by Loretta Hall
When Europeans arrived on the North American continent, the Creek Indians occupied major portions of what are now the states of Alabama and Georgia. James Adair, a trader who dealt with the Creeks for three decades, described them in 1770 as the most powerful Indian nation known to the English. They were actually not so much a nation as a confederacy that welcomed new member tribes, even those of a different linguistic and cultural background. Those who joined blended their own traditions into the basic Creek governmental and social structure.
In the early 1830s, the Creek population was about 22,000. Forced relocation to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma took a terrible toll, and by 1839 the population had decreased to 13,500. The Civil War further decimated the Creek people, reducing the number to 10,000 by 1867. In 1990 their population of 43,550 placed them tenth among Native American tribes.
The Creek Indians called themselves Muscogees, or Muscogulges, names that in their language identified them as people living on land that was wet or prone to flooding. During the American colonial period, they received their modern name from English traders who noted that their towns always sat on the banks of picturesque creeks.
Tribal legend traces Creek ancestry to the sky, where the ancestors lived in spirit form before descending to earth as physical beings. They originally lived in the West; their oral tradition tells of a journey toward the sunrise, crossing mountains so large they were called the "backbone of the world," traversing a wide, muddy river, and conquering their new homeland.
Settling in the East, the ancestral Creeks separated into two groups. Settlements along the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Alabama Rivers became known as the Upper Towns, while communities along the Flint, Chattahoochee, and Ocmulgee Rivers were called the Lower Towns. This partition was merely geographical at first, but as interaction with European colonists developed, the Lower Towns were more accessible to foreign influence. The Upper Towns tended to retain more traditional, political, and social characteristics.
Annual spring floods provided the Creeks with favorable agricultural conditions. They cultivated a variety of crops and gathered wild fruits, roots, and herbs. Grass and the inner bark of trees provided material for making the shawls with which the women clothed themselves. The Creeks were also skillful hunters, depending on animals for both meat and clothing.
Although the Creeks had contact with non-Indians as early as 1540 as a result of Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto's expedition, regular interactions did not begin until the late 1600s when the English moved into South Carolina and the Spanish settled in Florida.
RELATIONS WITH NON-INDIANS
"To other Indians the Creeks offered war or friendship with proud indifference," wrote Angie Debo in The Road to Disappearance (1940). "To the whites they showed a sturdy sense of equality and independence, tempered by a genuine appreciation of European goods." The Creeks were reputed to be a hospitable people skilled in diplomacy. They traded actively with all of the European colonies, though they generally preferred to deal with the English, who offered a greater variety and better quality of goods, as well as lower prices and better credit terms than the Spanish or the French. In fact, the Creeks allied themselves with the English in 1702, fighting in Queen Anne's War against the French and Spanish. In 1734 a Creek delegation led by Chief Tomochichi traveled to England to see King George II and sign a treaty.
Intermarriage between Creek women and foreign trading partners was common. Creek wives acted as interpreters and taught their European husbands the language and customs of their people. Because they understood both the Indian and white cultures, many of the multiracial children of these marriages became tribal leaders as adults. One such Métis (mixed-blood) leader was Alexander McGillivray, the son of a Creek/French mother and a Scottish father. He became chief of the dominant Wind Clan in the late 1700s, and for two decades he worked to unify the Creek nation as an ally of the new United States of America.
The Creeks had traditionally welcomed all non-Indians in a spirit of equality, but they did come to accept the concept of black slavery as an economic practicality. Because captured enemy Indians had sometimes become Creek slaves, the practice was not without precedent. European colonials encouraged the Creeks to think of blacks as slaves in order to prevent runaways from seeking refuge within Creek towns. Furthermore, expert Creek hunters were often paid to track and capture runaway slaves.
Immediately after the Revolutionary War, the United States began trying to expand onto Indian homelands, and by 1840 virtually all of the Creeks were relocated to Indian Territory in what is now east-central Oklahoma. In an attempt to maintain their traditional identity in their new surroundings, they reestablished their former towns: the Upper Creeks settled along the Deep Fork, North Canadian, and Canadian Rivers, while the Lower Creeks located their towns farther to the north along the Arkansas and Verdigris Rivers. The city of Tulsa evolved from a Creek relocation settlement built on sacred ashes brought from the old eastern town of Talsi.
In addition to job availability and training issues that confront all Americans, Creeks face the problem of tribal economic independence and the struggle to retain their cultural identity. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma actively seeks to assume and assert the rights and responsibilities of a sovereign nation through the retention of existing tribal lands, acquisition of additional land, and improved access to significant places outside tribal lands.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Rebuilding their towns in Oklahoma meant much more to the Creeks than simply erecting buildings. The full meaning of the word idalwa is diluted when the English word "town" is substituted. An idalwa had the autonomy of a Greek city-state and was the primary cultural unit of Creek society. Each town had its own traditions and its own versions of ceremonies, and the Creeks drew more of their identity from the town than from familial relationships. A child was considered a member of the town of his or her mother.
