Why is a Muskogee-Creek ceremonial ground called a “Big House?”
People in Oklahoma and northern Florida are often puzzled as to why Muskogee-Creeks would call a flat, square plot of land a Chuko Rakko or “Big House?” We Hitchiti Creeks use the word, tamapa, an Itza Maya word, which means “Trading Place” or “Market Square.” This actually makes more sense. In Chickasaw, tamapa eventually became tama, their word for town.
One has to go the Nacoochee Valley in Northeast Georgia and back in history, at least to the 700s AD to get the answer. Archaeologist Robert Wauchope discovered large square buildings in the center of villages that appeared to have seats on all four sides. The houses near these buildings were definitely the earliest known examples of Chickasaw domestic architecture and even today, the Chickasaws build these structures. They are basically an 18th century Muskogee Creek square, with a roof. Note that the central column of the Proto-Chickasaw building became a large timber with a wooden eagle on top in Creek towns.
Yet . . . Wauchope found other villages in the Nacoochee Valley, occupied at the same time as the Chickasaw villages, which contained Itza Maya style houses, called a chiki. They were associated with stone lined sarcophagi, which the Highland Mayas bury their dead in to this day. Until pressured by Roman Catholic priests to bury their dead in church cemeteries, the Maya Commoners typically buried their dead in the floor of houses or near the houses. We see this custom throughout Proto-Creek towns until the 1700s.
Those villages did not have these large square buildings, but had round communal structures. The Itsate (Hitchiti) Creeks call this structure a chokopa, which is Itza Maya for “warm place.” Centuries later most Creek villages would have an open air “square building” derived from the Chickasaw and a heavily insulated conical building, descended directly from the peoples of Mesoamerica and Peru.
While excavating the plaza between Mounds A, B and C at Etowah Mounds, archeologists Lew Larson and Arthur Kelly found the footprints of an enormous rectangular building, used for communal purposes. It probably could have held 500-750 people. It was a supersized version of the rectangular buildings in the Nacoochee Valley, but quite similar to the communal building recently built by the Chickasaw in Oklahoma. For unknown reasons, this building is not mentioned either in the Etowah Mounds museum or in contemporary books by archaeologists.
Botanist William Bartram was fascinated by the public architecture and town planning of the Creek People. There was nothing like it in North America. We can be very thankful that Bartram drew plans and three dimensional images of these structures in 1776. No other English speaking person, before or after, did. His drawings are my main proof when I argue with those archaeologists, who try to present us as being little different than other tribes in the Eastern United States in the 1700s.
Bartram learned that each province of the Creek Confederacy had distinct architectural traditions. The ancient towns on the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers looked little different than the towns of Tabasco and Southern Vera Cruz before the arrival of the Spanish. Older Coweta towns on the Chattahoochee River still put temples on top of mounds, but the newer ones were building open air squares with covered bleachers around them. The newest Creek towns in Alabama had no mounds. Those associated with Tuckabachee tilted their “Creek Squares” at a 45 degree angle. Both in northwest Georgia and in the Florida Panhandle, Apalachicola towns still built large square buildings that are the origin of the word, Choko Rakko or Chuko Rakko, but also had “Creek Squares” with covered bleachers on two sides. Choko has changed to Chuko in Oklahoma in the last 185 years.
Below are a series of models and drawings that I created for the Muskogee-Creek Nation, which are based on the drawings of William Bartram.
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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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