The Southeast Cultural Region was populated for over ten thousand years before the arrival of Europeans. The Indigenous peoples of this region benefited from the warm climate and developed sophisticated methods of farming and complex societies with diverse languages and customs. The First Nations of the Southeast include the Cherokee, Catawba, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Natchez.
The Southeast Region runs south from the Ohio River Valley to the Gulf of Mexico and east from Texas to the Atlantic Ocean. This region lies in what is now South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, and parts of Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas. The Cherokee have a legend that the creation of the world began when a gigantic bird flew over the Earth when it was new and malleable. When the bird reached the Southeast region, it glided down to the earth, tired from flying. His great wings dragged across the earth, depressing it in some areas and pushing it up in others, creating the mountains and the valleys that exist today. Thus, the physical terrain of the Southeast region is very diverse. It includes marshes, swamps, wetlands, flat land, forests, mountains, river valleys, and the Atlantic and Gulf coastline.
The Southeast is hot and humid in the summer and mild in the winter. They receive about 60 inches of rain annually. Because of the climate, the area has fertile soil that supports lush vegetation like palmetto, palm, pine and cypress trees, grasses, flowers, mosses, giant ferns, and tall, razor-sharp sawgrass in the swamps. The region is home to many animals such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, turtles, bobcats, foxes, deer, panthers, elk, bear, wolves, flying squirrels, lizards, snakes, flamingos, and alligators. Along the coast, the ocean is abundant with shellfish, fish, and marine mammals like dolphins and manatees.
The Southeast Region was one of the most densely populated regions in North America for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. The Mississippian peoples that lived in the region from approximately 800-1600 C.E. were one of the ancient civilizations that resided here. Mississippians built large cities, farmed corn and produce, created art and pottery, and developed a complex social structure. The direct descendants of the Mississippians are the Natchez. Other Indigenous peoples present for hundreds of years before and during European colonization were the Cherokee, Catawba, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw. While the people of these First Nations still thrive today, many of their reservations are located in Oklahoma due to the devastating forced removal from their homelands in the 1800s by the United States government.
The climate, geography and natural resources of the Southeast influenced how Indigenous peoples lived and worked. Houses varied greatly depending on the area of the Southeast. Because of the swampy ground, Native Americans in Florida, like the Seminoles, built their homes on platforms called Chickees. These homes were made from wood and raised as much as three feet above the ground. They were designed to keep people out of the water and keep animals like alligators and snakes out of the house. Chickees did not have walls so that breezes could help cool its occupants. The roof was made of wood and thatched with palmetto or palm leaves, which were naturally waterproof. In other areas, permanent homes were made of wood, cane, mud, and straw and were circular with cone shaped roofs.
Most clothing was made from deerskin that was processed into leather or suede to make dresses, skirts, tunics, robes, and shoes. Feathers from eagles, hawks, swans, and cranes were worn as decoration. In the Everglades, the sharp sawgrass and mosquitoes necessitated that people protect their legs and they did so by wearing deer-hide leggings.
Because of the year-round warm climate and fertile soil, Indigenous peoples of the Southwest farmed in addition to hunting and gathering. Maize (corn), beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflower were their primary crops. Wild plants were also gathered including greens, berries, and nuts. Stone mortar and pestles were carved for crushing the nuts, seeds, and corn. Axes and hand drills were created for woodworking. Hooks, nets, dragnets, and weirs (underwater pens) were used to catch fish, oysters, clams, mussels, and crabs from the rivers and the ocean. Men would use bows and arrows to hunt animals such as deer and rabbits. Canoes in the Southeast region are different from the Eastern Woodlands. Flat-bottomed dugout canoes were hollowed out from a single tree log. They were heavy and had a flat bottom that could glide through the shallow, swampy wetlands.
Their religion generally centered around the belief that humans live in harmony with the earth. Animism is the belief that humans are not the only beings with souls or spirits. Animals, plants, and other natural objects in the world also have spirits and should be treated with respect by humans in order to maintain the delicate balance of the ecosystem that surrounds them. Festivals were held to celebrate the harvest and other important events. The Green Corn Festival, also called Green Corn Dance or Ceremony, is a sacred celebration and religious ceremony common among the Creek, Cherokee, Seminole and Iroquois among others. The festival commemorates the end of the growing season in late summer. It is a time of celebration, thanksgiving, rebirth, and forgiveness. The festival typically lasts for three days and begins when the corn is ripe for harvest. Thanks and prayers are given to the Great Spirit for the corn, rain, sun, and a good harvest.
In 1539, Hernando de Sota landed on the coast of Florida, ushering in a new era for the Indigenous peoples of the Southeast. The Spanish, French, and British colonizers all sought to control the land of the Southeast and its inhabitants. Indigenous peoples who resisted the invasion were killed or enslaved. The Europeans also brought with them diseases such as smallpox, typhus, malaria, and cholera. The Indigenous peoples had no immunity to these and the diseases killed thousands.
Over time, many First Nations adopted ways of the Europeans in order to adapt and live peacefully. Many Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee converted to Christianity or incorporated facets of it into their own religion. By 1828, many in Cherokee Nation lived in houses. They had a Constitutional government and justice system similar to their Anglo-American neighbors. They also had a written language and a newspaper written in both English and Cherokee.
Despite attempts at numerous treaties, land continued to be ceded from the Cherokee and other First Nations by white settlers seeking to make their fortunes growing cotton and other cash crops. After gold was discovered on Cherokee land in Georgia, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The goal of the Act was the forced relocation of Native Americans of the Southeast westward to land in Oklahoma so that white settlers could move onto their fertile land. Between 1830 and 1840, U.S. soldiers forced approximately 100,000 Indigenous peoples from their homelands to Oklahoma territory west of the Mississippi. In 1838, 16,000 Cherokees who had tried to stay in their homeland were finally forced to make the seven month journey west to Oklahoma. 4,000 Cherokees died due to the harsh winter, starvation, and sickness. This is referred to as the Trail of Tears.
Today there are smaller reservations for First Nations throughout the southeast, but the majority of the Cherokee, Seminole, Muscogee (Creek), and Chickasaw Nations are located in Oklahoma. Native Americans still continue to face challenges stemming from 500 years of genocide, dislocation, and the systemic racism that continues to prevail in our society. However, they remain resilient and optimistic, continuing to persevere and maintain their rich cultural heritage.
With the activities in this lesson plan, students will demonstrate what they’ve learned about the Indigenous Peoples of the Southeast Region. They’ll become familiar with their environment, resources, traditions and culture.