The town square, the heart of the Creek community, was used for warm-weather council meetings, dances, and rituals. The square was an open space defined by four rectangular structures, each with one open side that faced the square. A ceremonial fire was kept burning in the center of the open space.
Adjacent to the square were two other important facilities: the chokofa, or rotunda, and the chunkey yard. The chokofa was a circular structure about 40 feet in diameter that served as a meeting place for the town council during the winter. It was also used for social gatherings where the entire town could enjoy singing and dancing during inclement weather.
The chunkey yard was a field two to three hundred yards long that was recessed into the ground so that spectators could sit on the surrounding banks. On it was played a ball game that resembled lacrosse. The game was an important part of Creek culture, offering recreation during games, either among the town members or against a team from a friendly town. Known as "brother to war," it also provided a forum for settling disputes between unfriendly or enemy towns.
In addition to the partitioning of the nation into Upper and Lower communities, the confederacy's fifty towns were divided into two categories, based on descent. Each group is known as a moiety. Red, or War, towns took the lead in declaring and conducting war operations; councils addressing topics of diplomacy and foreign relations would meet in one of these towns. White, or Peace, towns were cities of refuge; councils seeking to establish peace or enact laws governing internal affairs of the Creek nation met in these towns. The moiety of each town was easily identifiable, as its color was painted on buildings and ceremonial articles, and was used as body decoration by its people. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie among towns of the same moiety, and definite rivalry between towns of opposite natures.
TRANSFORMATION OF CULTURE
The Creeks were one of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes, along with the Seminoles (who were actually affiliated with the Creek Confederacy until they formed a separate government in 1856), Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws. The title derived from the fact that these tribes began to assimilate European ways from the earliest phases of contact. The Creeks eagerly traded deerskins for brightly colored cotton cloth. They used their hunting skills to obtain metal tools. Included among these tools were guns, which transformed their methods of hunting, making them increasingly reliant on continual trading. While the acquisition of new goods improved their lifestyle, it also eroded their traditional self-sufficiency.
The Creeks voluntarily modified their way of life in response to interaction with white traders, but the American government went one step further, undertaking an official effort to assimilate them completely into white culture. An early phase of this process involved the 1796 appointment of Benjamin Hawkins as principal agent to the tribe. Hawkins believed that the Creek people would benefit from being taught and equipped to adopt white culture. He devoted the last twenty years of his life to this effort, encouraging the women to become skilled at making cotton cloth and the men to adopt modern farming techniques.
White Americans in the eighteenth century had little appreciation for Indian cultures, assuming that the Indians would prefer white culture if they could be induced to learn about it. Hawkins was uncomfortable with the idea that the Indians might not want to abandon their own traditions to embrace the white way of life. In fact, some Creeks did want to keep their culture intact, but others thought it would be better for them to adopt the culture of the European settlers. In a March 1992 Progressive essay Creek author Joy Harjo recalled her great-grandfather, Marsie Harjo, a Creek Baptist minister: "He represents a counterforce to traditional Muscogee culture and embodies a side of the split in our tribe since Christianity, since the people were influenced by the values of European culture. The dividing lines are the same several hundred years later."
Like other Native American groups, the Creeks still encounter a mainstream culture that generally lacks understanding and appreciation for their values. For example, Creeks traditionally shared their possessions readily and relied mainly on current food supplies. These basic inclinations conflict with prevailing American values of acquisition and saving for the future. Such differences in values can cause difficulties when Indians attend white schools. In 1988, Native American students exhibited a dropout rate of 35.5 percent, and they are significantly overrepresented in special education programs. Among teenagers, Indians have the highest suicide rate of any minority group.
The Indians' attitude toward land ownership was another cultural difference that profoundly affected federal acculturation efforts. The Creeks viewed land as belonging to the community; the Dawes Act of 1887 stripped the tribe of all common land and apportioned it to individuals for private ownership. As Harjo wrote in the March 1992 issue of the Progressive, "This act undermined one of the principles that had always kept the people together."
With continued attacks on their lifestyle, many Creeks found ways to adapt their traditional ways into the new societal context. Christian missionaries had worked among them since 1735, and by the time the tribe moved to Oklahoma, many Creeks belonged to Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian churches. Under governmental pressure to abandon the tribal town structure, they simply shifted their community's center from the square to the church. Each congregation chose from among its members a preacher who would serve for life; it was a natural substitution for the town micco, or chief.
MISCONCEPTIONS AND STEREOTYPES
"From the minds of the earliest English colonists . . . who because of their own reverence for the institution of private property expected violent opposition to their intrusion, came the image of the Indian as an uncooperative, hostile, savage, treacherous, murderous creature," wrote historian Florette Henri in The Southern Indians and Benjamin Hawkins: 1796-1816; "and the Indians' disinclination to destroy the handful of colonists, but rather to shelter, feed, and aid them, was interpreted as proof of their guile." The Creeks have been victims of the general prejudices that are directed at all Native Americans. In contrast, however, to the stereotype of the reserved, stoic Indian, Creeks respected impassioned public speakers, and lengthy oration was common at council meetings.
