Thursday, June 28, 2018

The "Five Civilized Tribes"

The expression Five Civilized Tribes emerged sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. It referred to the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations. All of these tribes resided in the southeastern United States prior to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. During the years that followed, the United States government forced approximately 60,00 Indians to migrate to Indian Territory, which in 1907 became the State of Oklahoma.[1]

The real distinctions between the so-called "civilized tribes" versus "wild Indians" were never so stark as those terms suggest. However, Americans came to speak of the Five Civilized Tribes because those tribes seemed to embrace many of the cultural norms of Euro-Americans. As historian Andrew K. Frank explains,
The term indicated the adoption of horticulture and other European cultural patterns and institutions, including widespread Christianity, written constitutions, centralized governments, intermarriage with white Americans, market participation, literacy, animal husbandry, patrilineal descent, and even slaveholding.[2]
After their removal to Indian Territory, these tribes became five small republics with shared borders, and with governments modeled on that of the United States. By contrast, "wild Indians" like Apaches, Kiowas, and Comanches maintained traditional ways, which included hunting in order to survive. So, Americans had good reasons for singling out what they called the Five Civilized Tribes. Still, at least some of the distinction was arbitrary, not to mention that the word civilized has always been prejudicial.[3] For example, no one who has considered the structures at Mesa Verde, Colorado, or Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, would conclude that the former residents of those places were uncivilized. Not to mention that Indians of the Southwest built the Taos Pueblo sometime before Christopher Columbus was born. It stands today as the oldest continuously-inhabited structure in North America.

Recognizing this, at least some writers abandoned the old expression, and began instead to refer to the Five Tribes, or the Five Tribes of Oklahoma. It appears that this change in terminology began to take place during the 1980s. For example, in an outstanding book titled The Southeastern Indians published in 1976, anthropologist Charles Hudson wrote about the Five Civilized Tribes.[4] Four years later, in 1980, one of Hudson's former students, Theda Perdue, published her book Nations Remembered: An Oral History of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1865-1907.[5]

By contrast, in 1990, Oklahoma historian W. David Baird authored an important, responsive article he titled, ""Are the Five Tribes of Oklahoma 'Real' Indians?"[6] And, in 1993, Perdue renamed her 1980 book. She deleted Five Civilized Tribes and added the names of each of the tribes. Thus, the new subtitle reads, An Oral History of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles in Oklahoma, 1865-1907.


[1] The figure 60,000 is given by Grant Foreman, The Five Civilized Tribes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1934), 7.

[2] Andrew K. Frank, "Five Civilized Tribes" Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 2009) 1:501.

[3] Theda Perdue, Nations Remembered: An Oral History of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles in Oklahoma, 1865-1907 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), ix-x.

[4] Charles Hudson, The Southeastern Indians (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976), 469-77.

[5] Theda Perdue, Nations Remembered: An Oral History of the Five Civilized Tribes, 1865-1907 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980).

[6] For example, W. David Baird, "Are the Five Tribes of Oklahoma 'Real' Indians?" Western Historical Quarterly 21 (February 1990): 4-18. But note the title in the reprint or companion piece: W. David Baird, "Are There 'Real' Indians in Oklahoma: Historical Perceptions of The Five Civilized Tribes" Chronicles of Oklahoma 68, No 1 (Spring, 1990): 4-23.

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