Many Southeastern Native Americans were never “federally recognized”
Above: Until the mid-twentieth century, most Southern states forbade American Indians from attending public schools. The laws did not differ between tribal affiliations or non-affiliation. The only formal education that the author’s grandmother had was at a school in the basement of a Methodist church near the Savannah River. Grades 1-8 were taught simultaneously by the church’s minister.
There is pervasive myth being spread by text message generation journalists and especially in online media catering to Native Americans that one is not of Native American descent unless one is a member of a federally-recognized tribe. Many bloggers from west of the Mississippi in federally recognized tribes sarcastically call any small southern tribe, which seeks state or federal recognition . . . wannabe’s. They are WRONG! The true history of the region is oh so different.
There were dozens of small tribes in the Southeast that never fought a war against the United States and therefore never signed a peace treaty. It seems that the primary criteria for being considered a Native American today is having ancestors, whose had land desired by plantation owners or who fought a war against the United States after its creation in the 1780s.
Take a look at 17th century and early 18th century maps of what is now the Southeastern United States. There were hundreds of distinct tribes originally living in the region. Then look above at a map of the Southeastern United States from 1800. It mentions four tribes in bold letters (Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Cherokee) and three tribes in regular typeface (Akansas, Chitimacha and Catawba). In 1800, the Seminoles were not recognized as a separate tribe. Today there are three large Federally-recognized reservations in the Southeast: Choctaw (Mississippi), Cherokee (North Carolina) and Seminole (Florida). There are five minuscule federally recognized reservations in the region: Poarch Creek (Alabama), Catawba (South Carolina), Miccosukee (Florida), Chitimacha (Louisiana), Coushetta (Louisiana), Jena-Choctaw (Louisiana) and Tunica-Biloxi (Louisiana). One Southeastern tribe is now entirely in Oklahoma . . . the Chickasaw . . . but what happened to all all the other tribes?
Hundreds of Southeastern tribes are no longer recognized by the federal government as existing, but we will look at the fate of seven Southeastern tribes that typify the fate of the other tribes. Most of the indigenous tribes of Florida were made extinct by Spanish oppression, European diseases and British-sponsored slave raids. Most of the tribes in South Carolina shrank to such small numbers that their few survivors disappeared into the European and African majority populations.
Uchee: Uchee villages could formerly be found all over the Southeast, but their greatest concentrations of villages were along the Ogeechee and Savannah Rivers, plus in southeastern Tennessee. The Uchees never fought a war against Great Britain or the United States, therefore there were no treaties between the Uchees and these governments. The Uchees fought on the side of the United States in the Red Stick War. However, even before then federal and state politicians considered them to be an exotic branch of the Creeks.
One branch of the Uchee lived in traditional villages within the rugged Cohutta Mountains of North Georgia until at least World War I. They picked up cash income by hauling firewood and provisions to copper smelters in Copper Hill, Tennessee. When the US government purchased most of the Cohuttas to become a national forest in the 1920s and 1930s, it is believed that most of the Uchee’s living there moved to the Snowbird Cherokee Reservation. However, some dispersed into other parts of Georgia and Tennessee.
Those Uchee, who refused to relocate from the Savannah River basin to the Creek Nation typically disappeared into small, remote hamlets of eastern Georgia or southern South Carolina, often intermarrying with other races. Those on the Chattahoochee River and northwest Florida shared the fates of their Creek and Seminole neighbors. Today, even those Uchees in Oklahoma and along the Savannah River, who are almost fullblood Native Americans are frustrated with their attempts to obtain separate federal recognition, because the United States government never signed a treaty with a Uchee tribe.
Savano or Southern Shawnee: In 1705, a French map of North America labeled what is now western North Carolina as “The Nation of Shawnees.” There was a very large Shawnee town where Biltmore Village is now located in Asheville, NC until 1763. However, the Savano were quickly forced out of most of North Carolina, west of Buncombe County, by the Cherokees. Some Savanos fled southward and gave the Savannah River its name. Other Savanos joined the Creeks on the Chattahoochee River, moved to northeast Alabama or even settled in northern Florida, where they gave the Suwannee River its name.
