Southeastern Indian Hunting

While the Indian nations of the American Southeast were an agricultural people, they used hunting to supplement their diet. Just as these nations held their agricultural lands in common, so too were hunting territories held in common. While agricultural lands were assigned to clans or family lineages, there was no assignment of use rights for hunting lands.

In general, the most important animal in the Southeast was the deer whose flesh was used as food; its skin was used for clothing; its horns were made into arrow points; its hooves were made into rattles; its sinews used for sewing and binding; and its bones were fashioned into a variety of articles. A typical Creek family, for example, needed about 25-30 deerskins per year. The white-tailed deer provided 50 to 90 percent of the protein eaten.

Hunters would range as far as 300 miles from their towns while hunting for deer. While these extended hunts were conducted by men, they were accompanied by women and by some children. These hunts were usually conducted in the winter – beginning in November or December and ending in February or March.

During the rutting season – September through November – deer would be hunted using a technique in which a deer-head decoy was used to attract bucks into range. There were, however, two drawbacks to this technique: (1) rutting bucks are very aggressive and sometimes would attack the hunters, and (2) the decoys were so realistic that hunters were sometimes accidentally shot by other hunters.

Communal hunts, which could involve as many as 300 hunters, would use a fire surround to force the deer into a small area where they could be easily shot. In using this technique, an area up to five miles in circumference would be set on fire.

Before the coming of the Europeans, the primary big game hunting weapon was the bow and arrow, which was very accurate up to 40 yards. Some hunters could hit targets at 100 yards. The bows resembled the English longbow and were five to six feet in length. The arrows were tipped with bone points or with garfish scales. To provide greater accuracy, the arrows were fletched (feathered), often using turkey feathers. Hunters usually protected their wrists with bowguards made from leather or bark.

Another important game animal was the black bear. The bear provided both food and skins. In addition, Indians extracted an oil from the fat of the bear which was used in both cooking and curing. Bears were usually hunted in the winter while they were hibernating. The hunters would set fire to the bear’s den—usually a hollowed out tree—and then shoot it as it emerged to escape the fire.

The Seminole prized both bear meat and the oil extracted from the fat. Whenever a bear was seen, a hunting party would be organized and the animal would be tracked to its hiding place and killed.

While the bison was not as important to the Southeastern Indians as it was to the Plains Indians, it was still an important animal. Prior to the coming of the Europeans, there were moderately large bison herds in Tennessee.

The meat from deer and bison was dried over a fire. Meat dried in this fashion could be kept for several months without spoiling. Often a smoky fire, fueled by green hickory wood, was used. This gave the meat a smoked flavor.

Other important game animals included beaver, otter, raccoon, muskrat, opossum, squirrel, and rabbit. Small game and birds were often hunted with a blowgun. A hollowed piece of cane, 7 to 9 feet in length, would be used to make the blowgun. The darts were made of hardwood and would be 10 to 22 inches in length. The blowguns were accurate up to about 60 feet. No poison was used on the darts and larger animals were usually shot in the eye.

Turkeys provided an important source of both food and feathers. Both the Timucua and the Apalachee used circular fire drives in taking turkeys.

Another important and abundant bird was the passenger pigeon (now extinct) which was hunted at night during the winter. The hunters would use torches to blind the passenger pigeons which were roosting in the trees. The birds would then be knocked down with long poles.

The Indian people along the Mississippi flyway and the coastal plain also took advantage of the immense number of waterfowl. Waterfowl were usually hunted from the middle of October until the middle of April.

Along the coastal plain, the Indian people also used turtles, terrapins, alligators, crawfish, crabs, clams, mussels, and oysters for food. Among the Yamasee, turtles were considered a prize food, not only for its flesh and eggs, but also for the fact that its seasonal appearance was unfailing. Among the Timucua, alligators were hunted by thrusting a long pole (about ten feet long) down their throats. The reptile would then be flipped over on its back and arrows shot into its soft belly.

The Seminole would “fire-hunt” alligators: they would use a burning torch which would dazzle the animal. The bewildered alligator would then be speared by a hunter in a canoe. Alligator hides were placed on scaffolds to dry.

Some Florida groups, such as the Tekesta and the Seminole, also hunted manatee, a large herbivorous aquatic mammal. In the winter, the Tekesta would hunt manatee from canoes. Hunters would harpoon the manatee as they rose to the surface for air.

