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Creek Ethnographic Notes
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Native American | No Comments
Abundant material for the study of ethnography is on hand for the earlier and later periods of the Creek nation; but here we have to restrict ourselves to some points which are especially adapted to the illustration of the migration legends. The relation of husband to wife and family being the foundation of all tribal, social and political life, should certainly be treated as fully as it deserves, but in this context only incident notes can be given on this subject.
Condition of Females. Although succession among all Maskoki tribes was in the female line, the females occupied a subordinate condition among the Creeks, and in their households were subjected, like those of other Indians, to a life of drudgery. Divorces were of frequent occurrence.
On the first days of the busk females were not permitted to enter the area of the square, nor were they admitted to the council-house whenever the men were sitting in council or attending to the conjurer’s performances. The women were assigned a bathing place in the river-currents at some distance below the men. It is also stated that a woman had the privilege of killing her offspring during the first lunation after the birth, but when she did so after that term she was put to death herself.1 This may have been the practice in a few Creek tribes, but it is doubtful that such was the general law in all, except in regard to illegitimate offspring.
The occupations of Creek women are described by Cpt. B. Romans, p. 96 (1775), in the following succinct form:
“The women are employed, besides the cultivation of the earth, in dressing the victuals, preparing, scraping, braining, rubbing and smoaking the Roe-skins, making macksens of them, spinning buffaloe wool, making salt, preparing cassine drink, drying the chamcerops and passiflora, making cold flour for traveling, gathering nuts and making their milk; likewise in making baskets, brooms, pots, bowls and other earthen and wooden vessels.”
Initiation, Indian parents bring up their children in a manner which better deserves the name of training than that of education. They think children become best fitted for future life when they can, for a certain period of their ages, roam around at will and act at their own pleasure. They do not reprobate or punish them for any wanton act they may commit; hence the licentiousness of both sexes up to the time of marriage, and the comparative want of discipline among warriors on their expeditions. But the boys were taught to harden their constitutions against the inclemencies of the seasons and the privations in war, and this result they most successfully attained by the so-called initiation, and also by continued bodily exercise before and after that solemn period of their lives. B. Romans (1775) sketches the training of the Creek youths in the following words (p. 96): ” Creeks make the boys swim in the coldest weather; make them frequently undergo scratching from head to foot, through the skin, with broken glass or gar-fish teeth2 , so as to make them all in a gore of blood, and then wash them with cold water, this is with them the arcanum against all diseases; but when they design it as a punishment to the boys, they dry-scratch them, i. e., they apply no water after the operation, which renders it very painful. They endeavor … to teach them all manner of cruelty toward brutes,” etc.
This sort of treatment must have been abundantly productive of rheumatism and other affections, though we have many instances of Creek Indians reaching a high age. Of the initiation which the Creek boys underwent before attaining their seventeenth year, B. Hawkins gives a full and circumstantial account, which shows that superstitions had entered into the customs of private life of the Creeks as deeply as they had into those of other Indian tribes.
