“In the beginning there was no fire, and the world was cold,” according to Cherokee storytelling traditions. The Thunders sent lightning upon the land and created fire in the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree that grew on an island. The animals could see the smoke rising from the top of the tree and gathered in council to decide how they could obtain the fire. Several birds flew to the island—Raven, Screech-owl, Hooting Owl, Horned Owl—but the heat was too much for them. Two snakes swam across the water, but they too failed to return with fire. After another council, the Water Spider said she would go. She spun a little bowl, placed it on her back, and crossed the water to the burning tree. “She put one little coal of fire into her bowl, and came back with it, and ever since we have had fire.”1

In the late nineteenth century, between 1887 and 1890, the ethnologist James Mooney listened to Eastern Cherokee elders who shared a range of stories, including this one on the origins of fire. A’yun’ini, or “Swimmer,” provided most of them. He had been born in the 1830s and remained prominent in the ceremonial life of the community until his death in 1899. Another elder, John Ax, was around ninety years old when he spoke to Mooney. He was an authority on Cherokee customs and had a living memory of such early nineteenth-century events as the Creek wars and agreements with the United States. Mooney collected the stories of these and other Cherokee men into his magnificent volume Myths of the Cherokees.2

The book was typical of the Bureau of American Ethnology projects of the time; it was part of an effort to gather ethnographic and linguistic data before aging elders passed away and “authentic” Native knowledge and traditions disappeared. Mooney conducted most of his work in the mountains of Carolina—and not in Oklahoma, where most of the Cherokees lived—because there he found the kind of Indians he was looking for. “Far away from the main-traveled road of modern progress, the Cherokee priest still treasures the legends and repeats the mystic rituals handed down from his ancestors,” he wrote. “There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own.”3

Although Mooney knew that ceremonies like the Green Corn Festival continued, he believed that a coherent “national legend is now lost forever.”4 Nonetheless, Myths of the Cherokee is a remarkable cultural document. It preserves stories about the origins of the world, the character of animals and other beings, historical events, and local legends and lore.And despite Mooney’s concern with loss, Myths of the Cherokee reflects a deep knowledge of the past. The stories reveal an unbroken connection to the long history of the Cherokees and to their location in the world, even while they acknowledge the profound significance of change. The stories are as much about change as they are about tradition.

One fascinating story linked the Cherokees to the great mounds that stood impressively at many places in the region. Fire-keepers at these mounds maintained sacred and eternal fires for the people. According to the account, “just before the Green-corn dance, in the old times, every fire in the settlement was extinguished and all the people came and got new fire.” The gift of the Thunders and the Water Spider burned at the center of Cherokee life. The story also provided a religious explanation for the tragedies of the nineteenth century. Trouble came to the nation when the most powerful ceremonial items the Cherokees possessed were lost to conflict and “the old religion was neglected.” The storyteller ended, “all the old things are gone now and the Indians are different.”5

It would be easy in writing the history of Native American religion in the South to follow the path set by Mooney, from an idealized and fully developed ritual life, through periods of conflict and rapid assimilation, and finally to a gradual and inevitable decline. In the historical sketch that opens the volume, Mooney concludes of the Eastern Cherokee: “the older people still cling to their ancient rites and sacred traditions, but the dance and the ballplay wither and the Indian day is nearly spent.”6 The very richness of the oral traditions recorded in the text and the complex history Mooney himself recounts argue against such simple narratives of decline. Indians are different, but they have not disappeared. Some fires have even been rekindled.

Scholars of Native history in the American South have mostly abandoned the vanishing Indian myth that provided an intellectual framework for Mooney and an ideological foundation for assimilationist projects. Tribal members, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists have challenged conventional narratives and addressed the complexity of the past. Still, of the many studies that have appeared in the last thirty years or so, few have focused specifically on religion. Politics, diplomacy, trade, disease, and the emergence of new Native identities have all received more attention than religion. The study of Native religion in the South remains underdeveloped despite the efforts of several important scholars.

