Crime, Punishment and the Blood Law in the Mvskoke-Creek Nation . . . an article by the Ghost
This is the most recent research article by the Ghost . . . a Mvskoke-Creek Keeper in Alabama. It describes cultural practices among the Mvskoke-Creeks during the 1700s and 1800s. As most of you are aware, the Creek Confederacy was composed of many ethnic groups, which brought with them their own traditions. At least twice, even the Chickasaw were members of the Creek Confederacy. Over time, these traditions mixed to become what the Ghost is describing below. Something like 25,000 Creeks from South Carolina and eastern Georgia never joined the most recent Creek Confederacy, or else parted ways, when a mixed-blood Tory in Alabama became Principal Chief during the latter stages of the American Revolution. Much of my research, nowadays, is devoted to determining what these older traditions were. The Editor
Q & A with Ghost Dancer, Creek Indian Wisdom Keeper
Q: Can you please shine a light on crimes and punishments for murder, theft, and adultery, and how they were handled by those peoples who lived according to the old ways. Please also explain how changes and misconceptions came about over time, especially as relates to the punishment of women for adultery by cutting off the tip of the nose. How were men punished for adultery?
A: Much has been written by non-Native observers about the ways of the Creeks, but little has been written by traditional Creeks who fully understand the nuances of the ancient culture. To even begin to understand the old ways, one must first understand two fundamental basics that have been so watered down for generations that they have lost their meaning or been forgotten.
- The Blood Laws may be seen as the Constitution or Supreme Law the Mvskoke, Mvskoge lived by. These laws were just and were applied as needed to guide every aspect of community life, including crimes and punishments.
- Our society was a true Matriarchy. You must get used to the understanding of this. It means that women were in actual control and were the power of our nation! It does not mean that benevolent male leaders graciously allowed the input of the women in decision making.
As most people understand, we were a matrilineal society: Our clan was determined by our mother’s blood clan, not our father’s. Clan mothers ruled with absolute authority over their clan. Each clan had its own clan mother. But understand also: The clan mothers decided what was best for the people – not the mekko! The mekko was only mekko because the clan mothers gave him that power!
Now also get used to the idea and fact of this as well: the more powerful in status a woman was, the more she had. This includes how many husbands she had. If a man could provide for them, he could have more than one wife, but women could have more than more one husband also. Why? Because of the power of her bloodline, she wanted more children for her clan. Making her clan stronger and more powerful added to their status as well. To truly understand our ways, you must first open your mind and forget all the European influences, customs and beliefs you have been taught.
Our women knew their power and enjoyed it. They were not ashamed of their sexuality and their unique ability to produce new life. The Europeans were a Patriarchy in which women held little status unless it came through her husband’s favor. European and American men could not understand or accept the Native’s matriarchal society and saw it as a threat to their beliefs and control over women.
Amongst our people, all land was controlled by the women, as were our homes. Men owned nothing other than their personal items, weapons and tools. Not even a mekko. A mekko was simply the best man chosen by the clan mothers, who could lead the warriors and speak for the people in behalf of the clan mothers. In seriousness, he was no more than a great general or war leader, or a great leader in peace time when the safety and governing of the town fell to his responsibility. The concepts of the mekko being tantamount to a king came from the other cultural practices. It was never part of traditional Creek culture.
The Seven Foundations of our Blood Laws were: Honor, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Compassion, Humbleness, and Love.
Judgments and punishments for all crimes, and resolutions for all problems were decided by the clan mothers. No mekko decided the blood laws. This was done by the clan mothers only. The mekko was responsible for making sure that the decisions of the clan mothers were carried out. But understand this: The punishments always fit the crime, and always the seven (7) Foundations of the Blood Laws had to be applied.
Banishment – separation from the life of the community – was the punishment for many misdeeds. Depending on the circumstances of each particular case, banishment could be for 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years or forever.
Punishment was swift and harsh, but even murder was a forgivable crime if it was for just cause. It could be that the guilty party would undergo terrible punishment and then be required to take the place of the one murdered to fulfill his family responsibilities.
It goes against our traditional beliefs and blood laws to keep hate or anger in our hearts. We must release it lest it contaminates and poisons our spirit, body and homes. Therefore, even when we went to war, it was for one purpose – to balance the scale. Then the fight was over as far as we were concerned. Not so with the Europeans.
Regarding theft: only the theft of a sacred object could cause much of a ruckus. If someone’s personal items were stolen, the clan mothers would have the guilty one beaten and punished, and the items returned or compensated for with interest.