Unlike the Uchee, the separate ethnic identity of the Savano has completely disappeared. Because of their chronic attacks against white settlements in Virginia and Maryland between 1754 and 1814, the Northern Shawnees were thoroughly hated in Washington, DC. Surviving Shawnees in the mountains of Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia thought it wise to keep a very low profile. After 1814, most Savanos in the Southeast called themselves either Creek or Seminole . . . even if they remained in the Southeast after the majority of Creeks and Seminoles were forced to the Indian Territory.
South Georgia Swamp Creeks: Many Hitchiti-speaking Creeks in South Georgia did not move westward, when the Creek Confederacy sold their lands, because they did not recognize the authority of the Muskogee-dominated confederacy. Even though they were theoretically citizens of the State of Georgia, many Hitchiti Creeks on Altamaha River were captured by federal troops in 1843 and marched in chains to Fort Mitchell, then transported to the Indian Territory. Those that remained in the swampy, unclaimed river bottoms of South Georgia rivers and the Okefenokee Swamp established an important economic role as the intermediaries between the white-owned plantations or turpentine operations and African-American laborers. Creeks in this region often were the foremen for labor gangs of blacks, before and after the Civil War. They chopped the wood for steamboats, supervised laborers tapping pine trees for rosin, plus raised livestock and vegetables to sell in towns. In the region around Waycross, GA they were called “Ware County Indians” or “Swamp Rats.”
The situation changed radically in the 1890s, when Northern timber companies and capitalists began seizing vast tracts of land along South Georgia rivers and eventually the entire Okefenokee Swamp. These were areas, thinly occupied by Swamp Creeks, in which land ownership was poorly documented. The Swamp Creeks often had never obtained title to their soggy land because no one wanted it.
Northern lawyers filed quit claim deeds for hundreds of thousands of acres a time. Along the Altamaha River, one powerful New York family even created new counties with their stooges appointed as sheriffs, county commissioners and mayors. The Swamp Creeks didn’t stand a chance legally and were soon dispersed into a wide region of the Lower Southeast. Some were able to reestablish themselves as whites with black hair and tan skin. No one knows where the others went.
Actor Pernell Roberts (Adam Cartwright in the hit TV series, Bonanza) from Waycross, GA was secretly a Swamp Creek. While concealing his Creek heritage to avoid type-casting, throughout his life he quietly assisted Native American causes and put many Native American youth through college.
Saponi, Tutelo, Oconeechi or Eastern Blackfoot: Perhaps a hundred thousand or more United States citizens have at least some Saponi ancestry . . . maybe many more. It was once a very large, powerful alliance of Siouan and Muskogean remnant tribes in southern Virginia and north-central North Carolina. Oconeechi is a Creek word. They are a favorite target of wannabe rants by western Indians, who don’t realize that there was a very large Blackfoot tribe in the East. In fact, there were originally far more Blackfoot in Virginia and North Carolina than ever lived in the West. They were an entirely different ethnic group, however.
The Blackfoot never fought a war against the Great Britain or the United States. They signed a few treaties with the Commonwealth of Virgina very early in its history. However, they were decimated by the double whammy of European diseases and catastrophic slave raids by the Rickohockens and Cherokees. The survivors found it wiser to keep a low profile and move to safer locales. Many individual Saponi families ended up on remote farms in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Some Melungeon families trace their heritage to the Eastern Blackfoot.
Some Saponi descendants still live in their homeland and they are organized into state-recognized tribes. As can be seen above, they are REAL Native Americans and do not deserve the verbal abuse that they receive from federally-recognized tribal members.
Upland Creeks of Georgia and South Carolina: Among many academicians and the general public there is a belief that all Creeks are Muskogee Creeks and that all “real Creeks” either moved to Oklahoma or Florida. Those in Florida all became Seminoles in this belief system. First of all there are many Creek descendants in northern Florida, who do not consider themselves Seminoles. Their ancestors, who came from Alabama and western Georgia, spoke Muskogee, not Hitchiti. However, there is also a large population of Creek descendants elsewhere, whose ancestors spoke either Hitchiti or Cusabo. Their homelands are in northeastern Georgia, the southern coast of South Carolina and the northern half of South Carolina.