The Creeks' introduction to liquor caused both real and perceived damage to their society. Traditionally, they drank only water, even at feasts. The drinks they did concoct that may have had an intoxicating effect were generally used only at rare ceremonial rites. Having no tradition of social sanctions against drunkenness, many Indians imbibed freely. The whites with whom they interacted also tended to get drunk. Henri discussed the different perceptions of this activity: "As a rule, it was Indian drinking that was stressed, and when both white and Indian drinking were mentioned, different terms were used for them. When Indians drank excessively, they were said to become noisy, rude, insolent, and violent; but when the garrison got drunk, gouging eyes and biting noses, Price [Hawkins' friend who managed a government trading post in Georgia] characterized the brawl as a 'drunken frolic'."
In 1937 University of Oklahoma professor Morris E. Opler wrote in an unpublished report that many people found it incongruous that Indians who belonged to one of the Five "Civilized" Tribes would want to retain any of their old ways. He further observed that "So far as the whites of Creek country (in Oklahoma) are concerned they have no intention of accepting the Creeks into the main stream of their social and political life." For their part, the Creeks kept to themselves, interacting with the whites only as necessary for trade.
Corn was the staple food of the Creeks. Two yearly crops of early corn were eaten as they ripened, and a harvest of late corn was dried and stored for winter use as hominy. Each family compound contained a large wooden mortar and pestle used to process corn into meal or grits after it had been hulled by cooking with lye or mixing with ashes. The cornmeal was then cooked with lye and water, and the gruel was left to sour for two or three days. The resulting soup was called sofkey, and it was such a basic part of the diet that each household kept a bowlful at the door so visitors could partake as they entered. Corn was used in other ways as well. Burned shells of the field pea were mixed with cornmeal to make blue dumplings. Apuske, a drink, was made by sweetening a mixture of parched cornmeal and water. Sweet potatoes, pumpkins, peaches, and apples were eaten fresh or dried for storage. The Creeks also commonly ate vegetable stews, either with or without meat. After relocation to Oklahoma, salt was available from a natural creek-side deposit. Hickory nuts were used both as a cooking ingredient and as a source of oil. Bear fat was prized as a seasoning.
Creek diets included deer, wild hog, turkey, and smaller game such as opossum and squirrel. Beef, venison, and bison meat could be smoked for storage or cut into strips and dried. Meat and fish might be cooked by boiling or roasting. They employed several methods for catching fish, including nets, traps, and spears. During the summer, the population of an entire town gathered at a favorable spot where a stream could be dammed or fenced to trap fish. Appropriate roots were prepared and thrown into the water to drug the fish; as they floated to the surface, the men showed their marksmanship by shooting them with bows and arrows. The women then cooked sofkey and fried the fish for a feast.
Traditional clothing for men consisted of a breech-cloth, deerskin leggings, a shirt, and, in winter, moccasins. Women wore shawls and deerskin skirts. Children generally went unclothed until puberty. During the winter, additional warmth was provided by bear skins and buffalo hides.
Both men and women wore their hair long. The men plucked their facial hair and also removed hair around their heads, leaving a long central lock that they braided with decorative feathers, shells, and strings. Sometimes they made turbans from strips of deerskin or cloth. The women, whose hair might reach to their calves, wound it about their heads, fastening it with silver jewelry and adorning it with colorful streamers.
The men used extensive tattooing to decorate their trunks, arms, and legs. The indigo designs included natural objects, animals, abstract scroll-work, and even hunting and battle scenes. Both men and women employed body paint and wore earrings and other jewelry.
Trade with Europeans brought colorful woven fabrics to the Creek people. They quickly incorporated these into their customary fashions, and began to decorate clothing and moccasins with trade beads. The women liked to wear clothing fashioned from calico and other printed cloth, and silk ribbons became popular hair ornaments. Creek women also bought the scrap threads of scarlet cloth that traders cleaned out of the bottoms of their packs; they boiled them to remove the dye, which they then added to berry juice and used to color other cloth.
THE GREEN CORN FESTIVAL
The major annual holiday was the Green Corn Festival, which celebrated the beginning of the corn harvest in late July or early August. Depending on the size of the town, the festival lasted from four to eight days. It involved a number of traditions, including dancing and moral lectures given by town leaders.
To prepare for the festival, the entire town was cleaned, and the square refurbished with fresh sand and new mats for its buildings. Women made new clothing for their families, as well as new pottery and other household furnishings. The town piled old clothing and furnishings together with the collected rubbish and burned them, along with all remaining food supplies that had been stored from the previous year. All fires in the town were extinguished, and a new fire was started in the town square by the ancient method of rubbing sticks together. Each family carried some of this new fire home to relight their household fire.
