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The dehumanization of Native Americans . . . getting to the roots

The dehumanization of Native Americans . . . getting to the roots

In this famous painting of Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins, all of the Creek Indians are shown either bowing in submission to him or shorter than him.  In fact, Creek men were substantially taller than most Europeans. The Creek woman is portrayed in the then scandalous act of bearing her breasts to nurse a baby . . . thus proving her sub-civilized status.   Amazingly, this is one of the least obnoxious portrayals of Southeastern Indians from the Federal Period. 

It is one thing to identify the intentional fabrication of history.  The People of One Fire over the past 10 years has certainly identified a supertanker load of that sort of malarkey.  However, it is another thing to understand why people, who were at least superficially educated,  created false understandings of the past.  There has to be some deeply buried societal value, or even, neurosis, at work.

Before we go any further, look at the background of the painting.  This is only known artistic description of an early 19th century Creek village. You can see an undersized, cone-shaped chokopa (chukofa in Oklahoma) and an outdoor cooking shed.  In the background is the mikko’s house with a double portico.   On the other side of the river is Macon, Georgia. 

Despite numerous eyewitness descriptions by European explorers and several drawings by William Bartram, Southeastern archaeologists continue to stubbornly call Creek rotundas, "earth lodges." It seems the more they are scolded about this, the more they make a show of misinterpreting Native architecture.

Despite numerous eyewitness descriptions by European explorers and several drawings by William Bartram, Southeastern archaeologists continue to stubbornly call Creek rotundas, “earth lodges.” It seems the more they are scolded about this, the more they pout and say “How dare you tell us how your ancestors lived.”

The disinterest of Federal Period white Americans in the lifestyles, architecture and communities of their Muskogean neighbors was just one aspect of a comprehensive effort to relegate them to sub-human status.  One can see a stark change in attitude from the period six decades before when enlightened British leaders such as General James Edward Oglethorpe guided their government’s enlightened self-interest policies toward Native Americans.

Whereas Oglethorpe literally described the Creeks as “highly intelligent people descended from a great civilization,”  the emerging Southern Planter aristocracy characterized them as children, incapable of making correct decisions for themselves.  Look at this newspaper cartoon from the 1820s.

This cartoon portrays Southeastern Natives as toddlers under the benign guidance of King Andy Jackson.

This cartoon portrays Southeastern Natives as toddlers under the benign guidance of  Andy Jackson.

While many middle-class Southerners were often part Native American themselves or at least viewed their Native American neighbors as neighbors,  the planter aristocracy sought to put Native Americans in the same box as African Americans, i.e. childlike sub-humans,  in order to justify the theft of their land and civil rights.

As soon as the Creeks and Seminoles stood their ground and acted like adults in response to the continued treachery of government leaders,  the planter class demonized them and passed that attitude on to the Crackers, who did the dirty work for the planters.  Hostile Injuns were lumped into the same sub-human category as slaves.

Red Stick attack on Fort Mims. The Red Sticks wore turbans and long shirts, not Plains Indian war bonnets. Most of the men in the fort were in the militia and would have not been wearing the formal, dress uniform of the US Army. Many of the fort's occupants were Creeks or mixed-blood Creeks, unlike the helpless, blond haired damsel in the center of the engraving.

Red Stick attack on Fort Mims.  This newspaper engraving portrays the Red Stick Creeks as being primarily interested in killing helpless white women, leaving the white soldiers to stand idly by.  The Red Sticks wore turbans and long shirts, not Plains Indian war bonnets. Most of the men in the fort were in the militia and would have not been wearing the formal, dress uniform of the US Army. Many of the fort’s occupants were Creeks or mixed-blood Creeks, unlike the helpless, blond haired damsel in the center of the engraving. The Red Stick soldiers would have carried hunting rifles and bowie knives, not stone tomahawks!

If you think that the Andrew Jackson cartoon, portraying Native Americans as diminutive children,  was the product of the racist America of almost 200 years ago, think again.   When the Franciscan Order and Atlanta Roman Catholic Archdiocese first announced their proposal to have five Franciscan friars, who were killed at their missions on the coast of Georgia in the late 16th century, declared saints, the press release was accompanied by a cartoon-like drawing.   The scene portrayed a couple of short, almost naked Indians supplicating before a towering Franciscan friar.  The caption said, “Father so-in-so teaching the ignorant pagan Indians on the Georgia coast.”

That was going too far.   I sent a letter to the archdiocese that was accompanied by a painting by Jacque LeMoyne, which showed the coastal natives towering over the French, who were themselves taller than the Spanish.  I included a passage from the De Soto Chronicles, where some SE Georgia Indians told de Soto that they did not worship idols, but one invisible God.  The same section of the chronicles described the Georgia Indians as being a foot taller than the Spanish and wearing bright colored clothing.

The church officials had their feathers ruffled, but eventually the obnoxious cartoon disappeared from the internet.   And yet . . . what was the first public statement by a University of Georgia archaeology professor when the Track Rock Terrace Complex was announced?  “Now go away children and play somewhere else.”

