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The Five Civilized Tribes

Introductory paragraph

The history of the Five Civilized Tribes has for a long time seemed quite heartrending to American historians. Instead of upholding the kind of savagery that was highly expected from these native tribes during the civilization period, the southeastern Native American Indians almost eagerly embraced many of the values upon which the United States of America was established as a nation. They openly expressed a willingness to adopt the superior civilization that would give them the opportunity to be American. However, the expulsion of the Indians from their native lands seemed to close off that prospect of a history of the U.S in which even the natives cold have been seen as having benefited from white settlement and also supposedly participated in the making of the American dream. The course of their history makes it understandably easy to not only admire these original inhabitants of the American nation, but also to sympathize with them because of the challenges that marked their assimilation into the wider American society. Though they had historically tended this land and made a living from it, their being biologically inferior to the whites instigated the dispossession of their native lands. The process of their civilization is not only significant but also very phenomenal.

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The Five Civilized Tribes

The Five Civilized Tribes is a term used in the history of America to refer to the Chickasaws, Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, and Seminoles; a group of Native Indian tribes that the early European settlers encountered upon their arrival in North America. These five tribes formed a larger group of Native Americans but were referred to as civilized by the white settlers because of the willingness to adopt many attributes of the new European culture especially the customs of their colonizers. They also displayed an ability to maintain considerably good relations with most of their neighbors. Two of the tribes, the Choctaw and Cherokee were especially considered quite successful at adopting the European-American culture. Apart from the Creeks and the Seminoles, the other tribes practiced interracial marriages with the whites and many of the great tribal leaders were a cross-breed between the Indians and the white settlers. Before their subsequent relocation to new Indian reservations like Oklahoma, the Five Civilized Tribes mainly lived in the southeastern part of the United States. As early as the first decades of the 18th Century, members of the Five Civilized Tribes had intermarried with white settlers especially the Scottish traders; a factor that created a very significant mixed-blood element among these tribes. These mixed-bloods had sufficient knowledge of the white style of life and they had great influence on the political affairs within the civilized tribes. By the mid 1820s, all the tribes except the Seminole had adopted a political system of governance that was somehow similar to the European style of governance. The Choctaws and Cherokees for example had formal constitutions whose style of power allocations resembled that of the American Congress. Even after relocation, political life among the Five Civilized Tribes and tribal governments underwent substantial renovations such that the new reservations became modeled upon the traditional system of villages and districts that had existed back south. The Creeks and Seminoles for example began life in the reservations as one political group although they gradually split to create two distinct tribes for purposes of political independence. By the time the American Civil War began, the tribes had well organized annual budgets which allocated funds for social services, the police force and education, and they also had their own judicial systems. But by 1906, the functions of the tribal governments had been reduced to mere supervision of tribal property.

Cultural practices among the tribes

Before their relocation to new Indian Territory, members of the Five Civilized Tribes shared many cultural traits although some of them were traditional enemies. Some of the common features among these tribes were the reliance on fishing, foraging, hunting and maize or corn agriculture as important means of subsistence. Village life among these tribes was highly developed with a matrilineal based clan system and a kinship based on small extended families. While family descent was matrilineal, blood relations among these tribes were extremely important and played a crucial role of determining the enemies of a clan or tribe. Polygamy was practiced and highly accepted but as long as the other wife or wives agreed to it and the husband was able to provide equally to all of them. They practiced extensive barter trading between themselves. However, the more western tribes such as the Creek dotted a social stratification based on noble and common classes which were differentiated by a dressing code. The Five Civilized Tribes also shared such other cultural traits as ceremonial centers, temple architecture and religious rituals such as the Corn Dance which revolved around corn growing and a worship of the Sun god. Traditional religion among the Five Civilized Tribes revolved around belief in a great spirit and many other lesser spirits. The tribes were highly religious and valued harmony with one another as well as with other created beings; a philosophy that was so widespread among them that disharmony was said to cause calamities such as war and disease. They also practiced a Western Plains religious ceremony popularly known as the Ghost Dance which revered immortal beings who were believed to offer certain protection to the tribes when necessary.

Slavery among the tribes

Although few slave holders existed in Indian Territory, each tribe had a considerable number of African American slaves. There were also some freedmen who lived close to, or with the Native Indian tribes especially among the Seminole. It was these African Americans who later became known as Black Indians. After the American Civil War, the U.S Congress implemented various treaties through which the salves were assimilated into the Indian nations with guarantees that they would be granted U.S citizenship. But this emancipation of tribal freedmen created serious issues related to tribal benefits and the promised citizenship; a controversy that has continued throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries. The Five Civilized Tribes were greatly opposed to the assimilation of former slaves or freedmen as citizens and this too became another area of controversy between them and the U.S government.

U.S Congress and intrusion into Indian native territory

In 1870, the U.S Congress allowed the extension of railroads into Indian Territory; a factor that led to an easy but also very spectacular intrusion of the Indian native lands by white settlers. Railroads driven by the desire to sell tickets and generate business for their companies invested in widespread advertisement that promised settlers great opportunities in the new land. The advertisements attracted all calibers of settlers into Indian Territory who included the railroad construction workers, white farmers, miners, merchants, whiskey peddlers, speculators as well as criminals of various calibers. Although the Indian tribes had permitted some of this intrusion through legislation, most of the visitors came uninvited. Any attempts by the tribesmen to resist and remove some of these visitors who were regarded as intruders proved quite difficult because most of them claimed to have tribal membership. With time, the settlers also wanted to purchase the lots on which they had built their homes and businesses; but which the tribes greatly opposed. Such opposition did not however favor the tribes because most of their own leaders were corrupt with few of them, mainly the mixed-bloods, having the mandate to control vast pieces of land for personal gain.

