Five Civilized Tribes

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Gallery of the Five Civilized Tribes: Sequoyah (Cherokee), Pushmataha (Choctaw), Selecta (Muscogee/Creek), a "Characteristic Chickasaw Head", and Osceola (Seminole). The portraits were drawn or painted between 1775 and 1850. Five-Civilized-Tribes-Portraits.png
Gallery of the Five Civilized Tribes: Sequoyah (Cherokee), Pushmataha (Choctaw), Selecta (Muscogee/Creek), a "Characteristic Chickasaw Head", and Osceola (Seminole). The portraits were drawn or painted between 1775 and 1850.

The term "Five Civilized Tribes" derives from the colonial and early federal period in the history of the United States. It refers to five Native American nations—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. [1] [2] These are the first five tribes that European Americans generally considered to be "civilized". [3] Examples of colonial attributes adopted by these five tribes include Christianity, centralized governments, literacy, market participation, written constitutions, intermarriage with white Americans, and plantation slavery practices. The Five Civilized Tribes tended to maintain stable political relations with the Europeans.


The term has been criticized for its ethnocentric definition of civilization. [4] The population currently living in Oklahoma are referred to as the Five Tribes of Oklahoma.


The Mississippian culture was a mound building Native American urban culture that flourished in the South and Eastern United States before the arrival of Europeans. Etowah Aerial HRoe 2016.jpg
The Mississippian culture was a mound building Native American urban culture that flourished in the South and Eastern United States before the arrival of Europeans.

The Five "Civilized" Tribes were indigenous peoples of the Americas who lived in the Southeastern United States. Most were descendants of what is now called the Mississippian culture, an agrarian culture that grew crops of corn and beans, with hereditary religious and political elites. The Mississippian Culture flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from 800 to 1500. Before European contact these tribes were generally matrilineal societies. Agriculture was the primary economic pursuit. The bulk of the tribes lived in towns (some covering hundreds of acres and populated with thousands of people). These communities regulated their space with planned streets, subdivided into residential and public areas. Their system of government was hereditary. Chiefdoms were of varying size and complexity, with high levels of military organization. [5]

George Washington and Henry Knox implemented a policy of cultural transformation in relation to Native Americans. The Cherokee and Choctaw tended, in turn, to adopt and appropriate certain cultural aspects of the federation of colonies. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the culture of the United States as a nation was, itself, emergent. Many of the cultural practices appropriated by The Five Tribes were ones that they found useful. [6]

In the early part of the 19th century, the U.S. government initiated a displacement of the existing societies living east of the Mississippi River, including The Five Tribes, to lands west of the river. This federally legislated displacement initiative, dubbed the Indian Removal, forced a significant number of the Five Tribes to Indian Territory in other parts of the North American continent over several decades, many to what later became Oklahoma Territory. The most infamous removal was the Cherokee Trail of Tears of 1838, when President Martin Van Buren enforced the contentious Treaty of New Echota with the Cherokee Nation.

Routes of southern removals to the first Indian Territory of the Five Civilized Tribes. Trails of Tears en.png
Routes of southern removals to the first Indian Territory of the Five Civilized Tribes.

During the American Civil War, the politics of the Five Tribes were divergent. The Choctaw and Chickasaw fought predominantly alongside the Confederates while the Creek and Seminole fought alongside the Union. The Cherokee fought a civil war within their own nation between the majority Confederates and the minority, pro-Union camps. As an element in Reconstruction after the Civil War, new Reconstruction Treaties were signed with the indigenous nations that had entered into treaties with the Confederate States of America. The Civil War was not good to the tribes. The first three battles of the Civil War were fought in Indian territory, with some tribes joining treaties with the Confederates, and others with the Union. [7]

Once the tribes had been relocated to Indian Territory, the United States government promised that their lands would be free of white settlement. Some settlers violated that with impunity, even before 1893, when the government opened the "Cherokee Strip" to outside settlement in the Oklahoma Land Run. In 1907, the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory were merged to form the state of Oklahoma. Relative to other states, all Five Tribes are represented in significant numbers in the population of Oklahoma today.

Experiment of "civilizing"

Washington promulgated a doctrine that held that American Indians were biologically equals, but that their society was inferior. He formulated and implemented a policy to encourage the "civilizing" process, which Thomas Jefferson continued. [8] The noted Andrew Jackson historian Robert Remini wrote "they presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans. [8] Washington's six-point plan included impartial justice toward Indians; regulated buying of Indian lands; promotion of commerce; promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Indian society; presidential authority to give presents; and punishing those who violated Indian rights. [9] The government appointed agents, like Benjamin Hawkins, to live among Indians and to encourage them, through example and instruction, to live like whites. [6] The tribes of the southeast adopted Washington's policy as they established schools, took up yeoman farming practices, converted to Christianity, and built homes similar to those of their colonial neighbors. [9]

Cherokee Nation Historic Courthouse in Tahlequah, built in 1849, is the oldest public building standing in Oklahoma. Cherokee National Capitol.jpg
Cherokee Nation Historic Courthouse in Tahlequah, built in 1849, is the oldest public building standing in Oklahoma.

How different would be the sensation of a philosophic mind to reflect that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended. But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America – This opinion is probably more convenient than just.

Henry Knox, Notes to George Washington from Henry Knox.



The Cherokee, ( /ˈɛrək/ ; Cherokee : ᎠᏂᏴᏫᏯᎢ, romanized: Aniyvwiyaʔi) are people of the Southeastern United States, principally upland Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. They speak an Iroquoian language. In the 19th century, historians and ethnographers recorded their oral tradition that told of the tribe having migrated south in ancient times from the Great Lakes region, where other Iroquoian-speaking peoples were. [11]

Of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The UKB are mostly descendants of "Old Settlers", Cherokee who migrated to Arkansas and Oklahoma about 1817. They are related to the Cherokee who were forcibly relocated there in the 1830s under the Indian Removal Act. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina, and are descendants of those who resisted or avoided relocation. [12] In addition, there are numerous Cherokee heritage groups throughout the United States, such as the satellite communities sponsored by the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee tribe is the largest tribe in the nation, having 729,533 members. [13]


The Chickasaw are Native American people of the United States who originally resided along the Tennessee River and other parts of Tennessee, west of present-day Huntsville, Alabama, parts of Mississippi and the southwest side of Kentucky. They spoke some French and some English. Some historians credit the Chickasaws' intervention in the French and Indian War on the side of the British as decisive in ensuring that the United States became an English-speaking nation. [14] Originating further west, the Chickasaw moved east of the Mississippi River long before European contact. All historical records indicate the Chickasaw lived in northeastern Mississippi from the first European contact until they were forced to remove to Oklahoma, where most now live. They are related to the Choctaws, who speak a similar language, both forming the Western Group of the Muskogean languages. "Chickasaw" is the English spelling of Chikasha (Muskogee pronunciation:  [tʃikaʃːa] ), that either means "rebel" or "comes from Chicsa". The Chickasaw are divided in two groups: the "Impsaktea" and the "Intcutwalipa". The Chickasaws were one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" who went to the Indian Territory during the era of Indian Removal. Unlike other tribes, who exchanged land grants, the Chickasaw received financial compensation from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. [15] The Chickasaw Nation is the thirteenth largest federally recognized tribe in the United States. The Chickasaws built some of the first banks, schools, and businesses in Indian territory. They also signed a treaty with the Southern United States during the Civil War and brought troops to fight for the Confederates. [16]


The Choctaw are a Native American people originally from the Southeastern United States (Mississippi, Alabama and, to a lesser extent, Louisiana). There were about 20,000 members of this tribe when they were forced to move to Indian territory. Many of them did not survive. [17] They are of the Muskogean linguistic group. The word Choctaw (also rendered as Chahta, Chato, Tchakta, and Chocktaw) is possibly a corruption of the Spanish chato, meaning flattened, in allusion to the tribe's custom of flattening the heads of infants. [18] [19] Noted anthropologist John Swanton, however, suggests that the name belonged to a Choctaw leader. [20] They were descended from people of the Mississippian culture which was located throughout the Mississippi River valley. The early Spanish explorers, according to the historian Walter Lee Williams, encountered their ancestors. [21] Although smaller Choctaw groups are located in the southern region, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are the two primary Choctaw associations. This tribe was predominantly farmers (like most Indians were at the time) until they were removed from their land. They have grown substantially since the Trail of Tears and there are currently about 231,000 members, making the Choctaw the third largest Native American population in the United States. The capital of the Choctaw Nation is currently located in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma. [22]


