The Old Beloved Path (Part 6): The Creeks of the Valley
SOURCE: The Old Beloved Path: Daily Life Among the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley, William W. Winn, 1992. Cover art by Joe Belt. Illustrations by Cheryl Mann Hardin with plant drawings by Faith Birkhead. Sponsored by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission and The Columbus Museum in cooperation with the Chattahoochee Indian Heritage Association.
When the first Europeans – Spanish soldiers, civil authorities, and perhaps a few priests – penetrated the wilderness of the Chattahoochee River Valley in the first half of the 17th century, they found a varied group of people living along its banks from the Fall Line south all the way to the river’s confluence with the Flint and Apalachicola. Except for the huge mounds in and around the towns, many overgrown with trees and underbrush, there was almost no visible evidence on the Chattahoochee of the Mississippian civilization that had flourished there from 900 AD to sometime around 1500. The Indians the Europeans met – tall, well-formed warriors with gleaming, black locust bows, and petite women with numerous offspring – seemed to have no knowledge of the Mississippian Period. They told the Spanish and other early Europeans that the mounds had been built by “the ancient people.” Initially, at least, the Indians the Spanish met in the Valley were not very communicative. The men were proud in bearing, reserved in speech, and cautious, it appeared, almost by nature. Beyond the fact that they had numerous towns on both sides of the river and seemed to defer to the headman of the village of Coweta, whom they called Miko thluko – Big Leader or Chief Headman, - the Indians offered little information about themselves. However, some of them invited the Spaniards into their town and asked them to take a seat in one of four cabins arranged in a square, each open on the side facing inward toward a fire that was kept burning in the center of the yard. The headman or miko offered them a pipe of native tobacco to smoke and followed this with a black, coffee-like drink the Indians called a-cee. After smoking the pipe of peace and drinking prodigious amounts of a-cee, the White men dubbed “the black drink,” the Indians were more inclined to talk. They seemed principally interested in trade and offered deer hides and other pelts in exchange for European goods, particularly for steel hatchets, knives, clothing, and guns. The Spanish offered them everything but guns, told them they would have to swear allegiance to the Spanish crown, and then sent in priests to convert them to Christianity. The Indians explained, albeit reluctantly, that they already knew of the One Above, whom they called Hisagita immisee, “Master of Breath.” When the priests persisted and even erected a cross in the town of Sabacola El Grande in what is now Barbour County, Alabama in 1679, Miko thluko of Coweta ordered them out.
English traders soon followed the Spanish into the Valley. By the middle of the 1680s, English traders were at the Fall Line where Columbus and Phenix City are now located. From there they gradually pushed their way to the Indian towns below the Fall Line and westward to the towns on the Coosa and the Tallapoosa Rivers in what is now Alabama. The traders, who included Scotsmen and Irishmen, as well as the English, had no interest in converting the Indians to anything. And they were willing to trade them guns, shot, and powder for deer skins and other animal hides. The Indians preferred English guns to the Spanish Catholicism, and although they flirted with the Spanish – and occasionally French – from time to time thereafter, they usually remained loyal to the English. Gradually, as the two people got to know each other better, the Indians began to reveal more of themselves.
Most of the native inhabitants of the Valley who greeted the Spanish in the 17th century and who later met the English traders and American settlers who poured into the Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries, spoke some dialect of the great Muskogean Indian language group. They included the Apalachicola, Hitchiti, and Creeks or Muskolgulgi, with the latter being by far the most numerous native people on the Chattahoochee or moved there shortly after European contact. Two other Muskogean-speaking people, the Alabama and the Koasati, lived along the Alabama and Black Warrior Rivers. West of them were the Choctaw and northwest were the Chickasaw. The Cherokee occupied the area that is now northern Alabama and Georgia and southern Tennessee and North Carolina. Apalachee Indians, who language was also distantly Muskogean, lived just south of the Chattahoochee-Flint-Apalachicola junction in the area we now call the Florida Panhandle. Some contemporary scholars think the Muskolgulgi were invaders who came into the Chattahoochee River Valley sometime around 1500, perhaps as early as 1400, during the time of the collapse of the Mississippian Period. It has been suggested, for example, that the Creeks were part of the Mississippian chiefdom of the Coosa or perhaps of Oconee or Tascaluza, all three of which appear to have collapsed under the impact of war or from epidemics of European or African diseases. The theory is that the Creeks were devastated by their encounters with DeSoto and with other Spanish expeditions of the 16th century and retreated into the wilderness to escape. In time, they found their way into the Chattahoochee River Valley, displacing the Hitchiti or Apalachicoli, the original Mississipian people of the Valley, gradually absorbing them into a loose association of native people that eventually included elements of the Alabama, Koasati, Yuchi, Natchez, and even Shawnee.