In a 1997 essay, religious studies scholar Joel Martin made a case for a postcolonial history of American religion through an analysis of contact and colonialism in the Deep South. Martin called for a reorientation “informed by the new history on Indians and stimulated by the contemporary perspectives of Indian intellectuals.” He proposed that we “turn from accounts that suggest Indians disappeared to those that depict Indians as constant participants in American life. We can progress from narratives that ignore uneven power relations to those that explain how these relations affected religious history and historiography.”7

Martin cited 10,000 years of contact history in the South, only 2% of which involved the interactions of Native people with Europeans and Americans. This is the deep history revealed by Mooney’s storytellers and by contemporary archaeologists alike. The long history of dynamic and changing Native American communities is important in its own right, but the cultural and social forms that emerged through the centuries also provided the context for colonial contact, conflict, and exchange. The Hernando de Soto expedition of 1539–1542 entered a complex society of Mississippian chiefdoms, a world the Spaniards failed to understand. Although weakened by colonial violence and disease, Mississippian-style chiefdoms survived until the destruction of the Natchez in the eighteenth century.

At the same time, Martin urged historians of American religion to consider the ways that contact affected all of the people involved, not just Native Americans. He wrote, “sometimes [contact] was direct and face-to-face, as when Anglo-Americans and African Americans entered Creek country. Other times it was indirect, mediated by journalism, political rhetoric, sermons, folktales, literature, artifacts, and artistic works.”8 These exchanges still occurred in an environment shaped by colonialism, and one cannot comprehend the many religiously inspired resistance movements and other historical developments without paying attention to the effects of invasion and conquest.

Martin provided some interesting examples of what a postcolonial religious history might look like. These histories would span a much longer chronology, beginning not with European contact but with hundreds or even thousands of years of religious change. They would account for both cultural exchange and the presence of uneven power relations. Indians would not disappear from the narratives. They would remain, as they have in American life, a major influence on the religious development of the United States. It might seem a little premature to call such a narrative postcolonial when many Native intellectuals and others have identified ongoing colonial processes (the appropriation of Native religious forms is a prime example) and advocated for further decolonization of Native peoples, lands, and cultures.9 The postcolonial moment may not have arrived for American Indians, but the challenge posed by Martin remains.

Native religious history did not begin with the emergence of the Atlantic world. The Cherokee oral tradition about the mounds is in part an account of change over time. The Mississippian tradition responsible for the sacred landscape in the river valleys of the South and Midwest flourished for around six hundred years and lasted well into the era of European colonization. The tradition was rooted in thousands of years of cultural development that included the adoption of maize agriculture, the rise and fall of powerful chiefdoms, the elaboration of trade networks, the mobilization of labor for massive building projects, and the appearance of ceremonial and symbolic systems whose influence continued long after the last Great Sun, the spiritually and politically powerful chief of the Natchez.10

The spectacular mounds of Cahokia, just east of St. Louis, seem to get most of the attention from historians. The great Mississippian chiefdom is a useful example to counter the beliefs of those who remain skeptical about the presence of Indian civilization in North America. Cahokia flourished between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. At the height of its power and influence, Cahokia had a population of between 3000 and 16,000 people. Some archaeologists contend the population was much higher, as high as 30,000 people, comparable to the population of medieval London.11

In any case, the political, ceremonial, and trade center linked a densely populated region of mound complexes, villages, and fields. The residents constructed more than one hundred earthen mounds through centuries of occupation. The largest is known today as Monk’s Mound. More than one hundred feet tall and covering sixteen acres, Monk’s Mound is the largest ancient earthwork in North America. It contains 21,700,000 cubic feet of earth, carried in baskets and packed and shaped under the supervision of expert builders. Four large open plazas aligned to the cardinal directions surround the flat-topped pyramid, and lesser mounds stretch beyond this central site according to a careful plan. In the thirteenth century, a thatched building–perhaps a temple–rose from the heights. The mounds elevated the political and priestly elite, allowing them to see and be seen by the commoners who lived below them. Public ceremonies in the great plazas, the coordinated construction and annual reinforcement of mounds, and elaborate mortuary practices supported elite claims to power. These activities and the possibility of shared mythologies and symbolic systems created ritual connections between the different levels of society.12

