


Subsistence. In the traditional economy of the Yuchi, women were the primary farmers and men hunted and assisted in the preparation of fields and during the harvest. After removal both men and women participated in agricultural activities. Subsistence farming continued to be widely practiced into the twentieth century, but after World War II it was reduced to supplemental gardening.

Commerical Activities. Before the American Revolution the Yuchi were involved in the colonial deerskin trade, through which they obtained European manufactured goods. In the early twentieth century many Yuchi worked for wages on the larger farms of their nonnative neighbors. After participating as soldiers and factory workers during World War II, Yuchi men and women remained in the cash economy, working in both blue- and white-collar jobs.

Industrial Arts. Traditional but now moribund industries included pottery, plaited basketry, finger-woven textiles, and carved wooden tools. The Yuchi continue to construct ancestral styles of buildings at their ceremonial ground sites, where dances and ceremonies have motivated the continuing production of traditional musical instruments and clothing.

Trade. In the colonial era, prepared deerskins were the most important trade item produced by the Yuchi. In the American era, the fur trade diminished in importance and the Yuchi participated marginally in commercial agriculture.

Division of Labor. At a symbolic and everyday level the Yuchi share a general Woodland regional pattern in which men and women participate in a complementary and reciprocal division of labor. In this traditional system women are associated with farming and the domestic world of home and town; men are associated with hunting and the undomesticated spaces beyond the community. This belief underpinned everyday economic activities but was the key to Yuchi cosmology and ritual life. Gender relations are characterized by men and women being viewed as equal but different, with the sexes being intertwined in complementary relationships at every level of culture and society.

Land Tenure. Before Oklahoma became a state, land in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was owned collectively by the nation but individuals had use rights to the land on which they settled. Allotment of land to individual tribal members preceded Oklahoma statehood in 1907. Much of this land base was lost during the twentieth century, but many Yuchi families continue to live on or near the lands (usually reduced in size) that they held before statehood.


Kin Groups and Descent. Unlike their fully matrilineal Creek neighbors, the Yuchi had a complicated system of kinship groupings. Yuchi men are classified on the two sides of a patrilineal division between chief's and warriors. Unlike other Eastern peoples, this dual division is not predicated on clan membership but on the group to which one's father belonged.

The Yuchi are reported to have had a matrilineal clan system, but in the early twentieth century it seemed to function in only a minimal way, and it ceased functioning by mid-century. There is no evidence that it was ever a dominant institution in Yuchi life. It is likely that in the nineteenth century it was exogamous like the systems of the neighboring Muskogeans. It probably was instituted as a mechanism by which the Yuchi could participate, through intermarriages and in ceremonial events, in the life the Creek Confederacy. Unlike the Creek clans, chief and warrior status determines male eligibility for Yuchi ritual and political offices.

Kinship Terminology. Yuchi kinship terminology does not neatly reflect the widespread matrilineal Crow system that predominates in the Southeast. The distinctive Yuchi ancestral kinship terminology was not used in the 1990s, and the system was only partially documented by twentieth-century researchers. The available evidence suggests that it was a bifurcate merging system with Omaha-type skewing.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although many twentieth-century Yuchi were formally married by a civil official or a Christian pastor, the less elaborate tradition of marriage was practiced into the twenty-first century. This system entails community recognition of the married status of a couple whose relationship is viewed as enduring and mature. Such couples can separate, but the children remain with the mother. Polygamy disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is built around a mother and her children, extending ideally to her husband to form a nuclear family to which other relatives often are added to form a household. Households of three or more generations were and still are common, but the ideal seems to be for a nuclear family to reside in its own home, with the residences of other family members nearby. After the Yuchi moved west, the households within a town settlement became more dispersed, no longer clustering densely around the town square. The older town pattern is preserved in the use of permanent family camps that are constructed around the square for use during ceremonies. These camps typically are led by an elderly couple and encompass three or more generations of extended family members.

Inheritance. Land holdings tend to be divided among all the adult children within a family after the death of a family head. Personal property with emotional significance to the deceased often is interred at the burial.

Socialization. Mothers assume the primary role in raising children, but fathers, aunts, uncles, and, most importantly, grandparents play major roles. In the early twentieth century many Yuchi children attended U. S. government boarding schools, but after mid-century most children were educated with their nonnative neighbors in local public schools. Children participate in family and community activities from a very early age and are assigned responsibilities in ceremonies; thus, cultural knowledge is obtained largely through participation.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The basic units of social organization are the household, the extended family camp group, and the town within which those units operate. Camp groups represent extended families, but they come together as functional units during town ceremonies. Until the middle of the twentieth century family camps were also an important component of congregational activity among Yuchi Christians, but those congregations no longer camp overnight for their gatherings. Ideally, the town is composed of all the Yuchi families residing within one of the three settlement areas, together with those who, while living outside Yuchi territory, claim descent from a family in the town. In social practice town membership is expressed most clearly through participation in the ceremonies held at the town's square or ceremonial ground. The dual division of men into chief's and warriors plays an important role in organizing participants for town ceremonies, as do the two complementary gender roles.

