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Seeking our Native American Heritage

From the moment that European powers made contact with the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, their original societies began to change and be misinterpreted.  Apocalyptic plagues swept through the Americas between 1498 and 1770 that reduced the native population by about 95%.  Somewhere between 20 and 100 million people died – estimates by demographers vary widely. Beginning in the mid-1600s the English colonies sponsored slave raids that depopulated vast stretches of aboriginal territory. Entire ethnic groups in many locations, especially in Eastern North America and the Caribbean Basin, were exterminated.

The annihilation of the town dwellers and intelligentsia of the Southeast drastically altered the cultures of the peoples who had lived there for thousands of years. This holocaust was so extensive that few, if any, Southeastern tribes even remember it. The cultural impact of mass deaths and slave raids was to wipe their collective memory banks bare of the accumulation of generations of knowledge.  The survivors no longer knew how to weave cloth or work metals.  They initially devolved into simpler lifestyles comparable to a thousand years before, but soon became addicted to European trade goods. In a matter of a few decades, the forests were swept of most fur and hide-bearing animals. It only took about 25 years for the entire bison and elk populations of the new Colony of Georgia to be exterminated.

In the aftermath of the colonial wars, the winner, Great Britain, took all.  However, the British also fabricated a history that put its imperial agenda in the most positive light.  Native allies who served Britain’s enemies were marginalized or erased.  British historians conveniently forgot the chronicles or early Spanish and French explorers; the former presence of Spanish Sephardic gold miners in the Southern Highlands; and Spanish missions in the Deep South.

The American Revolution had an effect on Anglo-American understanding of Native American culture equivalent to the “Erase and Reboot” commands on a computer. Most North Americans, including professional anthropologists, have concept of the Southeastern indigenous peoples that is rooted in the period immediately after the Revolution.  Official National Park Service maps show the locations of ethnic groups as they were in 1793.  Many politically important tribes are not even mentioned on NPS maps because their surviving members had been forced to merge with other tribes by that time. The territorial boundaries of Southeastern tribes changed radically between 1763 and 1793, yet the collective perspective of historians is transfixed on the territorial boundaries of 1793.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. Jaime.denise@gmail.com'

    Richard, I happened to stumble on your site via a Facebook share. I am fascinated by all of the research! The “Cherokee” claim goes back so far in my family that I’m not concerned with it myself, but I am interested in what this means for my husband’s family. They all hail from northeast GA and there is a claim of at least one recent Cherokee ancestor.

    I do have a question. Do you know anyone who is mounting similar research into the tribes of the Pacific Northwest and/or Alaska? That is my heritage. Most of the history dates back only to the 1800s through anthropologist interviews. Between reservation relocation and the boarding schools, a lot of the culture was relearned from neighboring tribes.

    Reply
    • No I don’t. Would you believe that my first job, when I got out of planning school was as a planning consultant (long distance) for several of those tribes in the Northwest Coast near the Olympic Peninsula. I don’t even remember their names now.

      Good luck with your search.

      Richard T.

      Reply

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