The festival was also called the busk, especially among whites. The name derived from the Creek word boosketah, meaning a fast. The men cleansed themselves with ceremonial bathing and by fasting and drinking a strong emetic potion which they called "medicine." The beverage, which Europeans called the "black drink," was also used on other occasions, but it was a central element of the Green Corn Festival. As time passed, women were allowed to join in the festival dancing; by the late 1800s they occasionally partook of the "medicine." At the end of the festival, when spiritual appreciation had been given for the new crop, the people joined in a feast.
Inspired by the ripening of the new corn, the festival was a time of renewal and forgiveness. Drinking the "medicine" purged the body physically and purified it from sin. A general amnesty was conferred for all offenses committed in the past year, with the exception of murder. If a guilty person was able to hide between the time a crime was committed and the time of the Green Corn Festival, he or she would escape punishment entirely. The festival marked the beginning of the new year and as such became the official date for such events as marriages, divorces, and periods of mourning. It was also the occasion for young men's initiation rites.
According to traditional beliefs, illness was the result of an animal spirit or a conjurer placing some foreign substance in the victim's body. An owala, or shaman, would affect a cure by concocting an appropriate medicine out of roots, herbs, and other natural substances. While brewing the potion, he would sing appropriate songs and blow into the mixture through a tube. The afflicted person would take the medicine internally and also apply it externally.
After establishing contact with the Europeans, the Creeks were affected by periodic outbreaks of smallpox, measles, and other imported diseases; the number of fatalities went undocumented. During removal to Indian Territory, emigrating Creeks were subjected to difficult traveling conditions including exposure to weather extremes. Overcrowded conditions on boats during waterborne portions of the journey, coupled with dietary changes and unclean drinking water from the Mississippi River, left the travelers vulnerable to illness. Maladies such as dysentery, diarrhea, and cholera contributed to the many casualties en route.
Health problems did not end with arrival in Indian Territory. Streams behaved differently in the West than they did in the East; unexpected flooding destroyed new homes and crops, while in dry spells the streams turned into breeding grounds for mosquitos, and many Creeks fell victim to malaria. During western winters, periods of mild days alternated with sudden bouts of extremely cold weather; Creek shelters and clothing were inadequate for this climate, and many people perished from pneumonia. During the first year in Indian Territory, 3,500 Creeks died of disease or starvation.
Even in 1990s, health care furnished through the Indian Health Service often has been inadequate. The Muscogee Nation manages its own hospital to better serve its people. Creeks experience a relatively high incidence of diabetes, which may be related to the poor economic conditions they have endured in modern times; alcoholism may also play a role.
Most Creeks spoke dialects of the Muskogean language. In Deerskins & Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815, Kathryn E. Braund has asserted that "it was still the English who were forced to learn the melodious Muskogee tongue, for few Creeks expressed any willingness to adopt the harsh and strident tones of their new friends." Creeks who avoided relocation to Oklahoma tended to stop speaking the Muskogean language so they would not be recognized as Indians and therefore forced to leave their homes. In 1910, 72 percent of Creeks over the age of ten could speak English. By 1980, 99 percent of Creek adults could speak English well; 15 percent of them still spoke their native language at home.
With the help of a Creek student named James Perryman, Presbyterian minister John Fleming created a phonetic alphabet for Muskogee. In 1835 they published a book of hymns and a primer called I stutsi in Naktsokv (The Child's Book). Another missionary published a Creek dictionary and grammar book in 1890.
The language's vowels and their sounds are: "v" (as the vowel sound in but), "a" (as in sod), "e" (as in tin), "o" (as in toad), "u" (as in put), and "i" (as in hate). Most consonants are pronounced as in English, except that "c" sounds like "ts" or "ch," while "r" sounds like "hl" (made by blowing while pronouncing an "l").
GREETINGS AND OTHER POPULAR EXPRESSIONS
Some of the basic words of the Creek language are Hes'ci ("hihs-jay")—hello; henk'a ("hihn gah")— yes; hek'us ("hihg oos")—no; Mvto' ("muh doh")— thank you.
Family and Community Dynamics
CLAN AND FAMILY STRUCTURE
Creek society was based on a clan system, with each person's identity determined by the clan of his or her mother. Clan membership governed social interactions, ranging from whom members could joke with to whom they could marry (marriage within one's clan was considered incest). Each town included members from about six clans.
The family home was actually a collection of several rectangular buildings constructed of a framework of wood poles, with walls of mud and straw plaster, and a roof of cyprus bark shingles. These buildings were arranged in a smaller version of the town square, with a courtyard in the center. One building was used for cooking and eating, one for sleeping in winter (sleeping and eating were done outdoors in warm weather), and one for storing food supplies. Another building was provided for women's retreats, used during menstruation as well as for a four-month period at childbirth. Each homesite included a small garden plot where the women of the family raised some vegetables and tobacco.
The town maintained a large field of fertile land for farming, with a section reserved for each family. The townspeople worked together on the entire field, and at harvest time each family gathered the produce from its section. All were expected to contribute to a communal stockpile that would be used to feed visitors and needy families in the town.