Political Organization. A male town chief who comes from the chief division and is appointed by his townspeople leads the activities of the local ceremonial ground. He holds this post until death or until he relinquishes it. Because not all Yuchi people participate in the ceremonial life of their towns, not all acknowledge the authority of the chief's, but traditionally the position of chief was both religious and political. Yuchi who do practice the traditional ceremonies and are culturally conservative continue to view the chief's in political as well as ceremonial terms. chief's are assisted in their work by other officers, some appointed on an ad hoc basis and others whose roles are permanent. Among the latter are a town speaker or orator and a committee that advises the chief.

In the late twentieth century several pan-Yuchi organizations were established to advance community goals. The most successful organizations have acknowledged the traditional leadership roles and authority of the town chief's and incorporated them into their structure. This approach is a modern manifestation of the ancient pattern in which the actions of a mother town and its daughter towns are coordinated and their people are allied. Pursuit of federal acknowledgment for the Yuchi people as a whole is an objective of these coordinated efforts.

Social Control. Community membership is defined not only genealogically but also on the basis of participation in collective social life. As Americans and members of federally recognized tribes, Yuchi people can choose not to participate in the Yuchi social world without suffering any sanctions beyond the potential disappointment of their kin. In this context vast domains of social control are the concern not of Yuchi institutions but of the dominant American civil society. Into the early twentieth century town leaders could levy fines and penalties against community members who failed to participate appropriately in community life, but social control since the middle of the twentieth century has been predicated on less formal forms of social sanctions, among which gossip and public opinion are crucial elements. These matters are relevant only to those who engage with the secular and sacred activities of the actively Yuchi population. Despite the weakening of their authority, Yuchi community institutions are highly organized in their everyday functioning. The ability of Yuchi people to withdraw from community life means that those who remain engaged do so because of personal choice.

Conflict. Yuchi cultural ideals hold that interpersonal conflict within the community is to be avoided or at least not expressed in public settings. Because it is embedded in a larger web of relationshipsspiritual and cosmological as well as personal and socialconflict serves as an index of collective disharmony and is viewed seriously. Individual avoidance of situations of conflict and quiet mediation by town elders and leaders are Yuchi strategies for dealing with conflicts. As is the case elsewhere in the region, conflict within a town sometimes generated splits in which new settlements were established. Since the middle of the twentieth century persons regularly disagreeing with the mainline of community sentiment often have withdrawn temporarily or permanently from participation in Yuchi collective life. Traditionally, addressing conflicts between the Yuchi and other peoples was the province of the warrior society, which was led by a war chief. At the turn of the twentieth century leadership of the warrior society and concern for external affairs were issues central to the work of the chief's speaker or orator, who sometimes was referred to as the town's "diplomat."

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The ultimate power in the world generally and in Yuchi life specifically is the "master of breath," who is the Creator from which the world and its developments derive. Two approaches to understanding subcreation and cosmology are represented in Yuchi ethnography, and both of which were articulated in the late twentieth century. These frameworks can be seen in the specific creation of the Yuchi, in which the Yuchi began as the ancient offspring of the Sun and the Moon. The Sun, as the agent in this part of creation, can be viewed as a manifestation of the Creator or as a fundamental power in its own right, secondary to but ultimately derivative from the Creator. In either view powerful and important customs were provided to the Yuchi in ancestral times, along with an eternal obligation to maintain them. The most important custom is the annual ceremonial cycle, whose performance ensures community well-being and the maintenance of balance in the world. If the Yuchi abandon their ceremonies, the Sun will reverse course in the sky and an end time will come to the earthly world.

Christian Yuchi are associated predominantly with the United Methodist Church.

The fundamental religious practices are calendrical ceremonies that take place during fixed seasons at ceremonial grounds, each under the autonomous direction of a town chief. These ceremonies all are concerned with maintaining community and individual health, expressing thanks for the bounty of creation, memorializing ancestors, maintaining the continuity of Yuchi tradition, and expressing the reciprocal relationships that bind communities together. Ceremonial ground ritual also links a Yuchi town to the other Yuchi towns and those of neighboring groups. This is achieved through reciprocal participation by visiting delegations in the ceremonies of allied towns. In this ceremonial network, the Yuchi towns have long maintained ties with each other and with their allies among the Shawnee, Creek, Cherokee, Seminole, and other groups.

Religious Practitioners. Yuchi religious life is overseen by the town chief's who govern local communities and organize calendrical ceremonial ground ritual. Under the leadership of the local chief, other officials oversee various responsibilities associated with public ceremonies.

