Today thirty-seven thousand people identify themselves as members of the Muskogee Nation, better known as the Creeks. This sense of tribal unity was not always the case. At the time of European contact in the seventeenth century, the native inhabitants of the Southeast had no single name for themselves and no inclusive social or political identity. Their allegiance was primarily to their particular town, or talwa. Fifty to eighty such towns and villages, made up of at least twenty separate ethnic groups speaking several distinct languages, dotted the region of modern-day Georgia and Alabama. British traders from the newly founded settlement of Charleston, South Carolina, called the Ochese people of this region "Ochese Creeks," presumably because they lived along the waterway now known as the Ocmulgee River. This term was eventually shortened to "Creeks" and freely applied to the various other groups the colonists met inland. The proper modern-day designation, however, is Muskogee (also spelled Muscogee), being the term contemporary members use in referring to themselves and their culture.
The present-day capital of the Muskogee Nation is Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The tribal government boasts a revised constitution, extensive health-care services, educational and employment services, and housing for low-income members. Business ventures include smoke shops and high-stakes bingo in Tulsa and Okmulgee. In 1991 the nation took another step forward with the election of a woman as second chief. But despite three hundred years of conquest, accommodation, and change, many customs have remained constant within the Muskogee community. District representatives still meet in national council to handle tribal affairs. Members still attend ceremonial stomp dances, take medicine (a religious ceremony involving scratching, bathing, and imbibing a root drink that serves as an emetic), identify themselves by town affiliation, and come together to elect their leaders. Parents continue to teach children the various dialects of the Muskogee language.
The oral tradition surrounding the origin of the Muskogees holds that the ancestors came from the west, migrating eastward over hazardous terrain, warring with those in their way and incorporating the people they conquered. Some of the migrants eventually settled in Cusseta and Coweta, along the Chattahoochee River on the present-day Alabama-Georgia border, while others settled in Abihka and Tuckabatchee, fifty miles to the west along the Coosa and Alabama Rivers.
Anthropological evidence points to the Mississippian civilization as the source of Muskogee life and culture. When Hernando de Soto encountered it on his inland expedition in search of treasure in 1539, the Mississippian culture was already in decline, and it quickly collapsed as war and disease killed some 90 percent of the population. Survivors moved into the Southeast from all directions and regrouped to start new traditions. Friendly overtures and offers of protection encouraged groups to settle near the original Muskogee towns of Cusseta, Coweta, Abihka, and Tuckabatchee.
In the eighteenth century, the ancestors of the modern Muskogees made up the core of a large, multivillage confederacy, held together in part by the Muskogee language, which was spoken, albeit in a variety of dialects, in most of the towns. As colonial expansion grew more threatening, the confederacy banded more closely together to defend its boundaries and protect its independence against claims by outsiders. After its struggles proved unsuccessful and federal authorities forced its members to move west to Indian Territory, the confederacy evolved into a single tribe, calling itself the Muskogee Nation.
Throughout this period of conflict and relocation, the town remained the primary social and political unit, and town identity continued to be the central element of the Muskogee experience. Talwa (town) signified "tribe," meaning that people regarded each town as a distinct political entity retaining its autonomy, its special identity, and its control over local affairs. Today more than forty towns in Oklahoma still maintain their separate identities, and the 1975 Muskogee constitution touched off a controversy because government representation was no longer based on towns but on eight legislative districts.
Initially, the Muskogee Confederacy was a loose alliance of towns. Only the prospect of war brought the towns together to resist the Europeans. Gradually, the confederacy grew as towns met in councils to discuss affairs with their European neighbors. For example, a group of towns met in 1734 to select an ambassador to England. In addition, geography created a subdivision within the alliance. Towns on the Chattahoochee, Ocmulgee, and Flint Rivers (Lower Towns) met together, while towns on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, and Alabama Rivers (Upper Towns) convened a separate council. This geographic grouping of towns eventually grew into a dichotomy unique to the Muskogee Nation.
