18. Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw

Please note that these tribes represent what was once dozens possibly hundreds of tribes and bands that lived in southeastern North America. Most were driven into extinction by European invaders: Spanish, French, and English. It isn’t possible for me to know if all three tribes practiced unique customs or that surviving members of each tribe succeeded in preserving a piece. I have grouped them together because they share a language family (Muskhogean) and have in a few instances had the same or similar practices.

The Creek or Muscogee Confederacy forms the largest group in the Muskhogean language family.  At one time they occupied a vast portion of Alabama and Georgia and are believed to have once numbered about 20,000. Their community had 28 clans (8 now extinct) that emulated many animals, but also plants and natural elements such as the wind. Each clan’s medicine was specific to its ally’s characteristics, behavior, myths, and spirit.

All of Muscogee ceremonies were tied to lunar cycles and there appears to have been ceremonies with every moon for the benefit of the tribe, perhaps performed by various clans. The largest ceremonies that included the entire tribe took place twice a year. The spring ceremony was tied to ripening berries. It was a time when spirit handlers prepared medicine and doctored all of the sick. When the corn was ripe enough to roast, about July or August, a long and involved ritual took place beginning with a specific moon. Many not only fasted for a week but ingested concoctions made from virulent emetics such as Ilex vomitae. It was an athletic purification that included reconciliation and restoration of harmony, and things that strengthened and protected the tribe from the challenges of forthcoming winter. It was also about gratitude for everything that sustained their lives, plants, animals, prayer, and tradition, anything that defined them as a people. During the course of this long ritual elders gave public speeches regarding the importance of observing tribal law and customs. Their lectures included the threats of consequences and penalties that would befall not only the individual but the entire tribe. While these proceedings took place so did a great deal of hunting for the feast that would follow the ceremony and possibly for winter preservation as well. Many unique dances took place, too numerous to mention here, each with its own purpose and blessing for the tribe. It was an occasion when everyone dressed in their finery. It is hard for the western world today to grasp that fasting, dancing, hunting, feasting, and the use of ritual clothes were all considered prayer, a great collective prayer of humility, gratitude, healing, and protection.

The Muscogee was a culture that cultivated dreaming while both awake and asleep. Resolution of individual and tribal issues hinged dramatically on what was revealed in dreams.

Like virtually all tribal cultures worldwide the Muscogee believed that sickness and hardship were most often caused by spirits. They also thought that illness could also be attributed to the behavior of animals. One example I read involved local beavers building a dam. An individual’s bowel obstruction was thought to have been caused by the construction of the dam. And not unlike any other tribal culture Muscogee medicine included plant and animal components, herbs, shells, and strange or unusual objects. Their uses and formulations were known only by the fraternities of medicine people, men and women. I suspect most of that knowledge is long gone. Becoming a medicine person was something of a challenge that required extensive isolation and fasting while learning all of the traditional songs and formulas. Each remedy had its own song and both the song and the formulation had to be learned in four days. The apprenticeship lasted four moons a year for four years. That would suggest to me that there were well over 100 formulations and 100 songs. It is an appalling loss of knowledge but I found a few references.

Some of the medicine people specialized in conjuring the weather and creating tremors designed to confound their enemies. Others were astute at shapeshifting, allowing them to enter an enemy’s camp concealed as an animal or some other phenomenon. Much attention was given to arrows. There were songs and formulations designed to empower arrows, or to insure that enemy arrows passed through the warrior’s bodies without injury. Medicine people doctored arrow wounds by masticating the mud or clay brought up to the surface by crawfish, then applying it to the wound.

Insanity had an interesting remedy. Four white pebbles were placed in a cup of clear water. The medicine person held a mouthful of that water in his mouth before spitting/spraying the water over the head of the afflicted person. That person was then instructed to drink of the remaining water four times. This allowed the medicine person to take over the afflicted person’s body, assuming control over his daily life and recovery. The practitioner remained in control of the afflicted person’s life until he was cured.