Encroachment of native territory by white settlers

As European settlers continued to pour into America, they soon started admiring this beautiful Indian country and started pushing their settlements westwards. Through various treaties that were negotiated at different time periods, white settlers were progressively established in Native Indian country; a process that tremendously reduced the habitable domain of the Indians. As the encroachment increased, the Five Civilized Tribes began to wage resistance and they soon started demonstrating for their rights. But this resistance only resulted in their inevitable eviction from their ancestral land and into a wilderness that stretched west along River Mississippi. For a whole decade after 1830, this eviction rudely interrupted the amazing progress that the tribes had made in adapting the white man’s culture. The Five Civilized Tribes were however not willing to vacate their native lands and waged a lot of resistance. But the pressure on the federal government by the white settlers was too much and this resulted in the creation of various regulations that finally forced the Indians towards the option of relocating into new territory. They were also overwhelmed by white land grabbers who used bribery, fraud and intimidation to purchase individual holdings; seized their livestock and crops; and eventually drove the Indians out of their homes. Oral traditions spanning over a period of one century later gave a clear picture of the horrible experience that the Indians were subjected to by the white settlers during the removal. Yet, the Indians were a people that reflected a lot of fortitude, courage and resourcefulness; factors that enabled them to reorganize their broken institutions as well as renew their progress with regard to a cultured and more enlightened existence.

Relocation of the Five Civilized Tribes

The U.S government gradually bowed to pressure from the settlers and engaged in a process of relocating the Indians into new territory with a promise that the new lands would be completely free of white intrusion; a promise that was soon after violated. Over several decades, the U.S Congress through federal legislation relocated these tribes from their ancestral homes east of the River Mississippi; and through a series of removal regulations under the Dawes Commission settled them into new Indian Territory located in eastern Oklahoma. This removal created a lot of tension between the Indian natives and the federal government; the most infamous of which was the 1838 Cherokee Trail of Tears. Through the Treaty of New Echota implemented by President Martin Van Buren, the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up their property in exchange for new land out in the West. The promise of a land free of white intrusion was however short-lived and even before 1893, the government through the Oklahoma Land Run had opened up Indian settlement to white intrusion through the Cherokee Strip. In 1907, Indian Territory and the Oklahoma territories were finally merged together into the New Oklahoma State and all the Five Civilized Tribes have had a major presence in this region ever since.

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Challenges brought about by the intrusion and subsequent relocation

Through the famous Indian Removal Act, the traditional Indian lands of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee were claimed by the federal government. By the time the relocation of the tribes into the new territory of Oklahoma was completed in 1842, about four thousand Indians had lost their lives in what is referred to as the Trail of Tears. In the new land, each of the tribes received nation status with a fully drawn constitution, own government and schools. Although they continued living and farming in peace, their independence was quite short-lived because the land Rush of 1889 created an encroachment of Indian land as white settlers continued to move westward. This encroachment culminated in the opening of Oklahoma to white settlers so that the Five Civilized Tribes now became assimilated into surrounding European culture. It is the eventual merging of the Oklahoma Territory with Indian Territory that led to the creation of the present state of Oklahoma.

As a result of European intrusion, new diseases such as measles, pneumonia, and smallpox among others were introduced into the land and because the Indians had no immunity, many of them succumbed to these illnesses; a factor that greatly reduced their populations. By the time the European settlers won the 1775-1783 American Revolution, these tribes had been reduced to relatively small numbers which opted to adapt to the culture of their European neighbors. During the removal, more calamities awaited the Five Civilized Tribes. The journey to the new lands was characterized by various hardships and hundreds of the Indians succumbed to disease, starvation or severe winter cold. Travelling often took place by boat and canoes while those who feared water travel endeavored to find their way to the new land through overland travel which sometimes proved very challenging and distressing. Most places had no roads and the travelers endured swamps in some of the places which proved too difficult to cross. Wading through waist high swamps was indeed a great challenge especially because the travelers had to carry their animals and few belongings along on their journey. Exposure and hardship killed many of them while the immigrants who were lucky to survive the ordeals of the journey had to endure several days of starvation. Some of the territories through which they passed were hostile and they often lost their belongings to the people they encountered in such territories. Monetary provisions would sometimes take very long to reach the emigrating parties and many of them were reduced to starvation. The removal was also very expensive for the federal government in terms of monetary provisions for the travelers as well as efforts to make their movement easier for example by the construction of roads and temporary bridges. Families, kinsmen and former neighbors were often separated during the removal as some of them resisted the available mode of transport. Women and children sometimes refused to board the boats and would thus be left behind to await other parties maybe moving overland. The Indians also suffered from such other calamities as the famous Arkansas flood which took place in the new lands and destroyed a lot of property besides leading to the death of hundreds of the Choctaw who had settled along the river bed.

Missionary presence among the tribes

But the story of the American Indians would not have come to completion without the involvement of the missionaries and friends who accompanied them on their immigration westwards and shared in the various hardships that they endured during the relocation. It was these friends and missionaries who helped rebuild their churches and schools as well as ministered to them. The early missionaries among the Five Civilized Tribes were however not committed to getting involved in their political affairs but rather, were more concerned with provision of religious instruction and education to the natives. Many of the native tribes however had the tendency to favor specific denominations and most of them were drawn to the Methodist and Baptist denominations. In the course of time, native clergy helped to transform the traditional Indian customs and traditional religious gatherings changed into newer Christian gatherings.


The history of the American nation cannot be complete without reference to the Five Civilized Tribes. These Native Indian ancestors of America have a rich history that attracts both sympathy as well as great respect, to a people who became immigrants in their own land. Through a lot of hardships and challenges, they finally settled in the new lands and have managed to maintain a very rich history about their own past.


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