Richard Thornton | Jun 3, 2017 | 15
Creek Indian savages . . . the making of a myth
For many Uchee, Creek, Chickasaw, Seminole and Choctaw families in the Southeast, the church congregation became their new tribe, when their traditional worlds fell apart during the Trail of Tears Era. A Native American church congregation is in reality a continuation of the cultural cohesion of a Creek/Uchee/Seminole tribal town. It is a strong argument for federal recognition of certain Southeastern tribes.
“We have come to realize that the Creek Indians are different that any Natives encountered by the British People in North America. It is obvious that they are the descendants of a great civilization. They are equally intelligent as Englishmen, if not more so. They should be treated as equals in all matters.”
Letter to King George II in 1734 by General James E. Oglethorpe, Supervising Trustee, Province of Georgia
“Of course, I am aware that there is One, who made us all.”
Chiliki, High King of the Creek Confederacy – June 7, 1735
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house and land; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
No. 10 of the Ten Commandments by Moses
“The Creek Indians were a savage race, who were so ignorant that they stubbornly refused to admit their natural inferiority to the White Man. Georgia is blessed to be rid of them.”
The Rev. George D. Smith, DD – 1913
“The barbarous Creek Indians had secured themselves in the bend of the Tallapoosa River in a curvature resembling a horse shoe. Nature had furnished a situation of defense near impossible to penetrate.”
Website of the Graham County, NC Historical Society – 2016
Series on “William McIntosh and the Betrayal of the Creek People”
The power of Hollywood’s version of history
The commercial success of the movies, “Gone With the Wind” (MGM) and “Song of the South” (Walt Disney) in the 1940s caused a rash of movies about the history of the South during the early 1950s. This period coincided with the completion of the Modernistic museum at Ocmulgee National Monument.
The original exhibits at the Ocmulgee Museum were primarily designed by historians and archaeologists from the Midwest, Northeast and California. For the next five decades it taught visitors that the Ocmulgee Acropolis was constructed by “Master Farmers”, who arrived on the Macon Plateau from somewhere else, probably Cahokia. They disappeared and were replaced about 200 years later by Lamar Culture “Farmers”. They disappeared and were replaced in the late 1600s by Creek Indians.
At least by 1973, National Park Service archeologists knew that a Woodland Period village had been located on the site of the “Lamar Village” and that the town of Itza-se (Ichese) was founded by the same people at the same time as Etowah Mounds, around 990 AD. However, to this day, Ocmulgee Museum exhibits state that the Lamar Village was settled about 200 years after the abandonment of the Acropolis and do not clearly link the pre-Colonial Period Lamar Village with the modern Creek Indians.
Three movies about the Seminole were produced in Hollywood in the early 1950s. Their portrayal of the Seminoles varied from being Barbaric Savages to being Noble Savages, but the over-riding themes were that the Seminoles were a primitive people, who were blocking the way of agriculture and commerce. None of the movies had speaking parts for actual Native American actors, but they did have real Seminoles in the background. In the most popular of the three, Seminole (1953), Anthony Quinn played Osceola, while Hugh O’Brien played the Seminole leader, Kajeck. Italian-American actresses played Seminole women, who lived with white men.
Davie Crockett: On December 15, 1954, the first segment of television’s first mini-series aired on the Walt Disney Show. Entitled “Davie Crockett, the Indian Fighter,” it portrayed the participation of frontier celebrity, David Crockett, in the Creek Red Stick War. The opening scene of combat shows Crockett (Fess Parker) and George Russell (Buddy Ebsen) single-handedly drive off about 30 howling Creek warriors, who have attacked helpless white squatters in a Connestoga wagon, who are fleeing from their land that they stole from the Creeks. The movie does not mention the squatter part. The Red Sticks are portrayed as being naked except for their deerskin breach cloths and Mohawk haircuts.
Almost all the first segment of this series was filmed in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The Red Stick Creeks were played by local Cherokess, but the Cherokee “good guys” who befriended Crockett as he single-handedly defeated the Red Sticks, were played by white men, wearing tan makeup. There was absolutely no mention made in this ground-breaking movie for television that this was a Creek civil war or that the Cherokees fought alongside Creek Majority allies of the United States, plus all were commanded by Georgia Creek officers.
The TV series and subsequent Davie Crockett movies were wildly popular. Walt Disney franchised over $300 million worth of Davie Crockett consumer items . . . the most popular being coonskin caps for virtually every boy in the United States. That would be the equivalent today of about $1.8 billion. They paid for the construction of Disneyland.
