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.
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.
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.
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.
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