Chronicling the tragic demise of an Indian culture


October 23, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

THE ARRIVAL of Columbus in America celebrated in this 500th anniversary year as the brilliant dawn of a new age also marks the opening of a darker, twilight history of pain and despair and death.

Native Americans don't celebrate. They mourn.

Joel W. Martin's "Sacred Revolt" describes the crumbling of an ++ Indian culture under the pressure of European colonialism and ,, settlement in the places Americans now call Georgia and Alabama and South Carolina.

Martin writes of the Muskogees, Native Americans often called "Creeks," a word they didn't like and resisted. English traders first applied the name to Native Americans who lived near on a creek. No Native Americans of the Southeast had called themselves "Creeks."

"Anglo-Americans insisted on renaming native peoples even though they already had names," Martin says. Naming peoples was a function of colonial power, he notes.

Most of the people of whom he writes spoke the Muskogee language, although the Alabamas who lived in the vast area he calls "Muskogee" did not. The land he calls Muskogee stretched roughly from the Savannah River to the Alabama River.

On this fair and fertile land of 14 million acres -- the heart of which would become known as the Black Belt because of the dark fecundity of its soil -- the Muskogees had lived for 10,000 years.

The Muskogee had lived and traded with Spanish, French and English colonials and then with Americans from the new United States. They fared worst with the United States.

Muskogees rose up to save their land and culture in the "Redstick War" of 1813 and 1814, which Martin calls the Sacred Revolt. It was called the Redstick War because Muskogee warriors carried red-painted war clubs.

The Redstick War reached its climax in March 1815 at a horseshoe bend in the Tallapoosa River in what is now Alabama, at a place the Muskogee called Tohopeka. An army of 1,500 Anglo-Americans and 600 Native American allies surrounded about 800 ill-armed Muskogee warriors and killed at least 800.

The Muskogee -- including assimilated groups who had remained at peace or even joined the Americans -- were forced to cede their land to the United States -- all 14 million acres. A rush of Americans settlers poured in, 85,000 whites and 42,000 slaves by 1820. It was rich great cotton land and cotton prices were soaring.

In 1835 and 1836, the Muskogees were all forced from their ancient homelands and removed to Arkansas. One in 10 died on the way.

The Muskogees had a rich and complicated civilization that had survived the deadly disease transfer associated with the first contacts between Native Americans and Europeans, and then the debt and debilitation of trade in slaves and deer skins and rum.

They faltered under the pressure of American settlers from Georgia and Tennessee. The Muskogees and the Americans looked on the land with different eyes. The Americans essentially saw the land as "empty."

They coveted the Muskogee land with what Martin calls, in an extraordinarily apt phrase, "the gaze of development."

They viewed the land "as an assemblage of resources open to human manipulation and commercial exploitation. . . .

"To Anglo-Americans," Martin writes, "Muskogee was spiritually void, inert, passive, safe. According to their imagination, the land was silent, mutely awaiting improvement and plantation."

Martin sees the Redstick War as a revolt against this gaze of development, a sacred assertion of the spiritual value of the Native American heritage. He argues that the Sacred Revolt was a kind of rite of passage led by prophetic shamans, the religious leaders called medicine men in the movies.

He believes the Muskogees were groping toward a new religious identity forged from colonial contacts and the pressure of emerging modern life, that they sought a new spiritual national identity, a renewed pride in their Native American heritage.

That they failed in the face of harsh and greedy oppression does not make their effort less strong and real. It is perhaps only sad in many places, like the old land of the Muskogee, that the spirit of the Native Americans survives only in a few scattered place names.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.