by Julie Lineback

The Irvine S. Ingram Library’s Penelope Melson Society at the University of West Georgia recently hosted a lecture, “The First Southerners: Creeks and Cherokees in Early Georgia,” featuring Dr. Ben Steere, associate professor of anthropology. Dr. Steere used his years of archeology experience living and working in Cherokee, North Carolina, and his academic know-how to highlight ways the two tribes lived and eventually adapted to the biological, economical, political, and social changes of the Colonial period.

Dr. Ben Steere and students in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Dr. Ben Steere and students in Cherokee, North Carolina.

“They shared a lot of common cultural traditions of southeastern Indians who came together as refugees and formed a confederacy as a way to create a political, military, and economic unit that could deal with the British and the French,” Dr. Steere said. “They formed a new society based on older social and cultural institutions.”

Meanwhile, in the 18th century the Cherokee still controlled much of their ancestral land in the western Carolinas, east Tennessee, and north Georgia. The lower towns, valley towns, middle towns, out towns, and overhill towns were situated along the southern Appalachian mountain region.

“For the Cherokee, there’s more cultural continuity,” Dr. Steere said. “Spatially, they have deeper roots. You have more people who’ve stayed in one place for the same amount of time.”

Perhaps it was the makeup of the tribes that led to the individual ways they evolved during the Colonial period. The Creek, with their vast melting pot of a confederacy consisting of multilingual and multiethnic people, were divided. A civil war, known as the Creek War or Red Sticks War, ensued. Red Sticks wanted to go to war against the British and American governments; the White Sticks did not.

“The Creek ultimately decided to go to war, but unfortunately they weren’t successful,” Dr. Steere said. “The Cherokee saw this happening, and they decided not to try the violence route. They tried diplomacy to maintain their ancestral lands.”

He explained that in a very adaptive way, the Cherokee began to take on a lot of European elements. They created a constitution and developed legislative governments. In North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whom Dr. Steere called “the most politically savvy people I’ve ever seen,” decided to become citizens of North Carolina in hopes of maintaining their ancestral lands.

“They negotiated very carefully in their own backyard, and they were ultimately successful, which is remarkable,” Dr. Steere said.

Unfortunately, the Treaty of New Echota, signed without the consent of the Cherokee, paved the way for the removal of many tribe members. The Treaty of Indian Springs had been signed by Chief William McIntosh earlier, which was a precursor to Creek removal. In 1828 Creek, Cherokee, and other southeastern Indians were removed from the Southeast on the Trail of Tears. However, Dr. Steere reiterated that their stories did not end there. The Creek and Cherokee and other southeastern Indians formed new governments in Oklahoma in Indian Territory, which were successful.

“Creek and Cherokee are still here. I hang out with them,” Dr. Steere concluded as he showed the attending crowd the tribes’ websites and pictures from rallies in Washington, D.C. “They have a deep appreciation of their culture and their heritage, but they are also very much modern people living in a modern world.”

Posted on May 5, 2015