Native People of the American Southeast

HOW THEY GOT HERE

People have been living in the southeastern region of North America for at least 18,000 years. At first these groups were on the move, hunting wild game and gathering food. Then around A.D. 800, people started planting corn near the Mississippi River and settled there permanently. Their peaceful culture thrived for hundreds of years in this plentiful area.

COOL CULTURE

Southeastern people used river mud to build massive earthen mounds that formed the center of their communities. The tall mounds served as gathering places for ceremonies, platforms for temples, and homes for tribal leaders. Moundville—the ruins of an ancient city in what’s now central Alabama—has 26 mounds; the tallest is almost 60 feet high. (That’s like four giraffes stacked on top of each other!) About a thousand people lived in this city, while another 10,000 farmed corn nearby.

Many tribes like the Biloxi (pronounced bil-OK-see) harvested river cane—a type of bamboo—which they wove into ceremonial rattles, baskets for picking berries, and containers for storing food. Some tribes, like the Catawba (pronounced kuh-TAW-buh) made pottery by smoothing stacks of coiled clay.

LIFE TODAY

Tribal life changed after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 when the new Americans wanted southeastern tribes to adopt their dress styles, farming methods, and government. While some tribes rebelled, the Choctaw (CHOK-taw), Chickasaw (CHIK-uh-saw), Creek, Cherokee (CHAIR-uh-kee), and Seminole (SEH-min-ohl) changed their way of life to try to protect their people. They became known as the Five Civilized Tribes, but eventually almost all members were still forced to move west in the 1830s. The Cherokee called this thousand-mile walk to what’s now Oklahoma the “Trail Where They Cried” because over 4,000 Cherokee members died on the journey. Now it’s more commonly known as the Trail of Tears.

Today tribal members are trying to rebuild their communities: Each year tribes such as the Creek and Miccosukee (pronounced mik-uh-SOO-kee) continue to celebrate the first ripe corn of the harvest in the Green Corn ceremony. Part of the three-day event includes the Stomp Dance: Starting after dark, a male elder sings while men and women move in a counterclockwise circle around a fire, shaking rattles worn on their legs.

The Seminole tribe of Florida runs businesses that include citrus and cattle farms, and the Tunica (pronounced TOO-nih-kuh) tribe of Mississippi and Arkansas are working with Tulane University in Louisiana to create children’s books, recordings, camps, and other projects that help keep their language alive.

Modern Cherokee women show off traditional clothing, including breastplates made from porcupine quills.
Modern Cherokee women show off traditional clothing, including breastplates made from porcupine quills.
Photograph by Panther Media GmbH, Alamy

Text and photos adapted from the Nat Geo Kids Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture.