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The Creek Public Square

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All the Creek towns, viz., the more populous settlements, had laid out a square-shaped piece of ground in or near their central part. It contained the only public buildings of the town, the great house and the council-house, and, as an appurtenance, the play-ground. The square was the focus of the public and social life of the town; its present Creek name, intchúka ‘láko, is taken from the “great house” as its principal portion.

From the eighteenth century we possess three descriptions of the square and the ceremonies enacted in it, which are entering into copious details; that of W. Bartram, describing the square of Atasi town (about 1775); that of C. Swan, describing that of Odshi-apófa, or the Hickory Ground (1791), and last, but not least, the description of the square at Kawita, by B. Hawkins (1799). All the towns differed somewhat in the structure of the great house and of the council-house, but in the subsequent sketch we shall chiefly dwell upon those points in which they all seem to agree. Public squares still exist at the present time in some of the pureblood towns of the Creek nation, Indian Territory, and the busk, in its ancient, though slightly modified form, is annually celebrated in them. The ground plan of the square at the Hickory Ground is represented in Schoolcraft’s Indians V, 264.

Of other buildings destined for public use I have found no mention, except of granaries or corncribs, which were under the supervision of the miko.

The great house, tchúku ‘láko, also called “town-house,” “public square,” like the square in the midst of which it was placed, was formed by four one-story buildings of equal size, facing inward, and enclosing a square area of about thirty feet on each side.1 They were generally made to face the east, west, north and south.

These buildings, which had the appearance of sheds, consisted of a wooden frame, supported on posts set in the ground and covered with slabs. They were made of the same material as their dwelling houses, but differed by having the front facing the square open, and the walls of the back sides had an open space of two feet or more next to the eaves, to admit a circulation of air. Each house was divided into three apartments, separated by low partitions of clay, making a total of twelve partitions. These apartments, called cabins (tópa) had three2 seats, or rather platforms, being broad enough to sleep upon; the first of them was about two feet from the ground, the second eight feet above the first, and the third or back seat eight feet above the second. Over the whole of these seats was spread a covering of cane-mats, as large as carpets. They were provided with new coverings every year, just before the busk; and since the old covers were not removed, they had in the majority of the squares eight to twelve coverings, laid one above the other. Milfort states that each cabin could seat from forty to sixty persons (Memoire, p. 203).

Caleb Swan, who, in his above description of the cabins in the square, copied the original seen at Odshi-apófa or Little Talassie, where he stopped, differs in several particulars, especially in the allotment of the cabins to the authorities, from Hawkins, who resided in Kawita. Swan assigns the eastern building to the beloved men, the southern to the warriors, the northern to the second men, etc., while the western building served for keeping the apparatus for cooking black drink, war physic, and to store lumber. According to Hawkins, the western building, fronting east, contained the míkos and high-ranked people; the northern building was the warriors; the southern that of the beloved men, and the eastern that of the young people and their associates. “The cabin of the great chief faces east,” says Milfort, p. 203, “to indicate that he has to watch the interests of his nation continually.” The three cabins of the míkalgi or old men, facing west, are the only ones painted white, and are always ornamented with garlands (at Kawita). On the post, or on a plank over each cabin, are painted the emblems of the gens to which it is allotted; thus the buffalo gens have the buffalo painted on it.

From the roofs were dangling on the inside heterogeneous emblems of peace and trophies of war, as eagles feathers, swans wings, wooden scalping knives, war clubs, red-painted wands, bunches of hoops on which to dry their scalps, bundles of a war-physic called snake-root (sinika in Cheroki), baskets, etc. Rude paintings of warriors heads with horns, horned rattlesnakes, horned alligators, etc., were visible upon the smooth posts and timbers supporting the great house. In the “painted squares” of some of the red or war-towns the posts and smooth timber were painted red, with white or black edges, this being considered as a mark of high distinction. Other privileged towns possessed a covered square, by which term is meant a bridging over of the entrance spaces left between the four buildings by means of canes laid on poles.

In the centre of the area of the “great house ” a perpetual fire was burning, fed by four logs, and kept up by public ministrants especially appointed for the purpose. The inside area is called impaskófa, “dedicated ground.”

The “square” was hung over with green boughs, in sign of mourning, when a man died in the town; no black drink was then taken for four days. When an Indian was; killed who belonged to a town which had a square, black drink had to be taken on the outside of the square, and every ceremony was suspended until the outrage was atoned for. To each great house belonged a black drink cook, and from the young warriors two or three men were appointed to attend to those who took this liquid every morning; they called the townspeople to this ceremony by beating drums (C. Swan).