Unfortunately, Disney’s grossly inaccurate portrayal of Southeastern Indians created a misunderstanding of the past that has lasted to this day. Creeks were savage, bloodthirsty barbarians, who preyed on women and children, while the Cherokees were literate, articulate white men with long hair and a nice tan. Many Creeks and Seminoles have told me that as kids they started telling neighbors that they were Cherokee because the Davie Crockett movies made them ashamed to be Creek or Seminole.
Religious hypocrisy on the Southern Frontier
George Smith’s book on the early history of Methodism unknowingly provides far greater insight into what was actually happening on the Southern frontier than mainstream American history books. Contemporary history textbooks sanitize out substantive discussions of the role of Protestant Christianity and Judaism in the Old South because such articles might offend students, who are not Protestant Christians or Jews. He mentions numerous Methodist ministers, who were sent by the Georgia Methodist Conference to be missionaries to the Creeks. They were well received in Georgia and along the Alabama side of the Chattahoochee River, but apparently not welcome in the regions that were to become Red Stick villages.
Smith’s complained that although Georgia Creeks readily accepted the teachings of Jesus and the concept of salvation by faith, they tended to incorporate the gospel into their own monotheistic religion, rather than changing to the institutional forms of European Christianity. Thus, they now celebrated Poskita, Christmas and Easter, plus included prayers to Jesus Christ when it their temples or Creek Squares. They also continued to condone pre-marital sex and polygamy. Adultery was still considered a serious crime.
It is curious that the Methodists had far less success with the Cherokees. The only area in which they were consistently welcome was in the Pine Log area of present day Bartow County. Charles and David Hicks were the leaders of Pine Log, which was a Natchez village before the American Revolution.
Charles Hicks had a nervous breakdown on the road home from the Battle of Horseshoe Bend because of the guilt from the massacring of Creek women and children, his Cherokee company had done. He considered himself to have become a Christian along that journey. In 1817, he established a Methodist preaching ground at a spring that was sacred to the Cherokee conjurers. It eventually became Pine Log Methodist Church and Campground. I was a member of that congregation in the late 1990s.
Nothing is written in anthropological literature about a difference in religious beliefs between Eastern Creeks and Alabama Creeks, but it seems apparent. This contrast seems to have been explained in the writings of French ethnologist Charles de Rochefort in 1658. He said that when the old Apalache Kingdom degenerated into a loose confederacy, the multi-ethnic commoners went back to their old folk religions. It seems quite possible that the Eastern Creeks continued to follow the traditional monotheistic religion of the Apalache elite.
Without any apology or guilt, Smith also inserted several comments that seem hypocritical. He described the Creek farms and natural environment in the Creek Nation as being maintained in pristine states. Other commentaries of that era describe Creek/Seminole farmers and ranchers being far more skilled and affluent than the Cracker counterparts on the east side of boundary rivers. Even Rev. Smith states that the whites on the east sides of rivers coveted the pristine Creeks lands to the west, but he also repeatedly mades the statement that “it was inevitable that the whites quickly occupy Creek lands.” In other words, God ordained it so.
When semi-civilized whites stole the lands of a Godly people, many of whom by then were also Methodist or Baptist Christians, the only way that they could assuage their guilt was to demonize their victims. God had ordained the seizure of Creek lands because they were uncivilized savages. It is a myth that continues today.
Female wannabe Cherokees in Northside Atlanta
Journalist John Selman Pennington played a major role during the 1970s in exposing the early Native American history of Georgia to the public via his Atlanta-Journal Constitution readers. He was of substantial Creek heritage from Southwest Georgia and a personal friend of Jimmy Carter. In fact, he grew up very close to where Jimmy did.
Pennington’s marriage to Marilyn Johnson Pennington fell apart when he was hired to be a press officer in a government agency in the new Carter Administration. While a housewife and mother, Marilyn had begun writing children stories and short stories. Increasingly she gravitated toward children stories within the cultural environment of the Cherokee Indians.
While her husband re-married a few years later, she became attracted to the new feminist movement, lived with the North Carolina Cherokees for several years to learn their language and then returned to Georgia to begin taking classes in anthropology. She eventually received a Masters degree and was hired by the State of Georgia as a professional archaeologist. Unfortunately, her harmless fictional stories about the Cherokees and their evil enemies, the primitive, savage Creeks, then became government authenticated archaeological reports and press releases.