Equally interesting from a historical standpoint is Natchez, where we have the archaeological record as well as written documents. We know the names of specific people—the Europeans knew three Great Suns, the political and ceremonial leaders of the community. Archaeological investigations in the 1960s and 1970s showed that occupation of the “Grand Village of the Natchez,” known to archaeologists as the Fatherland site, had started by the thirteenth century. Development in this location occurred just as Cahokia was going into its decline. European trade goods at the site demonstrated its continued occupation into the era of colonial contact, and archaeologists have verified many of the observations made by European visitors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the first synthesis of this history for almost a century, James Barnett describes the complexity of Natchez society and culture and shows how important this powerful Mississippi River nation became in the colonial contest between the French and the English.13

In 1700 the French colonial official Pierre LeMoyne d’Iberville visited the Grand Village and provided the earliest written description of the site based on direct experience. Iberville found the Great Sun and many others sick from dysentery. The Great Sun’s home was large, twenty-five by forty-five feet, and sat on a raised earthen platform ten feet high. The temple mound was around the same height as the chief’s mound and bounded a large open plaza “about 250 paces wide and 300 long,” according to the French visitor.14

The memoirist Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz provided the most detailed account of the Natchez in the eighteenth century. Du Pratz arrived in the French colony of Louisiana in 1718 and two years later established a plantation in the Natchez territory. For a decade, he observed and interacted with his Native neighbors and documented the region’s human and natural history. Du Pratz reported, “during my residence among the Natchez I contracted an intimate friendship, not only with the chiefs or guardians of the temple, but with the Great Sun, or the sovereign of the nation, and his brother the Stung Serpent, the chief of the warriors.”15 His familiarity with Natchez leadership, language, and culture makes his descriptions particularly valuable. Du Pratz witnessed the death and dramatic funeral of the Stung Serpent in 1725. He also described the large temple and its origins. According to the temple guardian, a man and wife had come many years ago from the sun to teach the Natchez how to live properly. The man provided moral instruction and told the people how to construct the temple. He explained further “that in the temple they should eternally preserve a fire, which he would bring down from the sun.”16 On a tour, Du Pratz found that the eternal flame was kept in the larger of the two rooms that made up the temple. An altar table next to the sacred fire held the bones of a previous Great Sun. The ceremonial life Du Pratz described in his book lasted until the defeat and dispersal of the Natchez by the French in the early 1730s.17

Scholars have produced excellent studies on the transformation of the Mississippian-style chiefdoms, the impact of European colonization, and the emergence of new ethnic identities in the South. Most notable is Patricia Galloway’s highly influential Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700 (1995), which uses the archaeological record and European maps and travel narratives to document the ethnogenesis of the modern Choctaws. More recently, a collection of essays edited by Robbie Ethridge and Sheri Schuck-Hall, Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone (2009), connects the colonial Indian slave trade to widespread regional instability and dramatic social and cultural change. Many of the contributors to this collection have also written book-length studies on the colonial era. For the most part, however, religion remains a relatively under-examined feature of Native communal adjustments to European colonization in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The latter volume does contain an essay on the Natchez which makes the provocative assertion that Tattooed Arm, sister of the Great Sun, tried to convert a Catholic missionary priest to the Natchez religion and then had a son with him—a boy who grew up to become the last Great Sun. The author contends that the treatment of the missionary reflected the common Natchez practice of making outsiders into kin.18

Nevertheless, missionization and its effects on Native communities in the South constitute an area of study that requires substantially more investigation. The field is still not nearly as well developed as it is for other colonial regions like New England, New France, and most of the Spanish colonies of the Americas. In recent decades, scholars working on a variety of topics have developed a much more sophisticated understanding of colonial religious encounters, conversion and the indigenization of Christianity, and the role of religious change in social and economic life, diplomacy and politics, and more.19 Colonial missions in the South have not been entirely ignored and it is worth noting some of the more prominent examples of the work that already exists. Hopefully, the presence of this work combined with the influential scholarship on missions and Native Christianity that has appeared in recent decades will encourage scholars to ask new questions about missions, Native peoples, and Christianity in the South.