The ceremony of initiating youth into manhood, says B. Hawkins3 , is usually performed at the age from fifteen to seventeen, and is called puskita (fasting), like the busk of the nation. A youth of the proper age gathers two handfuls of the sowátchko plant, which intoxicates and maddens, and eats this very bitter root for a whole day, after which he steeps the leaves in water and drinks from this. After sunset he eats two or three spoonfuls of boiled grits.4 He remains in a house for four days, during which the above performances are repeated. Putting on a new pair of moccasins (stillipaiχa), he leaves the cabin, and during twelve moons abstains from eating the meat of young bucks, of turkey-cocks, fowls, peas and salt, and is also forbidden to pick his ears and to scratch his head with his fingers, but must use a small splinter to perform these operations. Boiled grits the only food allowed to him during the first four moons may be cooked for him by a little girl, but on a fire kindled especially for his own use. From the fifth month any person may cook for him, but he has to serve himself first, using one pan and spoon only. Every new moon he drinks the pāssa or button-snake root, an emetic, for four days, and takes no food except some boiled grits, húmpita hatki, in the evening. At the commencement of the twelfth lunation he performs for four days the same rites as he did at the beginning of the initiation, but on the fifth he leaves the cabin, gathers maize-cobs, burns them to ashes, and with these rubs his whole body. At the end of the moon he elicits transpiration by sleeping under blankets, then goes into cold water, an act which ends the ceremony. The herb medicines are administered to him by the ísti pakādsha láko or “great leader,” who, when speaking of him, says: pusidshedshēyi sanatchumitchätcha-is,5 “I am passing him through the physicking process repeatedly,” or: náki omálga imakilä dshäyi sálit ómäs, tchí, “I am teaching him all the matters proper for him to think of. ” If he has a dream during this course of initiation, he has to drink from the pāssa, and dares not touch any persons, save boys who are under a like course. This course is sometimes shortened to a few months, even to twelve days only, but the performances are the same.
The purpose of the initiation of boys, corresponding to the first-menstruation rites of females, was the spiritual as well as the physical strengthening of the individual. While the physical exposures and privations were thought to render him strong in body and fearless in battle, the dreams coming upon him, in consequence of the exhaustion by hunger and maddening by all sorts of physic, were supposed to furnish him visions, which would reveal to him enchanting views for future life, material riches and the ways to acquire them, the principles of bravery and persistence, the modes of charming enemies and game at a distance, of obtaining scalps, and prospects of general happiness and of a respected position in his tribe.6
Commemorative Beads. To perpetuate the memory of historical facts, as epidemics, tribal wars, migrations, the Creeks possessed the pictorial or ideographic writing, the material generally used for it being tanned skins. Besides this, which was common to the majority of Indian tribes of North America, Milfort (pp. 47-49) mentions another mode of transmitting facts to posterity, which shows a certain analogy with the wampum-belts of the Iroquois and Algonkin tribes.
It consisted of strings of small beads, in shape of a narrow ribbon (banderole) or rosary (chapelef). The beads are described as being similar to those called Cayenne pearls in Milfort’s time, varying in color, the grains being strung up one after the other. The signification of each bead was determined by its shape and the position it occupied in its order of sequence. Only the principal events were recorded by these beads, and without any historic detail; hence a single string often sufficed to recall the history of twenty or twenty-five years. The events of each year were kept strictly distinct from the events of any subsequent year by a certain arrangement of the grains, and thus the strings proved reliable documents as to the chronology of tribal events. The oldest of the míkalgi (les chefs des vieillards] often recounted to Milfort, who had risen to the dignity of “chief warrior” in the nation, episodes of early Creek history, suggested to them by these “national archives.”
Many old traditions of historic importance must have been embodied in these records; but the only one given by Milfort, referring to the emigration of the Creeks from their ancient cave-homes along Red river, is so mixed up with incredible matter, that the fixation of the events, as far as then remembered, must have taken place many generations after the arrival of the Creeks in their Alabama homes. Milfort himself, at the head of two hundred Creek men, undertook an expedition to that renowned spot, to gratify himself and his companions with the sight of the place itself from which the nation had sprung forth, and all this solely on the strength of the belief which these bead-strings had inspired in his companions.
Further notices on Creek ethnology may be found in B. F. French, Hist. Collect, of Louisiana, III, 128-139, in the “Notes;” also in Urlsperger’s ” Nachricht,” Vol. I, chapter 5, 859-868, a passage describing especially Yamassi customs.
Milfort, Mem., p. 251. ↩
Also practiced once a year upon the Shetimasha warriors, on their knee-joints, by men expressly appointed to this manipulation. ↩
Sketch of the Creek Country, pp. 78. 79. ↩
Maize pounded into grits. ↩
Slightly altered from the words given by Hawkins. ↩
Cf. what is said of the initiation of the ahopáya and imíssi, pp. 159. 165. ↩
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