According to the Blood Laws, once a person has been punished and the issue has been settled by the clan mothers, never again is this matter spoken of or held against the person who committed the offense. To do so would violate our beliefs that holding bad feelings corrupts and poisons the town, band, tribe or village and individual bodies, hearts and spirits.
The European’s Systematic Annihilation of an Ancient Culture
After the Europeans had thoroughly influenced the white towns long enough, someone like me, a red-stick who holds to the traditional beliefs and practices, would be charged as a witch or spell-caster because his or her beliefs and practices did not conform to what they believed or were taught.
So, understand that what you have heard or read in the past was seen or documented through the filter of a totally different world view that never really understood the traditional beliefs and practices of the Native Peoples.
Now, about the cutting of a woman’s nose for adultery. That never happened in the real old days. This punishment only came into play after the Europeans came in. Creek women had liberties that the Europeans could not fathom. European women were not free, nor did they have high status in the European beliefs or cultures. The European’s teachings and religious beliefs were used to try to knock down the matriarch-dominant status of the people when the ministers started teaching about the “sin” of adultery in the white towns.
This didn’t happen all at once. Adultery only became an issue with the Creeks when women began selling their bodies to the Europeans in return for goods they wanted. If caught, their noses were cut by law, but they were not put to death. And yes, for a woman to sell herself back then could not be understood by any clan mother. Since a clan was always there to help a clan member, especially a woman, no person went hungry or without. A clan mother would never allow that. In any town you went to, even in other tribes or bands, any member of your clan that lived there was required to help you in every way. That is another of the blood laws which assures that clan members always have a place to sleep, food and clothing as well.
Otherwise, under normal circumstances, a woman could not be charged with adultery. A married woman could easily divorce her husband. If she didn’t want her him any more, she just placed his clothes and moccasins outside the house. This told everyone, the marriage was over between the two of them.
If a man was caught violating his beloved’s honor, however, she could demand his testicles be burnt if she wanted or he could be beaten by her clan. He would suffer terrible manhood tortures in his groin area if found guilty. But as I said, the punishment would be up to the woman and her clan mother and the females of her clan.
Now don’t misunderstand this, unless the wife divorced him, an adulterer was still responsible for providing meat from the hunt and to help take care of the fields and gardens. Responsibility for the children fell mostly on the mother’s clan. The only way a man could divorce his wife was for his clan mother to arranged it.
Blood Laws Governed Every Aspect of Life
Some examples of basic Blood Laws:
- Everyone to look after all elders, and the children especially. Our elders are beloved ones who have such knowledge and gifts to teach to our young and adult alike. Our children are our future. We must protect them and help them in their path.
- That every member of each clan looks out for their clan members. Help them and even discipline them when it is needed. No member is to do without or be in need while other members are okay.
- No member of the nation can be turned away when needing help (physically, materially, spiritually, emotionally, or any other way) by a town, tribe, band or village. The clan mother of each clan will is in charge of collecting, storing, distributing all food or materials for the clan. Many times, she oversees this or appoints another she is grooming to become a clan mother.
- Each member of the town, village, band, or tribe must work in the communal fields of the food supply. No matter their rank. Yes, even clan mothers, mekkos and beloved ones. This puts their love, energy, prayers, sweat, back into the mother earth, and into all the plant people that are being cared for. These fields belong to the people, not just one person. Each clan or each family can, and usually do, have their own garden behind their home as well.
- No person can be harmed who comes to a white town, band, village, tribe of their own free will to speak, trade, negotiate, or seek shelter. Even if this person is an enemy of the people. This is a peace sanctuary.
- No person may give away, trade, sell, or any such form, any property that belongs to the people or clan.
- No sacred areas can be violated by any outsider, nor are they allowed to see or cross these sacred areas.
- No person shall conduct any business of selling or trading during any religious ceremony.
- All life is respected and no person takes more from the bounty of the land than they need to live. Nothing is wasted.
- Only those qualified who hold knowledge in certain areas were ever allowed to conduct religious ceremonies, to administer medicines or perform surgeries.
- Only those with the knowledge and experience are authorized to handle and prepare the body of any person that has taken the journey to the next life.
- Every child is a precious gift. Every member is duty and honor bound to help, protect, and see to the well-being of each child. This also applies to every elder, those who are injured, sick, and such. Every warrior is expected to help provide fish, meat, hides and such to those in need. Any warrior, who fails to do this is violating the blood law.