Archaeologist and anthropologist Jerald Milanich has done a lot to bring the history of the extensive mission networks of Spanish Florida into the conversation. His work, highlighted by Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians (1999), reveals the impact of missions on the many Native communities that were incorporated into the colonial world of the Spanish Caribbean. The Jesuits arrived to evangelize and to help secure Spanish claims to Florida soon after the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565. The Jesuit missions were not very successful and the Society of Jesus withdrew its personnel in the 1570s. Spanish colonial officials still had a legal and moral obligation to expand the kingdom of Christ, and they needed Indian allies and Indian labor. They turned to the Franciscans, who developed a large network of missions across northern Florida and adjacent territories. According to Milanich, “the goals of the Franciscan missions were to save the souls of the Indians while shaping their minds and controlling their bodies, all in support of Spanish interests.” The missionaries targeted influential chiefs for conversion as a way to gain access to larger populations. Milanich argues that Franciscan efforts were quite successful in the seventeenth century, leading to widespread acceptance of Christianity and a blend of old and new cultural practices.20

There was a terrible cost for Native communities, however. Milanich writes, “the missions of Spanish Florida should be viewed not as a benign offshoot of colonialism, but as colonialism itself. Religious education was a calculated way to save souls while converting a potentially hostile population into a labor force that toiled in support of the colony and its colonial overlords … The light of knowledge cannot brighten one dark truth: missions and colonialism must take most of the blame for the disappearance of a significant portion of the southeastern Indians.”21 Milanich relies on both the archaeological and documentary records to draw such conclusions. His work overlaps in time with the studies of Galloway and others and offers plenty of evidence that missions, and religion more broadly, should be included in the analysis of change in the “shatter zone.”

Religious studies scholar Michelene Pesantubbee is deeply informed by this newer work on religious change. In Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast (2005), she tries to explain a decline in the status of Choctaw women during the period of French colonization in the lower Mississippi Valley. The ambitious study is concerned in particular with high-status Beloved Women, an earned title well known from surrounding Indian nations like the Cherokees, Creeks, and Chickasaws.22 Since European sources tend to favor the actions of men, the reconstruction of Choctaw women’s lives is difficult. In her search for Choctaw Beloved Women, she uses whatever documentary evidence she can find, but she also relies on cultural narratives that supported a tradition of balance and complementarity in the different roles of women and men.

Choctaw origin stories frequently refer to a migration to or emergence from Nanih Waiya (“Leaning Mountain”), a sacred mound in Mississippi often referred to in Choctaw as “Beloved Mother.” The connection to the mound links the Choctaws to an ancient spiritual landscape that remains important to this day.23 Choctaw oral tradition recalls a time when the people living near the mound did not have enough food to eat. Two men went hunting to feed their village, but could only manage to catch a single bird. Disappointed, they started to eat but soon heard a song like a dove. Following the sound, they came upon a beautiful woman standing atop a grassy mound. She, too, was hungry and they shared their bird with her. She thanked them for saving her life and told them to return to the mound the next summer. The men did so and found the first corn plant, a gift from the woman and her father, the Great Spirit of the Choctaws. Corn became the staple item in the Choctaw diet. The story is certainly a beautiful expression of the ideal of reciprocity. The narrative also underlines the value of women in Choctaw society, a matrilineal, matrilocal society in which women performed most of the agricultural work. In so many ways, Choctaw women were truly the givers of life.24

Pesantubbee describes a dramatic decline in the status of women in the eighteenth century. A number of factors led to the collapse of the more balanced gender relationships: the violence unleashed by the colonial contest for interior North America, changing patterns of captivity and redemption, and the work of Catholic missionaries to transform Choctaw social structures.25 Pesantubbee complains that a lack of documentation and a belief then and now that French Catholic missionaries did not enjoy much success in the Louisiana colony has contributed to the unmerited assumption that Christianity had little impact on the Choctaws. She explains that both direct and indirect contact with missionaries influenced the Choctaws and other Native peoples in the region. Christian religious practices and ideas circulated widely, although this indirect influence is difficult to measure. Missionary activity in the lower Mississippi Valley and surrounding areas began in earnest at the very end of the seventeenth century, but many of the missions were short lived. Missionaries came and went. The Jesuits lasted the longest, working throughout the region and establishing the first mission among the Choctaws in 1727. However, other orders also labored in these fields. The diocesan priests sponsored by the Séminaire de Québec, for example, had mission stations among the Natchez and others in the early seventeenth century.26