For a supposedly primitive people, the Creeks had a surprisingly complex and well-organized society. The basic unit of social organization among the Creeks and the other Indians of the Valley was the clan, a tightly knit group of blood relatives whose descent was traced through the mother. Virtually all the Creeks belonged to clans. Not to do so was to be an outcast, beyond the protection of law or custom. Even war captives and enslaved sought to be adopted by a clan, which might then protect them against torture or ritual slaughter. Among the Creek’s fiercest loyalties was their devotion to their respective towns, which played a role in their daily lives second only to that of their clans. All Creeks belonged to a particular town or tulwa. Not to do so was to be a virtual outcast in society. Actually, “town” is an inadequate translation of tulwa, a term which meant much more that simply a place of residence to the Creeks. Any sizable tulwa encompassed a region, and usually included smaller, satellite villages, farmland, and hunting grounds. So complete was the Creek’s identity with their tulwa that they spoke of themselves as being Cowetas, Cussitas, and the like. Tribe may be closer than “town” to the full meaning of tulwa to the Creeks.
The Creeks of the Valley were a deeply spiritual people. They acknowledged a supreme being, whom they called Hisagita immisee, the “Master of Breath” or “Breath Holder,” but their system of belief was quite different from Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. In fact, we are not certain precisely what or who Hisagita immisee represented in the Indian pantheon. Some Creeks said the old term for their supreme deity was Ibofunga, “the one above us,” or Puyafekcha thluko, “the great spirit.” The latter term, however, may be a creation of Christian missionaries. Beyond this, they would say little. The Indians of the Valley were notoriously reluctant to speak of their spiritual beliefs and never really understood the inclination of Europeans and Americans to do so. Possibly the greatest difference between Christianity and the beliefs of the Creeks and other Indians in the Southeast had to do with how the Indians related to the natural world. Not only did the early people of the region venerate the sun and moon and other natural, inanimate elements – the wind, for example – but they also saw humankind as no more important than the other elements in creation.
Perhaps nothing so separates us from the world of the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley as does the development of modern science, particularly the practice of medicine. The Creeks thought the major causes of human illness were the vengeful spirits of animals, real and mythical. The sun also caused diseases, as did the moon, dead bodies, ghosts, thunder, fire, and the rainbow. These beliefs are not so strange as they might appear when we recall the Creeks’ insistence on staying in balance with nature. They were much preoccupied with maintaining this balance and with avoiding offense to the animals upon which they depended for sustenance. Indian hunters almost always asked forgiveness, in the form of a ritual prayer, from the animals they killed. Usually, they sacrificed part of the animal by dropping a portion of its flesh in a fire. On the big winter hunt, the entire carcass of the first deer killed might be so sacrificed. The principal treatments for all diseases came from medicines provided by the vegetable kingdom, which the Creeks through had been created specifically to mediate between mankind and the animal kingdom. Plants were not only friendly, but they also provided cures for specific diseases. As a consequence, the Creeks had an extensive knowledge of herbal medicine and a pharmacopoeia of several hundred plant derivatives.
The two greatest social institutions possessed by the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley in days past were ball play, Pokkecheta, and the Poskeeta. They are probably also the oldest continuously operative social institutions native to the Valley, older by thousands of years than comparable institutions established here since the forced removal of the Valley’s native inhabitants to the West in the 1830s and 1840s. Creek ball play resembled modern lacrosse, except that the Creeks played with two sticks instead of one – and it was far rougher than the modern game. The Creeks called it “brother to war,” and with reason. Participants, who numbered from 50 – 100 a side, were often injured, sometimes seriously, and deaths were not uncommon. The Creeks also attached tremendous importance to the game, which carried ritual overtones far beyond anything known in our modern-day athletics. It is believed the ball play had a deep mythological history and was at one time a highly ritualized contest involving human sacrifice.
The annual Poskeeta, or “Fast” of the Creeks, known to Whites as the Busk or Green Corn Ceremony, was the most important religious and civic ceremony observed by the Indians of the Chattahoochee River Valley. It was a comprehensive, week-long right of thanksgiving, forgiveness, and spiritual renewal – a sort of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and Mardi Gras all rolled into one. The fundamental function of the ceremony was purification, both physical and spiritual. All crimes except murder committed during the previous year were forgiven, all quarrels settled. Old fires were extinguished and new ones lit. The celebration emphasized peace, harmony, and forgiveness. It is worth noting that long after their removal to the West, the Creeks continued to practice the Poskeeta, just as they continued their ball play. In fact, both remain an important part of Creek culture today. As we close out this series, we're going to end with Billy's last paragraph in the book. See you all next year! Wishing you all peace and blessings.
If you would know the early people of the Valley better, you must search for them in their river home... They can be found in the loud thwack of a beaver slapping its tail on the water, the rustling sound that comes from the cane stalks in the wind, the sibilant hissing of the rain on the river, the drumming noise the rain makes on the summer leaves. You will find them in the whistling hiss the alligator gar makes when it surfaces in the darkness and the metallic glint of a shad’s body deep down in the water. Especially they are in the soughing of the wind through the pines, the beady eye and mighty wingspread of the eagle, the tantalizing smell of wood smoke, the dry whistle of the deer in the deep woods, the singing of a hot fire on a winter’s night, the sight of a long V of geese soaring overhead, the millions of stars in the night sky above the Chattahoochee. They said they would be in the stars. Look for them there.