A town's political autonomy was virtually sacred. Individual towns could reject the regional council's suggestions. Each town selected at least one micco—or headman, to Europeans. Some towns had more than one micco. Miccos conducted all town affairs, including diplomacy with other towns and Europeans. A micco's leadership depended upon his capacity to persuade through charisma and experience. A micco wielded power only as long as he held the respect of many people.
A micco met with his advisers to discuss suggestions and make decisions for the town. When threatened with war, each town decided how fully to participate and whom to send into battle; the confederacy never required towns to participate. More than half the confederacy opted out of most conflicts. For example, in 1796, when the confederacy was at war with the Chickasaws, the town of Cusseta refused to take part because it regarded the Chickasaws as friends. (Following removal to the West and the growth of the unified Muskogee Nation, many tribal members continued to value the principle of town autonomy.) Factionalism became a dominant characteristic of the nation's political landscape. Miccos who could exploit the situation grew strong in popularity, military success, and wealth.
During the eighteenth century, differing experiences with Europeans generated tension between Upper Towns and Lower Towns. Lower Towns, located on the Georgia frontier, prospered from active trade with British colonists. Upper Towns preferred French and Spanish traders. Trade with the British colonists made the Lower Towns wealthy and powerful; they began to assimilate English values and customs as they enjoyed the results of trade. During the American Revolution, the Lower Towns remained neutral in hopes that the old arrangements would continue. But Upper Towns—alienated from Charleston and its traders—allied themselves with the British.
Even though the Creeks—like other neutral or pro-British tribes—suffered in the aftermath of the Revolution, they united in the face of a growing American nation. The Treaty of Paris (1783) put the confederacy within the boundaries of the newly created United States. In response, the Muskogees adopted a defensive attitude, seeking to preserve territory and culture. In this atmosphere, Alexander McGillivray, a mixed blood from Ochiapofa, rose to prominence as he pushed towns to develop a unified foreign policy and cleverly juggled the interests of traders, constituents, and foreign diplomats. His leadership contributed to the growth of an active central council and culminated in the Treaty of New York (1790). In this treaty the United States pledged to protect the confederacy from outside settlement, while it made McGillivray an American brigadier and compensated the Creeks for their loyalty. That loyalty, however, lasted only until the tribe realized that the United States was allowing Georgians to continue settling in Muskogee territory.
During the War of 1812, ongoing tensions between Upper and Lower Towns broke into violence. Led by William Weatherford, Peter McQueen, Menawa, and the prophet Josiah Francis, twenty-four Upper Towns took up the "Red Stick" of war (runners carrying red sticks spread the news of war from town to town) to purge their territory of American influences. In contrast, William McIntosh, micco of Coweta, led a force of Lower Towns to side with the Americans. The ensuing Creek Civil War (1813-14) set twenty-five hundred Red Sticks against a combined force of fifteen thousand Indians and Americans under the command of Andrew Jackson. The pivotal battle took place on March 27, 1814, at Tohopeka, located on a horseshoe-shaped bend of the Tallapoosa River. The Red Sticks fought valiantly in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, but nine hundred of them died as the Americans crushed them. Altogether, nearly three thousand Upper Town members died in the war.
In the aftermath of the war, the confederacy evolved into the Muskogee Nation. Miccos sought to preserve culture and land from the onslaught of Manifest Destiny, and villages came to see the advantages of unity as more attractive than local autonomy. Beginning with the decision to execute William McIntosh, Jr., for signing the 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs without the council's permission, miccos began to pursue a unified course against claims on their territory. During the 1820s, however, the confederacy's leaders reluctantly acknowledged that absolute resistance was impossible and that removal was inevitable. In 1832, Opothle Yoholo, the micco of Tuckabatchee, led ninety miccos in signing a treaty that outlined the terms for removal. Those who wanted to could stay in Alabama, but most emigrated west.
The geographical grouping of Creek social life into towns continued as many village groups resettled intact. As these towns started over in the new land, they also re-created the Upper and Lower Creek councils, the former led by Roley McIntosh and the latter by Opothle Yoholo. Contact between the two councils was rare until 1839, when they merged into a single national body, presided over jointly by McIntosh and Opothle Yoholo.