Most folks are not aware of how the Creek Confederation was formed, for what purpose, and how powerful this alliance was. Our people’s strength was our religion and our working with other nations as one.
When we battled another nation, we didn’t take their lands, people, or make them practice our beliefs etc. – we made them our allies! They kept their language, religious practices, leaders, everything. The only thing we required was that they be our ally, and when they had anyone attack them, we would come and fight with them and make the attackers pay. They in turn must come to our aid when we needed them.
Unlike Europeans who, when defeating someone in battle, took their people as slaves, killed their leaders, and outlawed their beliefs, religion, languages and such, we shared in trade, arts, crafts, ceremonies and knowledge. We practiced the Blood Laws and applied the Seven Foundations: Honor, Respect, Courage, Honesty, Compassion, Humbleness, and Love, in all these matters.
We intermarried and strengthened our gene pool keeping it from becoming too closely related. As required by our blood laws, clan mothers must check the blood lines of anyone and everyone who is to be married so that certain blood lines are not crossed. Certain clans were related so they could not intermarry.
The blood laws forbade the taking of any woman sexually by force, even an enemy or captive. Even though they are not members of the tribe or nation, all women were considered sacred and must be respected as such. A captive could become adopted by the people if she or he chose to. Then they could marry as our laws allowed and when adopted, they would become a full member, not thought of as an adopted outsider as some other cultures did.
When I hear of all the claims by Europeans that the women of their people were violated during an attack, or raid, or war, I know that is an outright lie, for it goes against the very basics of our people’s beliefs. Remember this: All war, raids, or attacks were conducted under religious guidance. So please understand that all warriors were bound to abide by these laws. Nor were captured women sexually violated. That could not happen either. Just because rape was common practice among the Europeans, they assumed it would apply to our people as well.
Always, these accusations were spoken to stir up the populations by those in charge who had ulterior motives. What better way for the European traders and speculators and those who governed as well, to get men angry and stirred up, than to claim that their women had been raped and tortured to death by brutal savages? The fact is, that was never, ever true. If a warrior acted even, anyway near like that, he would be harshly punished by his own family and clan.
Just like the common practice of spreading smallpox through contaminated blankets, inflicting guilt, undermining the natural honor and discipline of the Native people, and promoting heightened fears were all just part of the ultimate scheme to control and get them out of the way in order to steal their land so rich in natural resources.
Most people have no clue about the true way we lived, our matriarchy, or the religious practices which controlled every aspect of our lives. I’m not saying there were not bad apples. There are bad apples in every race, culture, and nation in the world, but among our people, those were dealt with swiftly and severely.
When the people all lived by the blood laws, crime as we understand it, was extremely rare. There were only certain crimes that carried horrifying death sentences automatically.
- The murder of, or sexually harming a child, or any elder, or holy person.
- Desecration of any burial grounds, sacred mounds, sacred grounds, sacred fire or any sacred items or objects.
- Rape or attempted rape of any female.
Now, as we know, history as written by the victors, never tells the full truth. In the case of the Creeks, the Europeans and Americans did an excellent job of “divide and conquer” – a divide that lasts even unto this day.
From the Red Stick perspective, over time, leaders in the upper red towns saw how the Europeans undermined and destroyed the age-old balance of the matriarchal way of life in the lower white towns. They felt the hunger caused by the overkill of deer and other game to satisfy the European thirst for hides – the blood laws about taking only what was needed were broken, the balance destroyed in the white towns. They saw the great forests cut down and the wood shipped to Europe at great profit.
The Red Sticks were branded as fearsome and hostile because they chose not to sit by and allow this to happen to their people. They refused to allow the Christian schools or religions taught in their towns and lands. They refused to just step aside and allow unscrupulous manipulators, speculators and governments to destroy their way of life and steal their land. This is what really caused the Red Stick Wars.
Now days, the traditional beliefs are almost totally forgotten in their original form. Too much has been mixed with European beliefs and customs and even with other Native tribal customs. For those who choose to follow the old ways, our Spirit lives on in the Blood Laws we honor and faithfully keep.
Note: For more than 40 years, Ghost Dancer has lived by and taught the old ways. As a young man, Ghost was blessed to find traditional Creek mentors and teachers, Phillip Deere and Billy Proctor, among the spiritual leaders of the American Indian Movement protests in South Dakota in the 1970s. The influence of these men was instrumental in guiding Ghost to become a strong spiritual leader in his own right, and a lifelong activist for religious freedom for all Native people.
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