Assessing their impact, Pesantubbee concludes that “missionary concern about women’s sexuality contributed to women’s exclusion from two important political activities: diplomatic ceremonies and war councils.” Furthermore, the missionaries introduced the concepts of sin and forgiveness, forcing Native people to confront their own “ideas about human nature and the spirit world.”27 Colonialism pushed women to the margins of Choctaw society, at least in certain respects, reducing their visibility in critical public events and altering their place in the family structure.

Pesantubbee poses important questions in her book about the changing status of women in Choctaw society, although sometimes the answers to those questions remain frustratingly incomplete. The fragmented historical record explains part of the problem. However, there is confusion about the work of the various missionary organizations. The missionaries of the Society of Jesus and the Séminaire de Québec were in competition with each other. Their training and methods were different. The Jesuits of the eighteenth century were also not the same as those of the seventeenth. Although the seventeenth-century martyrs of New France inspired later missionaries, mission work had changed significantly in the intervening decades. The Jesuits knew much more about Native languages and cultures, and the colonial context had changed as well. These distinctions are not always clear in the text. However, the attempt to reconstruct the influence of Native women on cultural change in the colonial era is a welcome trend. In this sense, Pesantubbee’s work builds on Theda Perdue’s groundbreaking Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700–183 (1998)5.28

Historically speaking, the story continues with Clara Sue Kidwell’s Choctaws and Missionaries, 1818–1918 (1995), published a decade prior to Pesantubbee’s book. Rising nationalism, westward expansion, and religious revival coalesced in the early nineteenth century into a powerful assimilationist program supported by the federal government and Christian missionary societies. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions started the first mission to the Choctaw nation in 1818. The missionary program relied on education as the primary instrument of conversion, but these early missions achieved disappointing results as far as the missionaries were concerned. Many Choctaws actively pursued educational opportunities and requested schools for their regions, recognizing potential benefits, but they were less interested in the social and cultural teachings that were so central to the project of conversion. However, as Kidwell demonstrates, “civilization was not the salvation of the Choctaw Nation.”29

In 1829 the state of Mississippi extended its authority over Choctaw land in its effort to open the area to further resettlement. In the wake of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a minority of Choctaw leaders signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. The 1830 treaty ceded Choctaw lands to the United States and forced most Choctaws to move west to Indian Territory. A few thousand remained in their Mississippi homeland, however. According to Kidwell, “the Choctaws in Mississippi lost all political autonomy. Without federal recognition or a land base, they underwent a process of enclavement, surrounded by black and white communities but part of neither.”30

Yet, the Choctaws survived as a people both in Mississippi, near the sacred mound of Nanih Waiya, and in Oklahoma. The Choctaws used assimilationist institutions like churches and schools to acquire education and to help maintain strong communal connections. In making her argument, Kidwell rejects traditional acculturation theory (the “loss of culture” approach) for an examination of ethnic identity that accounts for social and cultural change in a long process of encounter and conflict.

Acculturation theory is a major component of the analytical framework William McLoughlin employs in Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789–1839 (1984). Anthropological theories of culture loss and factionalism as well as Geertzian definitions of culture are heavy influences on this impressively researched and influential book. Even so, McLoughlin is just as interested in Cherokee agency. McLoughlin may be primarily concerned with, as he puts it, “ideological and social reorientations as seen by those Cherokees who came face to face with the missionaries,” but he also describes “the effect of the Cherokees upon the conscientious white missionaries.”31 While there is no question that the missionaries contributed to the fragmentation of Cherokee society in the period before removal, they also provided support for a remarkable process of cultural revitalization, a development that McLoughlin has called the Cherokee Renascence.32 Ultimately, McLoughlin concludes, “what the Cherokees took from the missionaries they took on their own terms and adapted to their own needs and perspectives.”33