Traditionally, Creeks buried the dead under the earthen floor of the home, though by the late 1800s it was more common to bury them in the churchyard or in a family cemetery near the home. A widower was expected to mourn his dead wife for four months, during which time he would not bathe, wash his clothes, or comb his hair. The same mourning practices were required of a widow; she, however, was obligated to mourn for four years. The period of mourning for a widow could be decreased by the dead husband's clan if they so chose. Often, after the mourning period, the widow would marry a brother of her deceased husband.
Although marriages could be arranged by clan leaders, they were usually initiated by the prospective husband, who solicited the permission of the woman's family. During courtship, the man might woo the woman by playing plaintive melodies on a flute made either of hardwood or a reed.
Sexual activity before marriage was allowed, and it was not unusual for travelers to hire Creek women as bed companions. Once a marriage became final, however, adultery was not tolerated. Punishment was harsh, including severe beatings and cutting off the hair, ears, and sometimes noses of both offenders. A woman committing adultery was rejected by her husband and children, but she could marry her lover.
When a couple married, the husband went to live with his wife in the home of her parents. The marriage was finalized only after the husband had built his wife a home and proven his ability to support her by planting and harvesting a crop and successfully hunting game. During the trial period of the marriage, the couple could decide to separate, and infidelity would not be punished. With the permission of his wife, a man could take a second wife, for whom he provided a separate home. Divorce was allowed but rarely occurred in families with children; when it did, the woman retained the children and the family possessions.
The father fasted for four days after the birth of his child, and he maintained an interest in his family. Raising the child, however, was primarily the responsibility of the mother and the leader of her clan. Babies spent their first year secured to cradle boards; boys were wrapped in cougar skins, while girls were covered with deerskins or bison hides.
A daughter was called by a kinship term or named after some object or natural occurrence associated with her birth. A son was called by the name of his totem, such as bird or snake; as he grew, he might be given a nickname based on some personality trait. At the age of puberty, a boy was initiated into adulthood in his town and was given an actual name. His first name, which served as a surname, was that of his town or clan, while his second, or personal, name was descriptive of something about him.
Creek girls learned from their mothers and maternal aunts the skills they would need as adults. Boys were instructed primarily by their maternal uncles, though they also felt their father's influence. Christian missionary schools established in 1822 were the first to formally educate Creeks in American culture; a few earlier attempts at founding schools had been unsuccessful. By the late twentieth century, Creek students generally attended public schools, with a few attending boarding schools. The 1980 census found that 65 percent of Creek adults were high school graduates and 11 percent were college graduates.
A branch of Oklahoma State University at Okmulgee serves the Creek community in Oklahoma. The Poarch Creek Tribe in Alabama has an education department and offers on-the-job training through a Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) program.
The traditional Creek religion revered Esaugetu Emissee (Master of Breath) as the supreme being. He was believed to live in an upper realm that had the sky as its floor. The sun, moon, and planets were seen as messengers to this deity. The Creeks also worshiped animal spirits. The Green Corn Festival was the principal religious celebration.
Although many Creek myths have been lost to history, some were documented by Frank G. Speck in 1904 and 1905. He reported that the myths told of animal spirits in the sky world who were responsible for the earth's origin. Master of Breath then placed his own innovations on creation, making the earth as it is now. Speck wrote in Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association: "The Creeks assert that they were made from the red earth of the old Creek nation. The whites were made from the foam of the sea. That is why they think the Indian is firm, and the white man is restless and fickle."
Each Creek town kept certain sacred objects. The most famous were copper and brass plates held by the town of Tuckabatchee. The five copper plates were oblong, with the largest being about 18 inches by seven inches. The two brass plates were circular, the larger being 18 inches in diameter, and one was stamped with the mark Æ. Although one legend indicated that the objects had been given them by the Shawnee, who may have obtained them from the Spanish, the plates were widely believed to have been bestowed on the Creeks by the Master of Breath.
Contact with European cultures brought a succession of missionaries to the Creek people. Gradually, many of the people began to espouse Christianity. They continued to observe the Green Corn Festival, although those who had become Baptist or Methodist no longer participated in ceremonial dancing. With this decrease in participation, the festival began to lose its former significance, and it deteriorated into little more than a wild party. Christianity became dominant among the Creeks after the removal to Oklahoma. Although some missionaries continued to work among them, most Creek churches were led by preachers who emerged from within the community. As Debo described: "The Creeks had found in Christianity a means of expressing the strong community ties, the moral aspiration, the mystic communion with nature, the deep sense of reverence that had once been expressed by the native ceremonials."
Employment and Economic Traditions
The early Creeks enjoyed a comfortable living based on agriculture and hunting. Their homeland was fertile and game was plentiful. With the emergence of European contacts, the Creek hunting industry changed from a subsistence operation to a commercial enterprise. Trade expanded, and they began to sell not only venison, hides, and furs, but also honey, beeswax, hickory nut oil, and other produce. They also found markets for manufactured goods including baskets, pottery, and decorated deerskins.