Ceremonies. Naming ceremonies and funerals are important life-cycle ceremonies. The main calendrical ceremonies begin in the spring with a series of men-versus-women ball games. These ceremonies occur during the planting season and attract the favorable attention of the Creator, providing the blessing of sun and rain in the proper measure. The spring ball games are followed by a series of all-night "Stomp Dances." An annual rebuilding of the town square precedes the Green Corn ceremony, which involves both the physical rebuilding of the site and rituals that purify the place in preparation for the upcoming ceremonial. Tied to the corn harvest, the Green Corn ceremony is a multiday event featuring a period of fasting followed by a communal feast. Rituals are aimed at purification before the consumption of the new corn crop. They include a new fire ceremony and the consumption of special herbal medicines, together with ritual dances and speeches. The final major ceremony in the cycle is the Soup Dance, which includes a feast emphasizing male and female roles, during which ancestors return to the world of the living to share a special meal with their descendants. Like other ceremonies, this one incorporates an all-night dance attended by visiting towns.

Arts. The richest domain of expressive culture is associated with ritual. Traditional music and dance music constitute a highly regarded art that shares many features with the broader Woodland musical tradition. Unlike other eastern groups, the Yuchi have never participated in a non-Indian market for traditional crafts. For this reason, industries such as basketry were not converted into arts with a mainly aesthetic function. Yuchi storytelling includes performances of narratives that are important for understanding traditional cosmology and belief, but these performances are not organized tightly into a single epic or cycle. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century clothing styles have become stabilized as a national dress and represent an important part of the visual arts. In the later twentieth century a remarkably large number of Yuchi people began to participate in the contemporary Native American fine arts market, working mostly on relatively abstract paintings and collages with Yuchi and general Native American themes.

Medicine. In the Yuchi medical tradition, plants are fundamental agents for healing and animals and their ghostly counterparts are sources of disease. In this context medicine people are effective because they have been taught ancestral knowledge of diagnosis, together with the plants, songs, and rituals needed to empower and administer medicines. Wellness also involves observing ritual and social regulations. Since the 1970s there have not been any practicing Yuchi doctors, but the Yuchi have continued to consult traditional healers among neighboring groups. They also have continued to use Yuchi herbal medicines that are known to nonspecialists. In the twentieth century the Yuchi began to rely on scientific biomedicine.

Death and Afterlife. In the afterlife the spirits of the deceased live happy lives, pursuing a traditional lifestyle featuring hunting, gardening, dancing, playing ball, and socializing in a world of abundance. Attainment of this eternal life is not ensured, as it requires that the spirit complete an uncertain journey after death. Funeral ritual is aimed at encouraging the spirit not to linger among the living but to undertake this transition successfully. People who have lived good lives and whose relatives and friends undertake the appropriate funeral rituals are assured a safe passage, but people who have lived destructive lives or do not receive the traditional ceremonies may linger in the world of the living as ghosts, sometimes causing illness or misfortune. There are prescribed moments within the annual ceremonial cycle when the spirits of the deceased return to the community of the living. Ancestral participation in these events symbolizes the continuity of Yuchi culture.

For the original article on the Yuchi, see Volume 1, North America.


Jackson, Jason Baird (1998). "Yuchi Ritual." Ph. D. dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington.

Linn, Mary S. (2001). "A Grammar of Euchee (Yuchi)." Ph. D. dissertation, University of Kansas, Lawrence.

Speck, Frank G. (1909). Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians. Anthropological Publications of the University Museum 1(1). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Swanton, John R. (1922). Early History of the Creek Indians and the Neighbors. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 22. Washington, DC: Bureau of American Ethnology.

Wagner, Günter (1931). Yuchi Tales. Publications of the American Ethnological Society 13. New York: American Ethnological Society.

Wallace, Pamela S. (1998). "Yuchi Social History since World War II." Ph. D. dissertation, University of Oklahoma, Norman.



views updated May 29 2018


The Yuchi (Hughchee, Uchi), with the Westo, lived at rious times in several places in the southeastern United States, from eastern Tennessee to Florida, with three main bands, one on the Tennessee River, one in northwestern Florida, and one in the middle drainage of the Savannah River in Georgia. Some of their descendants live in the northwestern part of the former Creek Indian Reservation in eastern Oklahoma, although the Yuchi are extinct as a distinct culture unit. They spoke a language isolate in the Macro-Siouan phylum.

Craford, James Mack (1979). "Timucua and Yuchi: Two Language Isolates of the Southeast." In The Languages of Native America, edited by Lyle Campbell and Marianne Mithun, 327-354. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Speck, Frank G. (1909). Ethnology of the Yuchi Indians. University of Pennsylvania, University Museum, Anthropological Publications, no. 1, 1-154. Philadelphia.