McLoughlin believes that the turning point for the Cherokees was 1794, the year they signed a treaty with the United States to end the conflict related to their decision to side with Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. The Cherokees faced difficult decisions: “they had lost most of their hunting grounds and were almost surrounded by whites. They retained the right of local self-government, but they were under constant pressure from federal agents, factors, and missionaries to alter their ways and beliefs.”34 The Cherokees responded with an extraordinary though not uncontested program of economic, social, and cultural transformation. Missionaries became an integral part of this process. The Moravians arrived at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the missionaries of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) followed not long after. ABCFM representatives opened the Brainerd mission in 1817. Baptist ministers and Methodist circuit riders also worked among the Cherokees in the years before removal. Although some Cherokees adopted Christianity as a religious faith and practice, many more remained consistently interested in the practical skills like reading and writing that missionaries offered in their schoolhouses. In many ways, Christianity supported Cherokee revitalization. Some missionaries also acted as advocates for the Cherokees during the debates over removal.

The Cherokees did not universally welcome the intrusion of these foreigners into their nation and their lives. As McLoughlin acknowledges, “increasing Protestant evangelism was a divisive as well as a progressive force.” Despite his reliance on the study of factionalism as an organizing principle, McLoughlin does not fall into the trap of creating static oppositional social groups to support his argument. He writes, “Cherokee society in the 1820s was too complex to be divided into simplistic categories such as pro- or anti-mission, fullblood or mixed blood. Many other factors were at work: regionalism, social class or wealth, slave ownership, kinship, and opinions regarding the optimal amount and speed of change.”35

Two resistance movements stand out. The first is the so-called “Ghost Dance” movement of 1811–1813. James Mooney applied this appellation to a resurgence of Cherokee tradition in his massive study of the Ghost Dance religion that swept the West in the 1880s. Visions and prophecies, frightening earthquakes and a portentous comet, and the specter of war provided energy for the revival of older religious practices. A vision recorded by the Moravians contains warnings and a call for change:

the Mother of the Nation has forsaken you because all her bones are being broken through the grinding [of the mills]. She will return to you, however, if you put the white people out of the land and return to your former manner of life. You yourselves can see that the white people are entirely different beings from us; we are made from red clay; they, out of white sand.36

The man in the vision said that “neighborly relations” with whites would be acceptable as long as the Cherokees recovered all of their sacred Beloved Towns. McLoughlin does not view this movement as a complete rejection of what he calls “acculturation,” but rather as “an assertion of Cherokee nationalism and a profound expression of their desire for cultural autonomy.”37 He contends that participants simply wanted to shape change according to Cherokee standards as opposed to internalizing the ideologies and attitudes of white Americans.

The second is White Path’s Rebellion of 1827, another response to rapid cultural change. This time the resistance was tied directly to rejection of missionaries. Anti-mission sentiment had been rising for years, when the Cherokee leader White Path (Nunnatsunnega) started openly opposing the actions of the Cherokee National Council. The Council expelled White Path in 1825. By 1827, White Path had become a prominent leader of a rebel council and support of the missionaries plummeted even further. White Path and others seemed to resent the growing power of the wealthy mixed-blood elite and the missionaries who openly supported them. McLoughlin contends that the rebellion “was not a reactionary movement seeking simply a return to a lost past but rather an effort to keep faith with their own heritage and identity as a people.”38

The cultural and social transformation of the Five Civilized Tribes has taken up a lot of narrative space, but resistance movements like the Cherokee “Ghost Dance” and White Path’s Rebellion have received increasing attention because they illuminate so well the diverse experiences of Native peoples entangled in colonial processes. Gregory Evans Dowd makes a compelling case for this turn in his interpretation of the “religiously charged struggle for unity” led by such figures as Neolin (the Delaware Prophet), Pontiac, Tenskwatawa (the Shawnee Prophet), and Tecumseh.39 Dowd shows that at times supporters of accommodation and adherents of nativism could live in harmony. In certain times of crisis, however—during and after the Seven Years’ War and in the period leading up to the War of 1812—prophecy divided communities even as visionaries sought to unite Indians against the encroachments of white invaders. He writes, “during these periods, constellations of individuals who possessed special knowledge of the Great Spirit–those who came to be called ‘prophets’ by the Anglo-Americans–rose to provide spiritual guidance to militant followers charting the waters of intertribal diplomacy.”40