All commentaries of the time describe Johnson as a highly competent administrator and archaeologist. However, none dare analyze her evaluation of artifacts or cultural evidence. Johnson played a major role within the state bureaucracy during the 1980s and early 1990s in grossly exaggerating the Cherokee presence in the state. She pressured archaeological firms to label sites that were obviously of Muskogean ethnicity and even older sites where ethnic labeling was impossible, as being “Cherokee.” She is believed to had a major role in those two arrays of Paleo-American, Archaic, Woodland and Mississippian artifacts at the Brasstown Bald Mountain Visitors Center and the Brasstown Resort museums being labeled “10,000 Years of Cherokee History.”
Simultaneously, Johnson and her allied feminist friends began issuing state press releases that described the Cherokees as building Georgia’s largest mound centers and occupying much of the state for 10,000 years. Meanwhile Creeks were consistently portrayed as primitive savages, who left very few vestiges of their presence there.
Johnson was not alone. There was actually a cult among some lily-white, affluent, Northside Atlanta women, who in midlife discovered that they were Cherokee feminists. For example, a ex-relative of mine by marriage, left her mixed-blood Creek husband and family to run around with Marilyn Johnson’s circle of friends. She lived for awhile with a woman from Tennessee, who was part Cherokee then moved in with a group of women in Buckhead.
Bisexuality has always been a common feature of Cherokee culture and in the 1700s was typically condoned among Cherokees just as heterosexual promiscuity among single teenagers and adults was condoned among the Creeks. Native Americans in general had different sexual morals.
My former second cousin renamed herself Princess Chewanee, and imagined herself to be a reincarnated Cherokee Princess. She began wearing Western Plains Indian clothing all the time. When her ex-husband moved to Florida and married a full-blood Seminole lady, 20 years younger than him, Princess Chewanee went rabid and began equating all the evils of the world with the Creeks. Chewanee called all her ex-relatives “savage Creeks,” which caused her children to distance themselves from her. She then moved to Northeast Oklahoma, where she was utterly rejected by real Cherokees. She then moved to California and promptly had a mental breakdown . . . never to be heard from again.
Meanwhile, the damage was done in Georgia. Somehow, Cherokee culture had been linked to feminism, and the first thing these ladies did, when they gained power in government was to promote all things Cherokee, even though they didn’t have a drop of Native American blood, themselves. The situation had become so intolerable by 2006, that it spawned the formation of the People of One Fire.
Where did the Christian Creeks go?
According to The Road to Disappearance (1941) by Angie Debo, Christians were not allowed in most Red Stick and Oklahoma Creek tribal towns until a couple of decades after the Trail of Tears. A person or family that converted to Christianity could expect at the least to be driven out of their community. Many were also tortured, mutilated or killed. So where did all these Methodist and Baptist Creeks go when their Georgia lands were ceded in 1825 by the McIntosh Faction?
Debo also wrote:
“Their reputation as warriors and diplomats, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, extended to the most distant reaches of the Indian country. Secure in their careless strength, friendly toward the white man until his encroachment made them resentful and desperate, they learned that they had no guile to match broken promises, and no disciplined courage to provide unity against white ruthlessness. Broken, dissembled, and their ranks depleted by the Creek and Seminole Wars, they were subjected to that shameful and tragic removal which forced all the Five Civilized Tribes to a new home in the untried wilderness west of the Mississippi.”
Angie, that’s not quite true. Over 22,000 Creek names that appeared on the 1820 census in Georgia, never showed up again on the tribal roles in either Alabama or the Indian Territory. What happened to them? According to Debo, Christian Creeks would not have been welcome in the Indian Territory, except in peripheral lands not claimed by traditional tribal towns. Non-Christian Creeks had the option of moving to Florida and joining the Seminole Alliance. Most likely, many Christian Creeks either elected to assimilate culturally with their white neighbors and become citizens of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. They also had the option of moving to Mississippi, Louisiana or Texas, where they could blend in with people of mixed-Spanish or mixed-Native American heritage.
The church congregation as a tribe
The People of One Fire has developed absolute genealogical proof that Uchees and Creeks along the Savannah River associated themselves into multiple Protestant church congregations in order to survive the traumas of the 19th century. This is not a theory. My grandmother attended a school for Indian kids in the basement of her Methodist church, when it was illegal for Indians to attend public schools. Her family had been members of that church since the late 1700s.
There is a very active state-recognized Creek tribe in Southeast Alabama, which is primarily a church congregation. It is highly likely that other predominantly Native American congregations exist in other parts of the rural Southeast. No one has really researched the matter, except in the Savannah River Valley. Those of you, whose families were in those churches for many generations, should seriously consider forming a tribe and petitioning for federal recognition. That is one sure way for Southeastern Native Americans “ to get some respect.”
And now you know!
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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