As white settlers continued to move into Creek territory, the Indians were crowded into progressively smaller land areas. This process began in 1733 when a cession of two million acres of Creek land was given to the new colony of Georgia so it could be sold to satisfy debts to British traders. In order to attract additional colonists, the land was sold at bargain prices.
An extensive series of other land cessions followed, and eventually the Creek economy collapsed. According to Indians of the Lower South: Past and Present, in 1833 Lieutenant Colonel John Abert wrote to the United States Secretary of War that during the last three years the Creek people had gone "from a general state of comparative plenty to that of unqualified wretchedness and want."
The Removal Treaty of 1832 gave land to Creeks who chose to emigrate to Indian Territory in exchange for tribal lands in Alabama. To encourage the Indians to move westward, the government also promised a variety of benefits, including a cash payment of $210,000—to be distributed according to tribal laws over a fifteen year period—two blacksmith shops in the new territory, an educational annuity, and another cash payment of $100,000 to help the Creeks settle their debts and ease their economic hardship. In addition, each warrior would receive a rifle, ammunition, and a blanket; families' expenses would be paid during the migration and throughout the first year in the West.
Some full-blooded Creeks still farm land in the area of Oklahoma that was settled by the Upper Creeks. The Muscogee Nation operates a bingo hall and stores that sell tobacco products. Broadening their economic development efforts is a high priority for the tribe.
Many of the mixed-blood Creeks live in Tulsa, Eufaula, or other Oklahoma cities, working in a variety of occupations. Census data from 1980 indicates that about two-thirds of the Creek Indians were living in urban settings at that time.
At the time of Indian removal, a segment of the Creek people entered into an agreement with the government that enabled them to remain in the East. They were business people who operated ferries, served as guides and interpreters, and raised cattle. Their descendants are the Poarch Creeks, whose tribal headquarters are located in Atmore, Alabama.
During the early 1900s, some Poarch Creeks began to work in the timber and turpentine industries. Some also became tenant farmers or worked as hired farm laborers. Beginning in the 1930s, the pulpwood industry became an important element in the Poarch Creek economy. Since the 1950s, Poarch Creeks have been working in other non-agricultural jobs.
According to 1980 statistics, 61 percent of Creeks over the age of 16 were in the labor force. Of those who were employed, 19 percent were in managerial or professional specialty occupations, and 26 percent were in technical, sales, and administrative support occupations. Looking at major industry groups, approximately six percent worked in the agricultural, forestry, fisheries, and mining areas; nine percent worked in public administration; 12 percent worked in retail trade; 19 percent were involved in manufacturing; and 22 percent worked in professional and related services, including health and education.
Politics and Government
Throughout their history, the Creeks governed themselves democratically. Each town elected a chief who served for life, though he could be recalled. Members of each town were informed about issues and participated actively in decision making. Town leaders met in daily council sessions, and when broader councils were called, each town sent several representatives to speak and vote on its behalf. Although there was no specific law fixing a penalty for misrepresenting constituents, leaders who did so faced severe consequences; for example, after signing a 1783 treaty that ceded good hunting grounds to Georgia, a chief returned home to find his house burned and his crops destroyed.
The society was matrilineal, but most positions of tribal leadership were filled by men. While women did not vote, they did enjoy full economic rights including property ownership, and they exerted significant influence on decisions by discussing their opinions with the men of the town. Each town may also have appointed a Beloved Woman who communicated with her counterparts in other towns. The roles of the Beloved Woman and perhaps other female leaders have been lost to history since European observers ignored them and omitted them from written accounts.
The Creeks supported the British in the American Revolutionary War. In 1790, a delegation of Creek leaders traveled to New York to negotiate a treaty with President Washington. It was the first in a long series of treaties that ceded tribal land to the United States; with each cession, the tribe was guaranteed unending ownership of their remaining land. In some cases, treaties were obtained by such fraudulent means as purposely negotiating with a non-representative group of minor chiefs after being refused by the official delegation, or forging the names of chiefs who refused to cooperate.
In 1812 the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, whose mother was Creek, organized a rebellion against the United States. The Creek nation split over whether to join the uprising; most of the Lower Creeks supported Tecumseh while the Upper Creeks were rather evenly divided in their allegiance. This division resulted in the Red Stick War, a devastating civil war within the tribe. Under terms of the peace treaty signed in 1814, the tribe relinquished to the United States 22 million acres of land, including the townsites of some of the Upper Creeks who had fought alongside Andrew Jackson's forces against the rebels.
In addition to gradually obtaining ownership of tens of millions of acres of Creek land, federal and state governments placed a succession of restrictions on the Indians. Alabama law, for example, prohibited an Indian from testifying against a white man. According to Grant Foreman in Indian Removal: The Emigration of the Five Civilized Tribes of Indians (1932), a Creek delegation to the United States Secretary of War in 1831 complained, "We are made subject to laws we have no means of comprehending; we never know when we are doing right."
