The Creek or Muscogee Nation (Este Mvskokvlke) is a modern, federally-recognized Native American tribe in the United States. In the eighteenth-century, though, the Creek Nation was instead the Creek Confederacy, a multi-ethnic coalition of migrant peoples with a territorial expanse that encompassed much of the Deep South: from South Carolina to Alabama. The Confederacy evolved out of the Mississippian civilizations that collapsed in the southeast during the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries as a consequence of European colonialism. Specifically, Muskogean-language groups such as the Abihka, Tallapoosa, and Apalachicola coalesced into a polyglot alliance of towns, who were later joined by groups of non-Muskogean speakers like the Yuchi, Hitchiti, Shawnee, Natchez, Chickasaw, Apalachee, and others. Over the course of a century, these multilingual communities continuously merged, precipitated by the founding of the “mother” towns – Coweta, Cusseta, Tukabatchee, and Abeka. By the turn of the eighteenth-century, they were all collectively identified by Europeans as the “Creek Indians.”

Such fluidity continued to define the Confederacy throughout the eighteenth-century. For example, the primary source of identity in the Creek world was one’s town (talwa). From the annual Busk festival, political councils, and ritual gatherings, to economic exchange, preparation for war, and recreation and sport, all manners of life unfolded in the town square. Therefore, the Confederacy was less a “nation” as defined by Western standards, and more of a flexible union of towns. The British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, John Stuart, observed as much when he remarked in 1764, “The Towns…may be considered as so many Different Republicks which form one State, but each of these Towns has separate Views and Interests.”1 Yet the autonomous nature of the Confederacy existed side-by-side with “Upper” and “Lower” Creek affiliations, as communities along the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers (“Upper”) and towns on the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers (“Lower”) occasionally acted cooperatively, as in times of war or in negotiations with Europeans.

In addition, Creek society pivoted around family and clan, agriculture, and a particular cosmology. Along with town and regional identities, the Creek privileged their family and clan connections. For instance, each individual belonged to a clan moiety and resided with their extended relatives in a town in clan clusters. Creek society was also matrilineal, as children inherited the clan of their mothers. Women controlled the means of production, commanded the power to incorporate outsiders, and wielded authority over the household. Similarly, women and men performed complementary yet distinct tasks: men hunted fur-bearing animals for food and trade and waged war, while women cultivated agriculture, the most important responsibility in Creek society. This gendered labor system was embodied in the Creek cosmology, in which the world was divided into three separate planes of existence: the Upper World, Under World, and This World. Since the Creek lived in This World – the in-between world – they were tasked with maintaining balance between the Upper and Under Worlds, and did so through ritual. For instance, during the Green Corn Ceremony (Posketv), the entire town ritually and physically cleansed their bodies, minds, homes, and communities. Thus, the Confederacy functioned within social and cosmological structures of balance.

When it came to politics, the Confederacy operated at a more local and individual level, as town headmen (micos) competed with one another for authority inside and outside of their towns. Since political authority in the Creek world did not revolve around coercive power as it did in Europe, micos engaged in consensus politics, having to persuade their peers to support them, with the assumption that they had the community’s best interests in mind. Creek headmen often achieved consensus by redistributing trade goods and presents to the community, sustaining a vibrant trade with Europeans, and mediating conflict with other Native peoples and Europeans. Yet there were instances when micos attempted to assert broader authority over their towns. For example, in 1718, Brims articulated a collective foreign policy – known as the “Coweta Resolution” – that committed all Creek towns and micos to end internal conflict in the Confederacy and to open trilateral negotiations with the French, English, and Spanish. The Resolution pitted Europeans against one another for the loyalty of the Confederacy, which translated into greater leverage and more favorable trade for the Creek.2 In doing so, the Creek extended their political and commercial reach as far west as the Arkansas and Ohio River Valleys, and north to the Great Lakes and Iroquoia.

While the Confederacy abided by the “Coweta Resolution” for most of the eighteenth-century, the American Revolution dramatically changed their situation. No longer able to play Europeans off of one another, the Confederacy at first clashed violently with the United States during the 1780s and 1790s, before embarking on a “Plan of Civilization” – as coined by U.S. officials like Benjamin Hawkins – during the Washington, Adams, and Jefferson administrations. In this case, “Civilization” was envisioned by a new generation of Creek leaders – many of whom were born of the unions between Creek women and Euro-American men – as a means to counter American colonialism by reinventing the Confederacy as a “nation” similar to the United States, thus putting the two states on equal footing. Consequently, the Creek Nation adopted a written constitution, established a National Council and other federal forms of government, implemented a legal system that privileged property ownership and patriarchy, and turned to plantation agriculture and African slavery. Yet such adaptations came at the cost of the clan and town identities, consensus politics, and matrilineality that once characterized the Confederacy. While such efforts ultimately failed to deter the United States from its violent removal of the Creek during the 1820s-1840s, the Muscogee Nation still thrives to this day, a testament to the fluidity and adaptability that has defined the Creek Indians for centuries.

 

Bryan Rindfleisch

Marquette University

 

Notes:

[1] Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. “Observations of John Stuart and Governor James Grant of East Florida on the Proposed Plan of 1764 for the Future Management of Indian Affairs,” American Historical Review Vol. 20: No. 4 (July 1915): 828.

[2] Steven C. Hahn, The Invention of the Creek Nation, 1670-1763 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).

 

Bibliography:

Ethridge, Robbie. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Frank, Andrew K. Creeks and Southerners: Biculturalism on the Early American Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.

Hahn, Steven C. The Invention of the Creek Nation, 1670-1763. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Piker, Joshua. Okfuskee: A Creek Indian Town in Colonial America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Saunt, Claudio. A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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