Okay, but why specifically was Muscogean history changed?

That’s a good question.   Why would Georgians change the name of Mount Noccasee, an Anglicized Creek word meaning “bear” to Mount Yonah, the Cherokee word for “bear” . . . 15 years after they had dispatched the Cherokees at bayonet point on the Trail of Tears?   Why would both Tennesseans and Alabamans continue to erase of the memory of the Chickasaw, who occupied much of their states?   Why would the Uchee be erased by all the states? Why would to this day,  archaeologists, white-or-wannabe dominated  organizations  and white, female state bureaucrats  be obsessed with relabeling Uchee, Chickasaw and Creek heritage sites as being Cherokee?

In studying the literature of the early 1800s, I have found several causes for the two century long effort to belittle and erase the memory of Muskogeans and Uchee.  Today’s generation of archaeologists and civic organization leaders probably don’t realize the true causes, but like all forms of racial prejudice. these attitudes embed their psyches like microscopic amoeba from tepid water.

  • The aristocrats of South Carolina and Georgia never forgave the Creeks and Seminoles for giving sanctuary to runaway African slaves.  This was the real cause of the three Seminole Wars and the obsession by the United States government of removing the Seminoles from watery lands that no one else wanted.
  •  Throughout the Antebellum Period,  Southern Crackers were kept in perpetual poverty by the disproportionate wealth held by the Planter Class and the unfair competition of slave labor.  Prior to the Trail of Tears, they looked around for someone to hate and therefore make themselves feel better about their harsh lives . . .  There were the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles.  What really rubbed salt into the neurotic wounds of Georgia Crackers was seeing the Creeks in Georgia and Florida becoming affluent by selling livestock and produce to the planters and townspeople.   Many Crackers were notoriously inept farmers.

It was the Antebellum intelligentsia of the South, who created “Cherokee is better” thing.   The reason was just the opposite of the myth continued today in history textbooks that the Cherokees were “more civilized.”   You will be surprised at the real history.

The Cherokees lost well over half their population to smallpox plagues in the mid-1700s and lost every major war they fought between 1738 and 1794.   William Bartram stated that at the 1773 Treaty Conference in Augusta, the Creeks openly mocked and laughed at the Cherokee delegates, because they were so impoverished and still humiliated by their catastrophic defeats by the Coweta Creeks in 1754 and British-Colonial forces in 1761.

The Chickamauga War had ended with a massacre of Cherokees at the Battle of Etowah Cliffs.  In 1794, decades of plagues and military defeats had left the Cherokees demoralized and impoverished.  Four decades of seeing their villages repeatedly burned by first the Coweta Creeks and then the white soldiers had left them with little memory of their original cultural heritage.  They were a broken people.   They were exactly what the Planter Class wanted all Indians to be.  They were brown-skinned people, who would now jump when Massa told them to jump.

Throughout the early 1800s, I found snide comments in the newspapers and literature about the Chickasaw, Uchee, Creeks and Seminoles being “arrogant” or “uppity.”   At least until 1836,  the Creeks and Seminoles were also feared. They were labeled “cruel, barbaric savages” because they shot back when shot at.   A victorious Andy Jackson even acknowledged that “It takes 40 of my white soldiers to whip one Creek warrior.”

You would think that these prejudices would have ended soon after  most of the Southeastern Indians were thoroughly broken and forced to march to the Indian Territory in the 1830s.   That is not the case.

I found a passage written by Georgia historian in the 1880s that tells it all.   Most of the passages related to American Indians in his History of Methodism in Georgia,  dwelt on the Cherokees  . . . who were only in the state in any significant number between 1794 and 1838.   He did not mention the Uchee and Chickasaw at all.  Of the Creeks, he stated, “They were a stubborn, ignorant people, who refused to acknowledge their inferiority to the White race.  It was a blessing for Georgia to be rid of them.”

And how about today?

Civil Rights laws and the incessant efforts of the media to make us “politically correct” have changed the superficial appearance of the cultural landscape, but demons still dwell within.   One can go to jail for demeaning the religion of a terrorist just before he sets off a bomb.  Nevertheless,  we still see a propensity among Americans, to put down others, in order to make one’s self seem more important. Whether it be text message bullying by teenagers or the the legion of nasty rantings that follow news articles, it is all the same thing.

How about the simultaneous loathing and fear that characterized attitudes toward Creeks and Seminoles in the early 1800s?  Surely that has disappeared?

Back in the spring of 2010,  I had gotten tired of playing Rambo at night.   Graham County, NC neo-nazi’s (or whatever) were repeatedly attacking my campsite after midnight.   I drove over the Snowbird Mountains to a peaceful tourist campground in Nantahala Gorge (Swain County).  After pitching my tent,  I went to a country grocery to pick up some food supplies.   The lady checking me out asked, “If you don’t mind sir.  You look like an Indian, but not like a Cherokee.  What are you?”

I answered, “I’m part Creek . . . from Georgia.”

She grimaced, looked a little fearful and uttered, “Oh . . . you’re the mean ones!”

