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The Gulf Region - Tribes And Lands

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



THE states bordering the northern shores of the Gulf of Mexico — the "Cotton Belt" — form a thoroughly characteristic physiographic region. Low-lying and deeply alluvial, abundantly watered both by rains and streams, and blessed with a warm, equable climate, this district is the natural support of a teeming life. At the time of its discovery it was inhabited by completely individuated peoples. While there were some intrusions of fragmentary representatives from the great stocks of other regional centres — Iroquoian and Siouan tribes from the north, and Arawak from the Bahamas — the Gulf-State lands were mainly in the possession of linguistic stocks not found elsewhere, and, therefore, to be regarded as aboriginals of the soil.

Of these stocks by far the largest and most important was the Muskhogean, occupying the greater part of what is now Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, as well as a large portion of Tennessee, and including among its chief tribes the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek (or Muskhogee), Alabama, Apalachee, and Seminole Indians. Probably the interesting Natchez of northern Louisiana were an offshoot of the same stock. Two other stocks or families of great territorial extent were the Timuquanan tribes, occupying the major portion of the Floridan peninsula, and the Caddoan tribes of Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Of the beliefs of few aboriginal peoples of North America is less known than of the Timuquanan Indians of Florida, so early and so entirely were they destroyed; while the southern Caddo, by habit and thought, are most properly to be regarded as a regional division of the Great Plains tribes. Minor stocks are the Uchean of South Carolina, early assimilated with the Muskhogean, and the highly localized groups of the Louisiana and Texas littoral, concerning whom our knowledge is slight. In the whole Gulf region, it is the institutions and thought of the Muskhogeans — with the culturally affiliated Cherokee — that are of dominant importance and interest.

Historically, the Muskhogean tribes, in company with the Cherokee of the Appalachian Mountain region, who were a southern branch of the Iroquoian stock, form a group hardly less important than the Confederacy of the north. The "Five Civilized Tribes" of the Indian Territory, so recognized by the United States Government, comprise the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes, the major portion of whom removed from their eastern lands between the years 183z and 1835 and established themselves in the Territory under treaty. In a series of patents to the several nations of this group, given by the United States (1838 to the Cherokee, 1842 to the Choctaw, from whom the Chickasaw derived their title, and 1852 to the Creek, who, in turn, conveyed rights to the Seminole), these tribes received inalienable titles to the lands into which they immigrated; and they advanced so rapidly in the direction of self-government and stable organization, building towns, and encouraging and developing industry, that they came to be known as "the five civilized tribes," in contrast to their less progressive brethren of other stocks. The separate government of these tribes, modelled upon that of the United States, but having only a treaty relation with it, continued until, as the result of the labours of a commission appointed by the United States Government, tribal rule was abolished. Accordingly, in 1906 and 1907, the Indians became citizens of the United States, and their territories part of the state of Oklahoma.

It is not extraordinary that the Gulf-State region should show throughout a predominance of solar worship. Every-where in America the sun was one of the chief deities, and, in general, his relative importance in an Indian pantheon is a measure of civilization. In the forest and plains regions he is likely to be subordinated to a still loftier sky-god, whose minister he is; but as we go southward we find the sun assuming the royal prerogative of the celestial universe, and advancing to a place of supremacy among the world-powers. Possibly, this is in part due to the greater intensity of the southern sun, but a more likely reason is the relative advance in agriculture made by the southerly tribes. Hunting peoples are only vaguely dependent upon the yearly course of the sun for their food-supply, and hence they are only slightly observant of it. Agricultural peoples are directly and insistently followers of the sun's movements; the solar calendar is the key to their life; and consequently it is among them that the pre-eminence of solar worship early appears. Proficiency in agriculture is a mark of the Muskhogean and other southern Indians, and it is to be expected that among them the sun will have become an important world-power.

It is interesting to find that the Cherokee, an Iroquoian tribe, assimilated their beliefs to the southern type. There is little that is metaphysical in their pantheon. Above a horde of animal-powers and fantastic sprites appear the great spirits of the elements, Water, Fire, and the Sun, the chief of all. The sun is called Unelanuhi, "the Apportioner," in obvious reference to its position as ruler of the year. Curiously enough, the Cherokee sun is not a masculine, but, like the Eskimo sun, a feminine being. Indeed, the Cherokee tell the selfsame story which the Eskimo recount concerning the illicit relations of the sun-girl and her moon-brother: how the unknown lover visited the sun-girl every month, how she rubbed his face with ashes that she might recognize him, and how, when discovered, "he was so much ashamed to have her know it that he kept as far away as he could at the other end of the sky; ever since he tries to keep a long way behind the sun, and when he does some-times have to come near her in the west he makes himself as thin as a ribbon so that he can hardly be seen." The Cherokee myth of the raising of the sun by the animal elders, hand-breadth by handbreadth, until it was just under the sky-arch, seven handbreadths high, is evidently akin to the similar legend of the Navaho of the South-West; while the story of the two boys who journeyed to the Sunrise, and the Cherokee version of the myth of Prometheus — in which, after various other animals have failed in their efforts to snatch fire from the sacred sycamore in which Thunder had concealed it, the Water-Spider succeeds—are both doublets of tales common in the far West. Thus legends from all parts of the continent are gathered in the one locality.

Like the Cherokee, the Yuchi Indians, who were closely associated with the Creek politically, regarded the sun as a female. She was the ancestress of the human race, or, according to another story, the Yuchi sprang from the blood trickling from the head of a wizard who was decapitated when he at-tempted to kill the sun at its rising — a tale in which the head would seem to be merely a doublet of the sun itself. Among the Muskhogean tribes generally the sun-cult seems to have been closely associated with fire-making festivals and fire-temples, in forms strikingly like those of the Incas of Peru. Perhaps the earliest account is that preserved, with respect to the Natchez, by Lafitau, in his Moeurs des sauvages amiri-quains.

"In Louisiana the Natchez have a temple wherein without cessation watch is kept of the perpetual fire, of which great care is taken that it be never extinguished. Three pointed sticks suffice to maintain it, which number is never either increased or diminished — which seems to indicate some mystery. As they burn, they are advanced into the fire, until it becomes necessary to substitute others. It is in this temple that the bodies of their chiefs and their families are deposited. The chief goes every day at certain hours to the entrance of the temple, where, bending low and extending his arms in the form of a cross, he mutters confusedly without pronouncing any distinct word; this is the token of duty which he renders to the Sun as the author of his being. His subjects observe the same ceremony with respect to him and with respect to all the princes of his blood, whenever they speak to them, honouring in them, by this external sign of respect, the Sun from which they believe them to be descended. It is singular that, while the huts of the Natchez are round, their temple is long — quite the opposite of those of Vesta. On the roof at its two extremities are to be seen two images of eagles, a bird consecrated to the Sun among the Orientals as it was to Jupiter in all the Occident.

"The Oumas and some peoples of Virginia and of Florida also have temples and almost the same religious observances. Those of Virginia have even an idol which they name Oki or Kiousa, which keeps watch of the dead. I have heard say, moreover, that the Oumas, since the arrival of the French who profaned their temple, have allowed it to fall into ruin and have not taken the trouble to restore it.



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