Such widespread and complex spiritual practices always seemed to have a malevolent side too. Anyone found to use his or her knowledge to do injury to another by supernatural means was apprehended, tortured, and put to death. One of the malevolent practices I read about dealt with practitioners removing their own intestines and turning them into birds of all kinds that flew off to commit the practitioner’s desired misdeeds. The intestines were believed to house the life spirit that was thought to depart at death. A second soul was thought to exist in the head and was the source of dreams, abilities, genius, and so forth. The intestinal life form was the one that after death haunted the living, especially those responsible for causing another’s death, such as a warrior. Without excessive purification rituals the individual would remain haunted and stood to lose his family if he didn’t submit to the rites. The rituals must have strenuous if someone would risk not submitting.

It is believed that all of the descendants of the Mound Builders were sun worshipers but I am not sure this couldn’t be said of most Indigenous Americans. It is however known that the Choctaw refused to conduct or attend any meeting or council if the sun wasn’t shining. Sunlight insured that the talks were honest. This relationship to the sun was extended to the central fires of the Choctaw villages. Fire was believed intelligent and in perpetual communication with the sun.

The Choctaw had a pantheon of Earth spirits: little people, sprites, and other humanoid creatures that lived in the woods. Again, I suspect that all Indigenous Americans knew of and interacted with these creatures and viewed them much as Europeans once did. Some of these spirits were playful, even antagonistic, but not malevolent. They could be seen only by practitioners and prophets who received assistance from them in making medicine. The benevolent spirits kidnapped little children and taught those children medicine and herbs before they were returned to their villages unharmed. All of the abductees grew up to be medicine men and women.
There existed half man-half deer creatures commonly seen and feared by hunters. If a hunter angered such a creature it would run ahead of the hunter to warn his prey and even his enemy that he was coming. Another creature with pointed ears and small eyes slid on its belly like a snake to frighten hunters and steal their hunting medicine.

The Choctaw knew about the dwellers of deep pools that had light skin and were compared to trout. It was believed that these water spirits captured humans and converted them into deep pool beings.

One thought to be a bad spirit was a notorious shape shifter capable of reading another’s thoughts. Shadow beings or soul eaters were believed to enter the body if evil thoughts or depression existed, and would eat the human soul.

The Choctaw believed that everyone had four souls but I could only find references for two: one that remained in the bone marrow after death and one that went on to an afterworld where there was always good hunting and lots of ball games. The Milky Way was the path to the Creator and its countless stars were Choctaw ancestors. Reincarnation was a prevalent belief tied to the name giving of newborns. A recently departed relative was thought to return to the tribe in a newborn bearing the same name even though it was forbidden to speak that name once the mourning for the deceased had finished. It was customary for those in mourning to cut their hair, remain negligent in appearance, not re-marry, and remain cloistered with relatives of the same gender during the mourning period. I found these customs to be true as far west as Ute, Sioux, and Apache, suggesting that it might have been widespread.

There are enormously complex burial practices remembered by surviving Choctaw. I have found virtually identical practices even as far north as the Algonquian Shawnee. That said this region is not entirely uniform with its practices. It is not possible for me to ascertain why but I read variations that included platforms, cremations, coffins of many types, and various stages of burial in the Earth. Please keep that in mind as you read further.

The Choctaw are well-known for their Turkey Buzzard Society and the society’s Bone Pickers whose custom it was to grow profoundly long fingernails. The deceased were first interred on platforms and left until the Society deemed them “ready’. Then one of the Society’s medicine men or women would mount the platform and remove all of the deceased’s flesh with their fingernails before handing the bones down to the family. It should be recognized that the Turkey Buzzard Society was revered and not feared. Their powers were regarded as benignly benevolent and they were often great healers as well.

While the deceased remained on the platform they could be visited only by clansmen and mourning took place privately in the woods. Once the bones were given to the family and placed in a hamper the skull was painted red and the deceased was taken home for a while. He was ritually fed, given his favorite clothes, utensils, and ornaments. Often a dog (and later in history a horse) was sacrificed to accompany the deceased on his journey. The journey required four days during which time a fire was kept constantly burning to light his path.