The Removal Treaty of 1832 guaranteed the Creeks political autonomy and perpetual ownership of new homelands in Indian Territory in return for their cession of remaining tribal lands in the East. It specified that each Creek could freely choose whether to remain on his homeland or move to the West. Those who decided to stay in the East could select homesteads on former tribal land. Land speculators eager to profit from the anticipated influx of white settlers devised a variety of ways to cheat the Indians out of their land, either by paying far less than its true value or by forging deeds. After an Indian attack on a mail stage—for which a white man was later convicted—a brief civil war pitted Creeks who wanted to remain in the East against those who accepted the concept of relocation. Finally the federal government ordered forcible removal of all remaining Creeks in 1836.
Emigrants were subjected to horrible conditions during the government-subsidized trips to Indian Territory. One group began their journey in December 1834, barefoot and scantily clothed; 26 percent of them died during the four-month journey. Leaders pushed onward as quickly as they could, not allowing the Indians to conduct funeral services to ensure the dead an afterlife, and sometimes not even allowing the survivors to bury the dead. In July 1836, a party of 1,600 Creeks departed for the West with the warriors handcuffed and chained together for the entire journey.
Upon arrival in Indian Territory, the Five Civilized Tribes faced opposition from plains Indians who would have to share diminished hunting grounds with 60,000 new residents. Although the Creeks were capable of defending themselves against attack, they took the lead in conducting negotiations between the immigrant tribes and the indigenous people to establish peaceful coexistence.
GOVERNMENT AFTER RELOCATION
As they settled into their new homeland, the Creeks discovered that the United States' promises of assistance went largely unfulfilled. Tools and farm implements did not come in time to build homes and plant crops. Weapons and ammunition did not arrive, so the men had to relearn bow and arrow hunting techniques. In order to maximize profits from their government contracts, food suppliers delivered partial shipments and rancid provisions. Especially during the first few years after relocation, annuity payments guaranteed by the treaty were made primarily in goods rather than in cash, and most of the items to be delivered were either useless to the Indians or were lost in shipment.
By the 1850s the Creek people had begun to achieve a relatively prosperous life in their new territory. Then the Confederate States of America seceded from the United States. The Creeks tried to remain neutral in the conflict but were drawn into hostilities by attacks on their people. Loyalties were once again divided. The Lower Towns generally favored retention of slavery and sided with the South, while the Upper Towns chose to abide by their treaties with the North. What ensued was another civil war within the Creek nation. In retribution for the failure of the entire tribe to support the Union, the post-war treaty required the cession of 3.2 million acres, or about half of the Creek land in Indian Territory.
GOVERNMENT DISSOLUTION AND LAND ALLOTMENT
The Creeks attempted to formalize their government after arriving in the West. Opothle Yahola, a chief who led Creeks loyal to the United States during the Red Stick War and the Civil War, oversaw an effort to record Creek law into written form. A written constitution providing for elected tribal officers was adopted about 1859; after the Civil War, it was replaced with a new one modeled closely after the U.S. Constitution.
Acting on recommendations of the Dawes Commission, Congress passed the Curtis Act in 1898. As a result, tribal lands were removed from common ownership and distributed among individual Indians for private ownership. In 1906, the U.S. government declared the Creek tribal government dissolved. These federal policies were reversed by the 1934 Wheeler-Howard Act, which encouraged tribal cultural and economic development. Two years later, Congress passed the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, providing Indian tribes with a mechanism for incorporating. It also provided benefits such as a student loan program and a revolving fund to be used for extending credit to Indians.
The 37,000 members of the Muscogee Nation are governed by an elected principal chief, a bicameral legislature, and a judicial branch. The 2,000 Poarch Creeks in Alabama are governed by an elected tribal council that selects a tribal chairman from among its nine members.
Individual and Group Contributions
Listed below are some of the Creek people who have made notable contributions to American society as a whole. It is difficult to arrange their names by area of contribution, since some individuals attained prominence in several fields.
Edwin Stanton Moore attended Chilocco Indian School and Oklahoma A & M College, where he played football from 1938 to 1940; he was awarded the Department of the Interior Meritorious Service Medal upon retirement as the Director of Indian Education in 1979.
FILM AND BROADCAST MEDIA
Will Sampson (1934-1987) was an actor who appeared in several motion pictures, including The Outlaw Josie Wales and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1976. Gary Fife is the producer and host of "National Native News," which airs on over 160 public radio stations around the country.
GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT
Enoch Kelly Haney is an Oklahoma state senator who is nationally recognized for his political involvement and proactive stance for Native American rights; he is also an accomplished artist on canvas and in bronze. Gale Thrower (1943– ) received the Alabama Folk Life Heritage Award for her contributions toward preserving her tribe's traditions and culture.