After the close of their council-meeting in the council-house, the miko, his councilors and warriors repaired to the chiefs cabin in the “great house.” They met there every day, drank the ássi or black drink, continued deliberations on public and domestic affairs, attended to complaints and redressed them; then conversed about news while smoking, or amused themselves at playing “roll the bullet” in a sort of ten-pin alley. The name of this game is ‘li-i tchallítchka. Bartram, p. 453, states that the chief s cabin at Atasi was of a different construction from the three other buildings.

But besides being the central point of the town for all meetings of a public character, the great house was the festive place for the annual busk and the daily dance; it occasionally served as a sleeping place for Indians passing through the town on their travels. The special locations allotted to the persons in authority and the gentes on the cabin-sheds are described under the heading: The annual busk.

The council-house or tchukófa ‘láko stood on a circular mound or eminence, in close contiguity to the northeast corner of the “great house.” It is variously called by travelers: hot-house, sudatory, assembly-room, winter council-house, mountain-house,3 or, from its circular shape, rotunda. Its appearance is generally described as that of a huge cone placed on an octagonal frame about twelve feet high, and covered with tufts of bark. Its diameter was from twenty-five, to thirty feet, and in the larger towns the building could accommodate many hundred persons.4 Its perpendicular walls were made of thick posts, daubed with clay on the outside. Contiguous to the walls, one broad circular seat, made of cane-mats, was going around the structure on the inside, and in the centre the fire was burning on a small elevation of the ground. The fuel consisted of dry cane or dry pine slabs split fine; and, as if it were to give a concrete image of the warming rays of the sun, these split canes were disposed in a spiral line which exhibited several revolutions around the centre. No opening was provided for the escape of the smoke or the admission of fresh air, and the building soon became intolerably hot; but at dance-feasts the natives danced around the fire in the terrible heat and dust, without the least apparent inconvenience.5

The council-house served, to some extent, the same purposes as the “great house,” but was more resorted to in the inclement season than in summer. Every night during winter the old and young visited it for conversation or dance, and in very cold weather the old and destitute went there to sleep. In all seasons it was the assembly-room of the miko and his counselors for deliberations of a private character; there they decided upon punishments to be inflicted, as whip ping etc., and entrusted the Great Warrior with the execution of the sentences. Previous to a war-expedition the young men visited the hothouse for four days, prepared and drank their war-physic, and sang their war- and charm-songs under the leadership of conjurers.6 Milfort was installed into the charge of “Great Warrior of the Nation” in the Kawita council-house by solemn orations, the smoking of the pipe, the drinking of the ássi-decoct and other ceremonies,7 and then conducted to the “great house.”

When the natives gathered in this structure for sweating, either for promoting their health or as a religious ceremony, they developed steam by throwing water on heated stones, then danced around the fire, and went to plunge into the chilling waves of the river flowing past their town.

The playground occupied the northwestern angle of the public square, and formed an oblong segment of it, of rather irregular shape. It was made distinct from the rest of the square by one or two low embankments or terraces; in its centre stood, on a low circular mound, a four-sided pole or pillar, sometimes forty feet high. A mark fastened on its top served at appointed times as a target to shoot at with rifles or arrows. Around the pole the floor of the yard was beaten solid.

The playground, tă’dshu in Creek, was called by the white traders chunkey-yard, chunk-yard, from the principal game played in it. This game, the chunkey- or tchungke-game, consisted in throwing a pole after the chunke, a rounded stone which was set rolling upon its edge. Cf. Adair, Hist., p. 401. 402. There was also a sort of ball play in use among the Creeks and many other Indian tribes, by which a ball (púku) was aimed at an object suspended on the top of a high pole, or, as it is played now, at the top of two twin poles (puk-ábi), called sometimes “maypoles.” In summer time dances were also performed in this yard, and Bartram saw “at the corner of each farther end a slave-post or strong stake, where the captives that are burnt alive are bound.”8

Footnotes

  1. Hawkins says: Forty by sixteen feet, eight feet pitch, the entrance at each corner (p. 68). 

  2. Hawkins: two seats. 

  3. Adair, History, p. 421. 

  4. Hawkins, Sketch, p. 71, Bartram, Travels, p. 448 sqq. 

  5. Bartram states that the Creek rotundas were of the same architecture as those of the Cheroki, but of much larger dimensions: Travels, p. 449. 

  6. Hawkins, Sketch, p. 79. 

  7. Milfort, Memoire, p. 211. 

  8. Travels, p. 518. 


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