A Letter About the Green Corn Dance
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The following letter was written by the late John Howard Payne to a relative in New York, in 1835. The Green-Corn Dance which it describes was, it is believed, the last ever celebrated by the Creeks east of the Arkansas. Soon after, they were removed to the West, where they now are.
Macon, Georgia, 1835.
My Dear –.
I have been among the Indians for a few days lately. Shall I tell you about them? You make no answer, and silence gives consent; so I will tell you about the Indians.
The State of Alabama, you may remember, has been famous as the abode of the Creek Indians, always regarded as the most warlike of the southern tribes. If you will look over the map of Alabama, you will find, on the west side of it, nearly parallel with the State of Mississippi, two rivers, one the Coosa and the other the Tallapoosa, which, descending, unite in the Alabama. Nearly opposite to these, about one hundred miles across, you will find another river, the Chattahoochee, which also descends to form, with certain tributaries, the Apalachicola. It is within the space bounded by these rivers, and especially at the upper part of it, that the Creeks now retain a sort of sovereignty. The United States have in vain attempted to force the Creeks to volunteer a surrender of their soil for compensation. A famous chief among them made a treaty a few years ago to that effect; but the nation arose against him, surrounded his house, ordered his family out, and bade him appear at the door after all but he had departed. He did so. He was shot dead, and the house burned. The treaty only took effect in part, if at all. Perpetual discontents have ensued. The United States have assumed a sort of jurisdiction over the territory, leaving the Creeks unmolested in their national habits and their property, with this exception in their favor, beyond all other tribes but the Cherokees, they have the right, if they wish to sell, to sell to individuals, at their own prices, but are not bound to treat with the republic at a settled rate, which last mode of doing business they rather properly looked upon as giving them the appearance of a vanquished race, and subject to the dictation of conquerors. So, what the diplomatists could not achieve was forthwith attempted by speculators; and among those the everlasting Yankee began to appear, and the Indian independence straightway began to disappear. Certain forms were required by government to give Americans a claim to these Creek lands. The purchaser was to bring the Indian before a government agent; in the agent’s presence, the Indian was to declare what his possessions were, and for how much he would sell them; the money was paid in presence of the agent, who gave a certificate, which, when countersigned by the President, authorized the purchaser to demand protection from the national arms, if molested. All this was well enough; but it was soon discovered that the speculators would hire miscreants and drunken Indians to personate the real possessors of lands, and, having paid them the money, would take it back as soon as the purchase was completed, give the Indian a jug of whiskey, or a small bag of silver, for the fraud, and so become lords of the soil. Great dissatisfaction arose, and lives were lost. An anonymous letter opened the eyes of government. The white speculators were so desperate and dangerous that any other mode of information was unsafe. Investigators were appointed to examine into the validity of Creek sales, and the examiners met at the time I went to witness a great Indian religious festival, concerning which I will inform you presently; for it was by my curiosity to view this relic of their remotest times that the visit among the Indians, alluded to in the beginning of my letter, was prompted. It has been necessary for me to be thus prolix, to make you understand the nature of the society and a sort of danger too-by which we were surrounded. On one side, white rogues-border cutthroats-contending, through corrupted red men, for the possessions of those among them, who, though honest, are unwary. On another side, the cheated Indian robber of his brethren, wheedled by some fresh white cheat into a promise to sell (payable in over charged goods) at a higher price to the last comer, on condition of the latter individual getting the earlier inadequate sale set aside by the agent of the United States, through evidence from its pretended victim that the payment for it had only been nominal, and was forthwith fraudulently withdrawn. Even the judges are accused of being, covertly, sometimes as bad as any of the rest, and it is said that instances are not unknown wherein some of them have, not long after withdrawing from the seat of justice, proved to be full of wealth in lands, which could only be accounted for by a supposed collusion with accusers who have supplied them with pretexts for cancelling prior sales by Indians in favor of better offers, when contrasted with the preceding ones, though offers really amounting to nothing at all in comparison with the true worth of the purchase. Amid these scenes of complicated villainy, it is not unusual, after the session of a commission representing the United States for trying the validity of titles, to see a foiled thief rush at the successful overreaching one, with fist and bowie knife; and it is then accounted a case of uncommon good luck if either live to look upon what both have stolen from the Redman, and one not only from the Redman, but the white.
I beheld a fine, gentle, innocent looking girl, a widow, I believe, come up to the investigator to assert that she had never sold her land. She had been counterfeited by some knave. The Investigator’s court was a low bar room. He saw me eyeing him, and some one told him I was traveling to take notes. He did not know but government had employed me as a secret supervisor. He seemed to shrink, and postponed a decision. I have since heard that he is a rascal of the sort at which I have just hinted.
The ill starred red people here are entirely at the mercy of interpreters, who, if not negro slaves of their own, are half breeds, a worse set, generally, than the worst of either slaves or knaves. In the jargon of the border, they are called linkisters, some say because they form, by interpreting, a link between the Indian nations and ours; but I should rather regard the word as a mere corruption of linguist.