Among the Creek, hunting included a number of rituals which enabled the hunters to show respect for the animals. According to historian Joel Martin, in his book Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World:

“Native hunters did not kill game animals, consume the meat, or take the skin without carefully considering their actions.”

Prior to the hunt, the hunters would ask for the support of the spirits of the hunt and they would sing songs to draw the animals closer.

Hunters often burned the undergrowth in small patches of forest. Regularly burning the vegetation resulted in a managed environment that supported a fairly large number of deer. According to historian Daniel Usner, in his book Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783:

“These controlled fires both enhanced the nutritional quality of the plants that deer browsed on and eased the passage for the animals through the woods.”

This artificially stimulated the number of deer in the area.

In South Florida, historian James Covington, in his book The Seminoles of Florida, reports:

“Every spring the Seminoles set the dry grass and trees on fire so that new growth would attract the deer and turkeys.”

Southeastern Agriculture

When the Spanish first arrived in what is now the Southeastern United States, they found Indian nations that had been agriculturalists for more than a thousand years. In 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto landed in Tampa Bay (Florida) with a large force and began marching north. The Spanish report that they passed by many great fields of corn, beans, squash, and other plants. In one instance they reported that the fields ran for two leagues (approximately 4-5 miles) and that they spread out for as far as the eye could see on either side of the roadway. It is estimated that this represented more than 10,000 acres under cultivation.

Crops (primarily corn, beans, squash, and tobacco) were planted along the creeks and bottomlands near the villages. The area would be first cleared by cutting and burning. The ashes of the burnt wood and cane would then nourish the crops. In addition to the primary crops, the Indians of the Southeast also raised sunflowers, pumpkins, sumpweed, chenopodium, pigweed, knotweed, giant ragweed, canary grass, amaranth, and melons.  

In order to obtain a maximum yield from their fields, the Southeastern Indians practiced both intercropping and multiple cropping. Intercropping involved planting several different kinds of plants together in the same field. By planting corn and beans together, for example, the bean vines could twine themselves around the corn stocks.  

One interesting aspect to intercropping was the practice of leaving and/or planting trees in cultivated fields that yielded nuts and fruits. This practice helped maintain long-term soil fertility. These trees included cherries, white and red mulberries, persimmons, walnuts, chestnuts, plums, and dwarf chinquapins. In addition to helping provide nutrients, the trees also attracted birds. The birds, in turned, helped to restrain the insect population in the fields.

Multiple cropping involves the planting of two successive crops in the same field. Thus, early corn was planted first. It ripened early and was picked green. Then the field would be cleared and a second crop was planted. However, double-cropping drains soil fertility unless there was some method of restoring nutrients to the soil. It is evident from both historical accounts and from the archaeological record that the Southeastern nations retained their fields for long periods of time and therefore must have replenished soil fertility.

The farming practices of the Southeastern Indians did not rapidly exhaust the soil. They planted beans with corn, thus offsetting the latter’s great consumption of nitrogen. They also carefully hoed the fields to avoid eroding the land. Among the Yamasee, who planted their fields near lagoons and marshes, the cultivated areas were regularly rotated to avoid soil exhaustion.

There is another important reason for raising both corn and beans. While corn supplies some essential protein, it lacks the amino acid lysine. On the other hand, lysine is abundant in beans. Thus, when beans and corn are eaten together they are a good source of vegetable protein.

As a fresh vegetable, squash was often used in stews. It was also sun dried, which concentrates the sugar so that dried squash could be cooked as a sweet dish.

A number of tribes in Florida, including the Timucua and the Calusa, cultivated a tuber known as Zamia. The Zamia plant appears to have been introduced into Florida by the ancestors of the historic Calusa from a source area in the Caribbean islands.

Not all cultivated plants were food plants. The Southeastern Indians also grew bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria). When cured, the bottle gourd has a hard shell that is very light and difficult to break. Bottle gourds were used for making water vessels, dippers, ladles, bowls, cups, rattles, masks, and bird houses. Tobacco was also grown.

Unlike the Europeans, the Indians of the Southeastern Woodlands did not view land as private property. Land was held in common with individuals and families having use rights. These farming rights were held as long as they continued to use the land. Use rights were generally respected and an individual or family would not seek access to a piece of land until it had been abandoned.

Among the Creeks, the amount of land under cultivation at each town would be increased whenever a child was born. To determine the amount of land needed by the town, a census would be taken each year.