Alfred Cave includes a chapter on the Muskogee (Creek) Red Sticks in his survey of Native American revitalization movements. In it, he acknowledges the influence of a visit to the Muskogees in 1811 by Tecumseh and a holy man associated with Tenskwatawa’s prophetic movement. Yet, he also argues that “the Muskogee world had its own prophets, and those prophets had their own agenda and their own timetable.”41 The Red Stick leaders openly questioned the propriety and the efficacy of the “civilization” program, and they urged the people to return to the life created for them by the Great Spirit. The prophets rejected Euro-American culture and advocated traditional gender roles, with women growing crops and men involved in hunting. The Shawnee Prophet’s songs and rituals added elements to a spiritual movement already underway. The prophecies bitterly divided the Muskogees, leading to a bloody civil war. Andrew Jackson defeated supporters of the movement in the Creek War of 1813–1814, although both supporters and opponents of the Red Sticks suffered in the aftermath due to land cessions and forced removal.

Lee Irwin profiles the Red Sticks and the Cherokee revival in his sophisticated comparative study of American Indian prophecy. No single volume better synthesizes the diverse and challenging material on prophecy from ancient times to the present. A historian of religion, Irwin examines what he calls the “ethnotheology” of the various movements he describes. He explains, “ethnotheology refers to the creative synthesis of indigenous religious beliefs (and practices) with a variety of Christian theological ideas, particularly sin, salvation, reward and punishment after death, and the moral teachings of kindness, nonviolence, and the preservation of family and communal values.”42 Rather than seek some abstract unified theory of Native prophecy, Irwin instead uses this concept as a flexible guide on a journey through centuries of religious renewal and change.

Joel Martin’s Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World (1991) remains the essential account of the Red Stick rebellion. Martin provides the necessary context for understanding the origins and development of the revolt. He views the movement as a creative response, rooted in Muskogee religious traditions, to the crisis brought on by the pressures of colonization: the trade in slaves and skins, the invasion of Muskogee lands, and the U.S. civilizing mission. Tecumseh’s visit and a series of violent earthquakes in 1811 and 1812 only gave momentum to a religious movement already in formation. Martin concludes, “the pattern of action that informed the [Muskogee] revolt was modeled on traditional rites of passage and world renewal ceremonies. The Redstick millenarian movement of 1812–1814 was an initiation ceremony performed on a grand collective scale.”43

The stories of these sacred revolts against colonization are a way to recognize the complexity of the past, a complexity that is too easily overlooked. James Mooney listened to some of these stories, but he represented a common perspective that within only another generation or so Indians would lose forever their authentic connections to real traditions. Only ghosts and collections of texts would remain. Indians might still perform a ceremony or two, but they would not be the same. No serious person can discount the very real destruction caused by colonization and conquest. However, the longer history of change and continuity that goes back hundreds of years, well before the arrival of Europeans and Africans, and the active and creative ways in which Native peoples responded to colonization resist any narrative that relates only a story of decline.

In his book on American Indian sacred places, Peter Nabokov tells of his visit to the site of the great Cherokee white or peace town of Chota, now under twenty feet of reservoir water in the Little Tennessee River Valley. This Cherokee Beloved Town was in the eighteenth century a place where one visitor explained that “the fire of Peace is always burning.” The Cherokees maintained the fire that Water Spider had acquired with courage and ingenuity so long ago. Nabokov writes, “fire was the medium of transformation, turning offerings into gifts for spiritual intercessors or the four quarters of the earth. And when their coals cooled off, fires left behind the symbols of charred blackness and death, along with the ashen whiteness associated with peace and the power of elders.”44 It is easy enough when looking at the past to see the darkness, to recount the story of death and destruction that is a central part of the Native experience of colonization. However, it is also worth searching for the “ashen whiteness” that offers another perspective on change, the creative transformations of people engaged in a struggle for freedom and dignity.