Alexander (Alex) Lawrence Posey (1873-1908) was a poet and a writer of prose; he was elected to the House of Warriors, the lower chamber of the Creek National Council; at various times he served as superintendent of two boarding schools and the Creek Orphan Asylum, and as superintendent of public instruction for the Creek Nation of Oklahoma; he helped draft the constitution for the proposed State of Sequoia, a document on which the constitution for the state of Oklahoma was later based. Louis (Littlecorn) Oliver (1904-1990) wrote Chasers of the Sun: Creek Indian Thoughts, and two books of poetry: The Horned Snake and Caught in a Willow Net. Joy Harjo (1951– ), winner of the Academy of American Poetry Award, has published several books of poetry, including A Map to the Next World (2000).
Ernest Childers (1918– ) was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for "exceptional leadership, initiative, calmness under fire, and conspicuous gallantry" on September 22, 1943, at Oliveto, Italy. John N. Reese was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for "his gallant determination in the face of tremendous odds, aggressive fighting spirit, and extreme heroism at the cost of his life" on February 9, 1945, at Manila in the Philippine Islands.
Allie P. Reynolds was a baseball pitcher with the Cleveland Indians from 1942 to 1946 and the New York Yankees from 1947 to 1954; he had the best earned run average (ERA) in the American League in 1952 and 1954, and he led the league in strikeouts and shutouts for two seasons; he was named America's Professional Athlete of the Year in 1951. Jack Jacobs played football for the University of Oklahoma from 1939 to 1942; he also played professional football for 14 years with several teams including the Cleveland Rams, the Washington Redskins, and the Green Bay Packers.
Acee Blue Eagle (1908-1959) was an acclaimed Creek painter. Fred Beaver (1911-1980) and Solomon McCombs (1913-1980) were painters who served with the U.S. Department of State as goodwill ambassadors, using their art as a means of bridging the communications gap around the world. Jerome Tiger (1941-1967), a painter and sculptor, was also a Golden Gloves boxer. His brother Johnny Tiger, Jr., is a master artist at the Five Civilized Tribes Museum. Joan Hill is a Creek/Cherokee painter who has received numerous recognition awards, grants, and fellowships in the art world. She has done a series of paintings depicting the various treaties of the Five Civilized Tribes, and another portraying the women of the tribes.
Muscogee Nation News.
The official publication of the Muscogee Nation. Distributed 12 times annually in English. Circulation is 8,100.
Contact: Jim Wolfe.
Address: Department of Communications, P.O. Box 580, Okmulgee, Oklahoma 74447.
Telephone: (918) 756-8700 extension 327.
Poarch Creek News.
A monthly English-language publication of the Creek tribe in Alabama.
Contact: Daniel McGee.
Address: HCR 69, Box 85-B, Atmore, Alabama 36502.
Telephone: (205) 368-9136.
Operated by the Poarch Creek Tribe. Programming is in English and features country music, local news, and community events.
Contact: Nathan Martin.
Address: 1318 South Main Street, Atmore, Alabama 36502-2899.
Telephone: (205) 368-2511.
Organizations and Associations
Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Contact: Principal Chief Bill Fife.
Address: Tribal Offices, P.O. Box 580, Okmulgee, Oklahoma 74447.
Telephone: (918) 756-8700.
Poarch Creek Indians.
Contact: Tribal Chairman Eddie Tullis.
Address: Tribal Office, HCR 69, Box 85-B, Atmore, Alabama 36502.
Telephone: (205) 368-9136.
Museums and Research Centers
Creek Council House Museum.
A museum and library of tribal history.
Contact: Debbie Martin.
Address: P.O. Box 580, Okmulgee, Oklahoma 74447.
Telephone: (918) 756-2324.
Calvin McGee Library.
A cultural center and library for the eastern Creeks.
Contact: Gale Thrower.
Address: HCR 69, Box 85-B, Atmore, Alabama 36502.
Telephone: (205) 368-9136.
Five Civilized Tribes Museum.
Displays Indian artifacts and art work, with separate sections devoted to each of the Five Civilized Tribes.
Contact: Lynn Thornley.
Address: Agency Hill on Honors Heights Drive, Muskogee, Oklahoma 74401.
Telephone: (918) 683-1701.
Sources for Additional Study
Braund, Kathryn E. Holland. Deerskins & Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Corkran, David H. The Creek Frontier: 1540-1783. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967.
Green, Donald Edward. The Creek People. Phoenix: Indian Tribal Series, 1973.
Green, Michael D. The Creeks. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
——. The Politics of Indian Removal. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
Harjo, Joy. "Family Album," Progressive, March 1992; pp. 22-25.
Henri, Florette. The Southern Indians and Benjamin Hawkins: 1796-1816. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986.
Indians of the Lower South: Past and Present, edited by John K. Mahon. Pensacola, Florida: Gulf Coast History and Humanities Conference, 1975.
Swanton, John Reed. Early History of the Creek Indians and Their Neighbors. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998.
Winn, William W. The Old Beloved Path: Daily Life Among the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley. Columbus, Georgia: Columbus Museum, 1992.