All of the hampers of bones were removed once or twice a year, and placed together in a communal burial, covered with large mounds of soil, and surrounded by a palisade. The entire community participated in this ritual to sing funeral songs and to help with ritual wailing.  While singing, sticks were rhythmically tapped together until the presiding medicine person determined that the spirits of the deceased had in fact had a successful journey. It would seem that some of this is contradictory and try as I might I couldn’t find enough information to sort it out to my own satisfaction. The knowledge is either lost or remains a well-guarded secret.

There had probably been thousands of customs and taboos associated with death but I found only a handful of fragments. None of the clothing or personal effects of the deceased was kept. Burial parties were given special medicine for their job, and were avoided, as were burial places. Suicides and malevolent people with supernatural powers (referred to as witches in English) were not honored with proper burials. It was believed that anyone who committed suicide had squandered his life, and cheated his family and community. Death was believed foreordained and therefore the source of great courage for warriors. Ghosts were considered pitiful spirits somehow lost or stuck in this world. Their souls were believed stolen by witches to increase their power. Spirits left behind were though to shape shift into animals but apparently people could always tell the difference. Similar beliefs seem to have endured throughout most of Indigenous American tribes. It is unknown to me if any part of these beliefs exists due the influence of Europeans or if the beliefs stand on their own as tribal.

It should be noted that every language has its own words for medicine man or woman, prophet, spirit handler, and malevolent person who has supernatural powers. English translations draw a distinct difference between those who do good things for their people and those who do bad, referred to as witches. It was the informant’s choice to use the word ‘witch’ and I use it in that context, somewhat under protest.

The Chickasaw revealed some incredible dances. Please remember that dancing remains a sacred and integral component of rituals that might have lasted days, weeks, or even months. Dances and the feasts that followed were the public conclusion of very long ceremonies that had often been performed privately and secretly by the specific clans that were the keepers of that specific and secret knowledge. The true purpose of the ceremonial dances mentioned here is unknown to me.

Stickball games were apparently part of many ceremonies much like the dances. Stickball showed off skill and prowess but it was also a means of settling disputes between clans and villages.

The Chickasaw Green Corn Ceremony was originally danced only by eligible young men. The women stood by waiting to be stolen by their suitors. I found that some version of a Green Corn Ceremony was observed throughout the southeastern tribes, the Algonquian and Iroquoian tribes, as well as the Pueblos and Navajo of the southwest. I didn’t search further but I suspect it was endemic throughout most of Indigenous America in some shape or form.

The Garfish Dance was performed to honor garfish. Garfish teeth were used in purification rites. But what those rites were for or how the teeth were used eludes me beyond the obvious pain, blood, and scarifying.

The Four Corners Dance was performed to honor the four directions, and the Snake Dance honored the snake’s warrior spirit. The Duck Dance was one of thanksgiving for the food provided by waterfowl. The Drunk Dance was performed to remind people not to stray from their culture and beliefs, and to always remain strong. I suspect that this one came into being after natives were exposed to the European alcohol that has been decimating Indigenous People for 500 years.

The Warrior Ceremony is old but continues into the present. Prayers are made with tobacco smudge for those past and present who have returned as well as those who didn’t make it back. The ceremony includes honor songs, dances, presentations of eagle plumes, and a special blanket. The recipient’s friends and family bring additional gifts as well.

The Stomp Dance is legendary. It is performed single file and dancers move counterclockwise. Women wear turtle shell rattles. Stomp Dances last four days. First a lead singer awakens the Creator with a loud yell, then all the other men answer; it is believed the Creator is speaking through them. The lead singer chants his prayer and only the Creator knows what he is saying. The chanting continues throughout the four days. The same singer makes prayers for the entire tribe, including each clan and society as well as his family and himself. The Doubleheader Dance is thought to be a version of the Stomp Dance.

The Friendship Dance is performed when two villages come together to insure there will be no war between them. It is followed by a Stomp Dance.




Please note Wikipedia has many entries by tribal names and most tribes maintain and support their own websites where customs, history, stories, and mythology have been archived. Tribes striving to reconstruct their languages often include language text and information on their websites as well.

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Responses to “18. Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw”

  1. thank you, Verda!
    Big Love and hugs to you… hugs…