  1. James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902), 240–2.

  2. Ibid., 11, 236–7.

  3. Ibid., 12.

  4. Ibid., 229.

  5. Ibid., 395–7; and William A. Young, Quest for Harmony: Native American Spiritual Traditions (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002), 132, 140–1.

  6. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, 181.

  7. Joel W. Martin, “Indians, Contact, and Colonialism in the Deep South: Themes for a Postcolonial History of American Religion” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 149–50.

  8. Ibid., 159.

  9. Vine Deloria, Jr., For This Land: Writings on Religion in America, ed. James Treat (New York: Routledge, 1999); George E. Tinker, Spirit and Resistance: Political Theology and American Indian Liberation (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004); Waziyatawin Angela Wilson and Michael Yellowbird, eds., For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2005); and Tracy Neal Leavelle, “The Perils of Pluralism: Colonization and Decolonization in American Indian Religious History” in After Pluralism: Rethinking Models of Interreligious Engagement, eds. Courtney Bender and Pamela Klassen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 156–77.

  10. Brian M. Fagan, Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent, 4th ed. (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2005), 448–52, 457–88; and Patricia Galloway, ed., The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Artifacts and Analysis (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

  11. Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, 4th ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 34–6, 69; R. David Edmunds, Frederick E. Hoxie, and Neal Salisbury, The People: A History of Native America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 15–8; Michael Leroy Oberg, Native America: A History (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 15–6; and Peter Nabokov, Where the Lightning Strikes: The Lives of American Indian Sacred Places (New York: Viking, 2006), 42–3.

  12. Fagan, Ancient North America, 470–5; Timothy R. Pauketat, “The Forgotten History of the Mississippians” in North American Archaeology, eds. Timothy R. Pauketat and Diana DiPaolo Loren (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005), 187–211.

  13. James F. Barnett, Jr., The Natchez Indians: A History to 1735 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), xiv-xvi.

  14. Ibid., 39.

  15. Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz, The History of Louisiana: Translated from the French of M. Le Page du Pratz, ed. Joseph G. Tregle, Jr. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975), 327.

  16. Ibid., 332.

  17. Nabokov, Where the Lightning Strikes, 43–6.

  18. Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995); Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall, eds., Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009); and George Edward Milne, “Picking Up the Pieces: Natchez Coalescence in the Shatter Zone” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone, 388–417.

  19. Joel W. Martin and Mark A. Nicholas, eds., Native Americans, Christianity, and the Reshaping of the American Religious Landscape (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); and Nicholas Griffiths and Fernando Cervantes, eds., Spiritual Encounters: Interactions between Christianity and Native Religions in Colonial America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).

  20. Jerald Milanich, Laboring in the Fields of the Lord: Spanish Missions and Southeastern Indians (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 130–56.

  21. Ibid., xiv.

  22. Michelene E. Pesantubbee, Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 1–2.

  23. Ibid., 20–3, 168; Nabokov, Where the Lightning Strikes, 47–51.

  24. Pesantubbee, Choctaw Women, 19–23.

  25. Ibid., 34–85.

  26. Ibid., 59–67.

  27. Ibid., 77.

  28. Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700–1835 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).

  29. Clara Sue Kidwell, Choctaws and Missionaries in Mississippi, 1818–1918 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 115.

  30. Ibid., 162.

  31. William G. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 1789–1839 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984).

  32. William G. McLoughlin, Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986).

  33. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 12.

  34. Ibid., 6.

  35. Ibid., 126.

  36. William G. McLoughlin, The Cherokee Ghost Dance Movement: Essays on the Southeastern Indians, 1789–1861 (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1984), 142.

  37. McLoughlin, Cherokees and Missionaries, 82.

  38. Ibid., 213.

  39. Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), xiii.

  40. Ibid., xviii.

  41. Alfred A. Cave, Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 143.

  42. Lee Irwin, Coming Down from Above: Prophecy, Resistance, and Renewal in Native American Religions (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 7.

  43. Joel W. Martin, Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 133.

  44. Nabokov, Where the Lightning Strikes, 58–9.