The Indians become more easily deluded by the borderers than by others, because the borderers know that they never esteem any one to be substantial who does not keep a shop. So your rascal of the frontier sets up a shop, and is pronounced a sneezer. If his shop be large, he is a sneezer chubco; if larger than any other, he is a sneezer chubco mico. But, in any of his grades, a sneezer is always considered as a personage by no means to be sneezed at. The sneezer will pay for land in goods, and thinks himself very honest if he charges his goods at five hundred times their worth, and can make it appear by his account against the Indian’s claim that he has paid him thousands of dollars, when in fact he may scarcely have paid him hundreds of cents.
Well! So much for the beautiful state of our national legislation and morals, as civilizers and protectors of the redmen. It is time for me to relieve you from these details, so uncomplimentary to us of the superior order, and to tell you something about the famous religious festival which took me amongst the Indians, and thereby caused, the foregoing first preamble, the ennui produced by which I proceed to cure, like a quack doctor, by doubling the dose. Accordingly, here comes a second preamble, by way of introductory explanation of what is to come at last.
The festival in question is called the Green Corn Festival. All the nation assemble for its celebration at a place set apart for the purpose, as the Temple at Jerusalem was for the religious assemblages of all the Jewish tribes. It has been kept by the Creeks, and many other Indian nations, indeed, perhaps, by the entire race, from time immemorial. It is prepared for, as well as fulfilled with, great form and solemnity.
When the green corn is ripe, the Creeks seem to begin their year. Until after the religious rites of the festival with which their New Year is ushered in, it is considered as an infamy to taste the corn. On the approach of the season, there is a meeting of the chiefs of all the towns forming any particular clan. First, an order is given out for the manufacture of certain articles of pottery to be employed in the ceremonies. A second meeting gives out a second order. New matting is to be prepared for the seats of the assembly. There is a third meeting. A vast number of sticks are broken into parts, and then put up in packages, each containing as many sticks as there are days intervening previous to the one appointed for the gathering of the clans. Runners are sent with these. One is flung aside every day by each receiver. Punctually, on the last day, all, with their respective families, are at the well known rendezvous.
That you may the more clearly understand the whole matter, I will so anticipate my story as to put you in possession of many essential particulars concerning the place set apart by the Creeks for gathering their people to the festival in question. This will provide you with the unexpected gratification of even a third preamble, as an explanatory avenue extra to the main subject.
The chosen spot is remote from any habitations, and consists of an ample square, with four large log houses, each one forming a side of the square, at every angle of which there is a broad opening into the area. The houses are of logs and clay, and a sort of wicker work, with sharp topped, sloping roofs, like those of our log houses, but more thoroughly finished. The part of the houses fronting the square is entirely open. Their interior consists of a broad platform from end to end, raised a little more than knee high, and so curved and inclined as to form a most comfortable place for either sitting or lying. It is covered with the specially prepared cane matting, which descends in front of it to the ground. A space is left open along the entire back of each house, to afford a free circulation of air. It starts from about the height of my chin, so that I could peep in from the outside through the whole of each structure, and obtain a clear view of all that was going on. Attached to every house towers a thick, notched mast. Behind, the angle of one of the four broad entrances to the square, rises a high, cone roofed building, circular and dark, with an entrance down an inclined plane, through a low door. Its interior was so obscured that I could not make out what it contained; but some one said it was a council house. I occupied one corner of an outer square, next to the one I have already described, two sides of which outer square were formed by thick corn fields, a third by a raised embankment apparently for spectators, and a fourth by the back of one of the buildings before mentioned. In the center of this outer square was a very high circular mound. This, it seems, was formed from the earth accumulated yearly by removing the surface of the sacred square thither. At every Green Corn Festival, the sacred square is strewn with soil yet untrodden; the soil of the year preceding being taken away, but preserved as above explained. No stranger’s foot is allowed to press the new earth of the sacred square until its consecration is complete. A gentleman told me that he and a friend chanced once to stroll along through the edge, just after the new soil had been laid. A friendly chief saw him and remonstrated, and seemed greatly incensed. He explained that it was done in ignorance. The chief was pacified, but nevertheless caused every spot which had been polluted by their unhallowed steps to be uptorn, and a fresh covering substituted.
The sacred square being ready, every fire in the towns under the jurisdiction of the head chief is, at the same moment, extinguished. Every house must also at that moment have been newly swept and washed. Enmities are forgotten. If a person under sentence for a crime can steal in unobserved and appear among the worshippers when their exercises begin, his crime is no more remembered. The first ceremonial is to light the new fire of the year. A square board is brought, with a small circular hollow in the center. It receives the dust of a forest tree, or of dry leaves. Five chiefs take turns to whirl the stick, until the friction produces a flame. From this sticks are lighted and conveyed to every house throughout the tribe. The original flame is taken to the center of the sacred square. Wood is heaped there, and a strong fire lighted. Over this fire the holy vessels of new made pottery are placed. Drinking gourds, with long handles, are set around on a bench. Appointed officers keep up an untiring surveillance over the whole, never moving from the spot; and here what they call the black drink is brewed, with many forms and with intense solemnity.
Now, then, having rendered you, by these numerous prefaces, much better informed about the Creek Jerusalem and its paraphernalia than I was when I got there, I will proceed with my travel story, just as if I had not enabled you to ponder all that I saw so much more understandingly than I myself did.