The Creek, or Muscogee, are originally from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama. [23] They resided there from approximately 1500 AD until they were forcibly displaced by the American Government in the early 19th century. Mvskoke is their name in traditional spelling. The Muscogee Creek tribe was not one tribe but a group of several, each of which had their own distinct land. Starting in 1836, the American government forced them to travel west of the Mississippi along with the other civilized tribes to "Indian territory". About 20,000 Muscogee members were forced to walk the Trail of Tears, the same amount as the Choctaws. [7] Modern Muscogee live primarily in Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Their language, Mvskoke , is a member of the Creek branch of the Muskogean language family. The Seminole are related to the Muscogee and speak a Creek language as well.

Federally recognized Creek tribes included the Muscogee Creek Nation, Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town, Kialegee Tribal Town, Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.


The Seminole are a Native American people originally of Florida and now residing in Florida and Oklahoma. The Seminole nation came into existence in the 18th century and was composed of renegade and outcast Native Americans from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, most significantly the Creek Nation, as well as African Americans who escaped from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia. While roughly 3,000 Seminoles were forced west of the Mississippi River, including the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, who picked up new members along the way, approximately 300 to 500 Seminoles stayed and fought in and around the Everglades of Florida. In a series of United States wars against the Seminoles in Florida, about 1,500 U.S. soldiers died. The Seminoles never surrendered to the US government, and consequently the Seminole of Florida call themselves the "Unconquered People". [24] [25] Federally recognized Seminole tribes today include the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Seminole Tribe of Florida. For about twenty years after the move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Seminoles refused to live with the Muscogee Creek tribe or under their Government until they finally reached an agreement with the Government to sign a treaty and live with them. The Seminoles favored the North during the Civil War and remained loyal to the Union and proceeded to move north into Kansas. [26]

Terminology and usage

The term "civilized" has historically been used to distinguish the Five Tribes from other Native American groups that were formerly often referred to as "wild" or "savage". [27] [28] Texts written by non-indigenous scholars and writers have used words like "savage" and "wild" to identify Indian groups that retained their traditional cultural practices after European contact. As a consequence of evolving attitudes toward ethnocentric word usage and more rigorous ethnographical standards, the term "Five Civilized Tribes" is rarely used in contemporary academic publications. [29]

The word "civilized" was used by whites to refer to the Five Tribes, who, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, actively integrated Anglo-American customs into their own cultures. [30] Sociologists, anthropologists, and interdisciplinary scholars alike are interested in how and why these native peoples assimilated certain features of the alien culture of the white settlers who were encroaching on their lands. The historian Steve Brandon asserts that this "adaptation and incorporation of aspects of white culture" was a tactic employed by the Five Nations peoples to resist removal from their lands. While the term "Five Civilized Tribes" has been institutionalized in federal government policy to the point that the US Congress passed laws using the name, the Five Nations themselves have been less accepting of it in formal matters, and some members have declared that grouping the different peoples under this label is effectively another form of colonization and control by white society. [31] Other modern scholars have suggested that the very concept of "civilization" was internalized by individuals who belonged to the Five Nations, [32] [29] but because much of Native North American history has been communicated by oral tradition, little scholarly research has been done to substantiate this.

In present-day commentary on Native American cultures, the term "civilized" is contentious and not commonly used in academic literature. Some commentators, including the Indian activist Vine Deloria, Jr., have asserted that it is demeaning and implies that the indigenous peoples of the North American continent were "uncivilized" before their contact with the habits, customs, and beliefs of Anglo-American settlers. The term is based on the assumption that different peoples possess objective "degrees" of civilization that may be assessed and raises the question of just what qualities define "civilization". Consequently, it is considered a judgmental term whose meaning is dependent on the user's perspective, and thus best avoided. [33] [34]

See also

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