The Creeks in North Georgia, Eastern Georgia and Northern South Carolina were traditional enemies of the Koweta and Tuckabachee Creeks. There is a reason why Cherokees say that the Lower Cherokee language is extinct, while Georgia Creeks have no trouble translating all “Lower Cherokee” words. That’s because the eight towns of the Tamasee Alliance, who eventually joined the Cherokee alliance were Creeks . . . originally colonies of Creek towns in Georgia or elsewhere in South Carolina. Most of the other Creeks in eastern Georgia and South Carolina eventually joined the newest version of the Creek Confederacy in 1717, when it was sponsored by Koweta.
After a mixed blood Tory officer, Alexander McGillivray, made himself Principal Chief during the American Revolution and moved the capital to Pensacola, there was anger among pro-Patriot branches of the Creeks in eastern Georgia and South Carolina. That turned into outrage, when throughout the 1780s and early 1790s, McGillivray launched repeated attacks by the Upper Creeks against Hitchiti-speaking Creeks in Northeast Georgia. There are several accounts of whites and Hitchiti Creeks fighting from the same forts.
Most of these estranged Creeks left the Creek Confederacy and never went back. Approximately, 20,000 Creeks stayed in Georgia and South Carolina, when all Creek Confederacy lands in Georgia were ceded. Until the middle 20th century, the Upland Creeks of Northeast Georgia and South Carolina often married among themselves, but went to distant towns to find mates, so they would not be related. However, since World War II, there has been very little, if any, stigma attached to marriage between other races and the Creeks . . . other than the newest generation of Creeks tend to be better educated than others. So in each generation the differences in physical features with their neighbors is decreasing.
MOWA Choctaws: The MOWA Choctaws are descended from Choctaw families in Alabama, who refused to immigrate to the Indian Territory in 1832, but instead accepted allotments in southwestern Alabama. Ethnically, they are no different than those Choctaws in the federally recognized Mississippi Choctaw Reservation. Citizens of both tribes are typically today, bi-racial or tri-racial. However, the difference is that Alabama politicians once made a big deal out of the partial African ancestry of many MOWA Choctaws, while Mississippi politicians didn’t seem to care. The Choctaws, who stayed behind in Mississippi and Alabama, played the same economic role that the Swamp Creeks played in Southeast Georgia. There is really no justification for the MOWA Choctaws being denied federal recognition . . . but there is a reason . . . gambling casinos.
The North Carolina Cherokees spend large sums of money each year on lawyers and lobbyists, whose jobs are to stop the proliferation of gambling casinos in the Southeast. They are directly behind the obstruction of efforts by the federally recognized Catawba Nation to build a casino and frustrated efforts over the past fifty years for the largest Indian tribe east of the Mississippi, the Lumbee Nation of North Carolina, to achieve federal recognition. The Lumbee Nation has over 55,000 members and the tribe has always been located in the same area of North and South Carolina since the late 1500s.
When the MOWA Choctaws first began attempting to be recognized by Congress, all manner of subtle racial slurs were thrown into the battle to stop the process. Most did not NOT originate from white Alabamans, who continue to support something that should have been done a long time ago. No, the rumors that the MOWA’s were really Africans, not mostly Native American, came from the Cherokees. Yes, that is the same tribe, which averages 0-2% Native American DNA.
In the case of the MOWA Choctaws, they have two more enemies blocking federal recognition. They are their kin to the west, the Mississippi Choctaws and their neighbors to the south, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. A MOWA-Choctaw casino could potentially reduce gambling revenue for both tribes.
Georgia will soon be approving a billion dollar casino wonderland in Downtown Atlanta and seven $250 million casinos at strategic locations on its interstate highway system. When those monsters are completed, the Native American casinos in the Southeast will be marketing themselves as ideal locations for auto shows, bridal showers and weddings.
That’s the reason that this article was placed in the Humor section of the People of One Fire.
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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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