The Indian tribes of the northern United States, at the advent of the whites, were found in a state of savagery in some particulars, though their political and social institutions may be classed as barbarian. Though usually considered as hunting tribes, they were in reality largely agricultural, and not unlike the ancient Germans in organization. They were communistic in habit, holding their lands, and to some extent their houses, as common property. The tribes were divided into smaller sections on the basis of family, affinity, and governed by two sets of elected officers, -- the war-chiefs, selected for their valor, and the Sachems, or peace-officers, whose office was to a considerable extent hereditary. In the election of these officers the whole tribe took part, women as well as men having a vote. The religion of these tribes was of a low type, being a Shamanism of the same character as that of the Mongolian tribes of northern Asia. Demon-exorcising "medicine-men" were the priests of the tribes, and the conception of a supreme "Great Spirit," which has been attributed to them, was possibly derived from early intercourse with the whites, though it may have been an inheritance from the Mound-Builders.
The Indians of the southern United States, comprising the Creek confederacy and other tribes, were considerably move advanced in institutions and ideas. With them agriculture had attained an important development, and the lands were divided into fields on a communistic basis, they remaining the property of the tribe, though cultivated by separate families. The government was in the hands of a council of the principal chiefs, presided over by an officer called the Mico, corresponding to the Sachem of the north. His dignity was hereditary, and his power to some extent despotic. Warlike matters were controlled by a head chief, under whom were inferior chiefs. These chiefs were elected to their positions, and composed the council presided over by the Mico, whose authority was subject to their control. One peculiar feature of the Creek organization was the possession of a public storehouse, in which a portion of all products of the field and the chase had to be stored, for general distribution in case of need. This was under the sole control of the Mico.
The religious ideas were much superior to those of the northern tribes. Shamanistic worship and the medicine-man existed, but in addition to this there was a well developed system of sun-worship, with its temples, priests, and ceremonies. The sacred fire was preserved with the greatest assiduity, and when extinguished at the close of each year, to be rekindled with "new fire," serious calamities were feared. The Mico was looked upon as a high dignitary in this worship, and as, in some sort, a representative of the sun. The degree of despotism which he exercised was very probably in great measure due to this religious dignity and the superstition of the people.
But the most remarkable of the Indians of the United States was the small tribe of the Natchez, occupying a few villages east of the Mississippi at the period of Spanish and French discovery, and long since extinct. The language of this tribe is believed to have been quite unlike those of the neighboring tribes. Its political organization was a well-developed despotism, the ruler being a religious autocrat whose authority was beyond question. This dignitary was known as the Sun, and was looked upon as a direct and sacred descendant of the solar deity. All members of the royal caste were called Suns, and had special privileges. Beneath them was a nobility, while the common people were very submissive. The chiefs' dwellings were on mounds, and the mounds were also the seat of temples, in which the sacred fire was guarded with superstitious care by the priesthood. La Salle, who visited the Natchez in 1681-82, describes them as living in large adobe dwellings. The temple of the sun was adorned with the figures of three eagles, with their heads turned to the east. The Natchez possessed a completely-organized system of worship, with temples, idols, priests, keepers of sacred things, religious festivals, and the like, while the people were thoroughly under the control of their superstitions. The ruler had the power of life and death over the people, as also had his nearest female relative, who was known as the Woman Chief, and whose son succeeded to the throne. The extinguishment of the sacred fire in the temples was deemed the greatest calamity that could befall them. The death of the Sun cost the life of his guards and many of his subjects, while few of the principal persons died without human sacrifices. Captives taken in war were sacrificed to the sun, and their skulls displayed on the temples.
The customs and religious ceremonies of this tribe are of particular interest, as there is reason to believe that in the Natchez we have the most direct descendants of the Mound-Builders, and that in the despotism of their chief and the superstition of the people there survived until historical times the conditions under which the great works of the Mississippi Valley were erected. The destruction of the tribe by the early French colonists has been a serious loss to archaeological science.
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