Eventually, the Muskogees' struggle to survive in Oklahoma brought the towns together under a new constitutional government with elected leaders and town representatives. The new constitution of 1860 centralized the political process, codified laws for everyone, and authorized a national council to act on behalf of all towns. Members now viewed themselves as part of a unique new entity—the Muskogee Nation.
But this unity was short-lived. During the U.S. Civil War, old factional tensions erupted again and nearly destroyed the fledgling nation. In 1861, Daniel N. McIntosh, youngest son of executed William McIntosh, organized the First Creek Regiment, whose purpose was to fight Union-sympathizing Creeks, led by the aged Opothle Yoholo. Opothle Yoholo led about two thousand warriors and their families north to Kansas for protection. Their exodus was slow because they took household goods, cattle, horses, and sheep with them. The Confederate Creeks harassed the northern cavalcade. Opothle Yoholo organized a rear guard to protect their flight. The First Regiment engaged the Union Creeks in three battles, fueling the urgency to reach Kansas. Eventually a blizzard took a severe toll on the cavalcade. Many people froze to death, their bodies abandoned in the snow. Union forces could not provide relief. Opothle Yoholo's people continued to die from exposure and starvation once they reached their Kansas sanctuary. Opothle Yoholo died as well and, like the hosts of unknown who had perished on the trek west from Georgia and during the flight north, was buried in an unmarked grave.
Surprisingly, when the war ended, rival groups within the tribe were able to bridge their differences and to unite again as one people. The Treaty of 1866 and the reconstruction process blurred the geographic division. Peace and friendship again characterized the Muskogees, and they were once again united as the Muskogee Nation. In 1867, a revised constitution created a government that resembled the government of the United States. It had a two-house legislature, a court system, and a chief executive. Though the constitution was revised again in 1975, the earlier government remains intact.
Within the reunited Muskogee Nation, however, conflicts continued to arise. The most famous of these were the Sands Rebellion (1871), the Green Peach War (1882), and the Crazy Snake movement (1900-1909). In each instance, people frustrated by the changes forced on them by outsiders gathered around charismatic indigenous leaders who advocated the restoration of traditional culture.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the Dawes Severalty Act brought the most serious external challenge to the Muskogee Nation. Most members opposed the idea of dividing their common lands into individual parcels. Six political parties ran candidates for principal chief in the election of 1895, and all opposed allotment. Nevertheless, even though the national council refused to permit the allotment surveys to begin, the Dawes Commission opened a land office anyway. It began work at Muskogee on April 1, 1899, allotting Muskogee lands to individual members. Resigned to the inevitable, most members selected their allotments. By the spring of 1900, the process of land divisions was largely complete.
Designed as a strategy for assimilation, allotment nearly destroyed Muskogee life, even though it did not assimilate tribal members into "mainstream" society. In 1934, the Indian Reorganization act halted this failed policy, and the tribe was able to win some recognition for its political institutions. In 1972, the transition to full control occurred when Claude Cox was elected principal chief by tribal members. Although lacking a communal land base, the Muskogee people were a soverign nation again.
Some Creeks remained in the Southeast, where they were frequently swindled out of their lands and declined to the station of sharecroppers. In 1962 the survivors of this remnant group organized for recognition as a tribe, and in 1980 the United States accepted them as the Poarch Creek band of Creeks. As a result, several hundred members still live in the traditional homeland of the Muskogee Nation.
The obvious links of contemporary Muskogee culture with the past are stomp dances, called busks by historians and other outsiders. Fourteen stomp grounds operate throughout northeastern Oklahoma, attracting thousands of members each year. Stomp dances are held monthly from May to September, the largest being the Green Corn Ceremonial in July. Not to be confused with a powwow, the Green Corn is a celebration for the new harvest, a time to praise the All-Supreme, and a time for atonement. At this gathering the Muskogee language is spoken in its different dialects. Men and women share traditional communal duties. Fasting and stickball play remain important elements of the ceremonials. Ceremonial fires burn atop ceremonial ashes carried from the homeland during the removal. Stomp dances, particularly the Green Corn Ceremonial, continue to keep Muskogee culture and identity intact despite two centuries of pressures to assimilate.