I wonder if she and her sons lived in Graham County?  Hm-m-m.

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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.

16 Comments

  1. abbahawk@hotmail.com'

    excellent article. Tho Historically, we have always understood that “crackers” with their whips, pretending to be planters or overseers, came from all races, poor whites, Negroes free & slaves, mestizos etc. It was an attitude by individuals showing off, not a class. But now the “lusa” need it for another incorrect anti-white slur.

    Reply
  2. csmoke@webound.com'

    seems like it really is true, the more things change..etc. Thanks for so much insight. I really have seen “modern” Inds acting completely “childish” and can see how if their ancestors acted this same way as a group, they would easily be considered as children.
    In the previous century, I found my ancestors who claimed (in Oklahoma TR.) to be Cherokee, but I found proof that they were actually considered Euchee, … and identified as Cherokee since that was a higher caste than their true being Euchee.
    I do not know about the Crackers…, must have been a local problem. I do know the Euchee (mean s.o.b.s..) say they ran the Lakota out of the southeast.
    “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness of little things in others.” (a quote…) Thanks for so much insight! (Bubba..)
    Richard in MO

    Reply
  3. david@mapthekeys.com'

    So you’re one of the Red Meanies. Maybe the DC football team could have that for their new name.

    Reply
  4. reillyranch@aol.com'

    Richard, your comments sparked a memory of mine from a conversation I had with my grandmother years ago. She was born 1909 and her dad was a teacher and they lived in Indian reservation to teach school to the children. It was her observation that the Indian tribes that had any catholic background were discriminated against. No specifics about which tribes or how long ago, just that they had a catholic background (most likely from Spanish missionaries). At that time in the south there was bias against Catholics. I can only guess the English were very hostile to both the catholics and Spanish in the early 1800’s as well. If the Creeks had any influence of either then there was certainly bias against them. I don’t know if the Cherokee were on better terms with the English and or Protestants but if so then their history would be preferred to the Spanish and Catholic. More often than not history is written by the victorious.

    Reply
    • csmoke@webound.com'

      called a secessionist (sp?) and BA , but not a red yet. in colonial times the Euchee were being such a problem on the frontier that the Cherokee were given guns (by colonials) to attack Euchee. Cherokee killed most of the Euchee except for few women and small children. remainder were taken in by the Creeks. Euchee were given the”job” of being the fire keepers. this account of fire keepers was given in Oklahoma county history book by one of the children of a fire keeper.

      Reply
      • quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

        Apologies, intended to post to main column.

        Reply
    • quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

      After prayerfully considering issues like this for years, the colonial period impresses me as one of the most scandalous in Christian history.

      Reply
    • quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

      Interesting. Regrettably, the Spanish mostly seemed to have had a single-minded determination to subdue native people. I do not recall any accounts of any alliance between Spaniards and natives. This, however, was not the case with the French. In Canada, the Catholic French forged alliances with Native peoples. They may also have done so in the Southwest (although their conflicts, subjugation, and ethnic cleansing of the Natchez was more typical of French dealings with Southeastern Natives).

      Reply
  5. quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

    While opportunism and population pressures were significant influences, I suspect much of the injustices of the colonial period was fueled by the intolerant attitudes of 15th-19th century Western civilization. You probably are right about some repressive Islamic ideas penetrating into Spanish Catholicism, but 800 years of religious wars between Spain and Islamic powers also contributed to Spaniards’ intolerant perceptions of other cultures.

    Reply
  6. quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

    The religious issues of Tudor England differed significantly, but Anglican sovereigns Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both executed those convicted on religous charges at higher rates than either the Spanish, or the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor.

    Reply
    • quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

      Rates of conviction, and executions on religious offenses, were both higher under Henry and Elizabeth, that is.

      Reply
  7. quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

    Did that ignorant portrayal of Creeks originate in the Atlanta Archdiocese? It is disappointing to read how such ignorance, stereotypes, and prejudiced attitudes still persist within my Catholic Church. I hope your letters achieved some good results.

    Reply
  8. quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

    Stephen Ray, a Catholic convert and lay evangelist who promotes the Beatification of the Franciscan Martyrs of Georgia, claims Anglo-Georgian colonists actively instigated the native war party that killed the Franciscans of Georgia. Ray traces his ancestry to one of the original plotters.

    Reply
    • That is impossible. The murders occurred in the 1570s, when there were no English colonies in North America. However, I strongly suspect that Sephardic Jewish pirates, based in the Bahamas and Jamaica may have had a role. I was Sephardic pirates who eventually drove the missions off the Georgia coast and who also transported Sephardic colonists to the Appalachian Mountains. Of course, the Jews had a very good reason for hating the Spanish and the Inquisition. The famous Louisiana pirate, Jean LaFitte was a Sephardic Jew, who originated in the region of the Caribbean, where the French-Sephardic Jewish pirates were based.

      Reply
      • quarefremeruntgentes7@yahoo.com'

        Yes, my source apppears to have his chronology wrong… Although the later conflict between colonial Georgia and the Spanish was real enough.

        Reply

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