The fields were worked communally. The entire field was not tilled, but rather worked into small hills about a foot in diameter which were spaced about three feet apart and which were laid out in straight lines. This method of preparation prevented soil erosion and preserved the fertility of the soil longer than did the plow-agriculture introduced by the later European colonists.

Among the Seminole, everyone in the village helped keep the crops healthy until they could be harvested. During the day, the children and the older people would drive away the nuisance birds. At night, the men would patrol the fields to keep the nocturnal animals away. Deer, bear, and raccoon were fond of Seminole crops.

The Cherokee built large scaffolds in their fields so that they could watch for crows and raccoons. During the summer, elderly women would sit on the scaffolds watching the fields. They would attempt to scare away animals which might eat the crops.  

Fields were cultivated with handled implements that the first Europeans described as hoes. These implements had blades of stone, oyster, mussel shell, fishbone, or wood. In addition, they used a digging stick for making holes into which the seeds were planted.

An important part of agriculture is the ability to store the harvested crops in such a way that they are kept safe from mice and other animals. To do this, the Southeastern Indians built corn cribs which were raised 7-8 feet on posts. The posts were polished so that the mice could not climb them. The crib itself was plastered and the door was sealed. When corn was taken from the crib, the seal would be broken, the door opened, some of the corn removed, and then the closed door was resealed to protect the corn which remained in the crib.

The early European settlers were amazed at the number of different ways that the Indians prepared corn. It is estimated that there were at least 42 different ways of preparing corn, each with its own name. Corn was processed into hominy which has been described as the staff of life for the Southeastern Indians. This process involved the use of wood-ash lye which selectively enhanced the nutritional value of the corn by increasing amino acid lysine and niacin. This protects people who eat a corn-based diet against pellagra.

To produce the wood-ash, the Choctaw women would pour cold water over clean wood ashes placed in a hopper. This would produce a yellow lye which would drip down into a small container. This lye would then be added to the cornmeal.

Among the Choctaw, corn was made into paluska holbi, which was a kind of bread. Boiling water would be poured into cornmeal, which was then pounded into a stiff dough, and shaped into small rolls. These rolls were then wrapped in corn husks and cooked under hot ashes. For a richer taste, they would add chestnut or hickory oil to the cornmeal.

Another Choctaw cornbread was bunaha. This was prepared by mixing dried beans, wild potatoes, and/or hickory with the cornmeal. The rolls of this mixture, wrapped in cornhusks, were then boiled in water.

As with tribes in other parts of North America, the tribes of the Southeast raised and gathered tobacco which was used for smoking. Among the Choctaw, tobacco was mixed with the leaves of other plants when used for smoking.

Many of the tribes also cultivated plums, particularly the Chickasaw plum (Prunus chicàsa). Later Europeans described this as a wild plant and failed to notice that it was found only near abandoned Indian fields.  

The Green Corn Ceremony

For the Indian nations of the Southeastern United States-Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Timucua, and others-corn (maize) was their single most important food. Therefore, corn also played an important part in their religious and ceremonial life.

One of the important ceremonies among the people of the Southeastern Woodlands was the Green Corn Ceremony or puskita (which became Busk in English) which was an expression of gratitude for a successful corn crop. The ceremony was held after the harvest and was a time for renewing life. Old fires were put out, the villages were cleaned, and worn pottery was broken. The Busk would be held when the first corn crop became edible.  This ceremony celebrated both the crop and the sense of community that shaped their lives.  

Among the Creek, the Green Corn Ceremony was held during the Big Ripening Moon (July-August) and was linked to the ripening of the second crop of corn. The ceremony lasted for 8 days in the important towns and for 4 days in the smaller towns. The intent of the ceremony was to rekindle a sense of the sacredness of life. The Busk was marked with a sense of renewal and forgiveness. It included singing, dancing, moral lectures, thanksgiving, and feasting. During the Busk, a new fire would be kindled in the town square. A pure fire would enable the people to communicate their wants to the Maker of Breath, the purifying power that rebalanced the cosmos.

The Green Corn Ceremony was also associated with the quest for spiritual purity. Fasting – one of the principle ways of attaining purity – was an important element in the ceremony. Among the Chickasaw, the fast started on the first afternoon of the ceremony and lasted until the second sunrise. Following the fast an emetic was used to purge the body of all impurities.

Among the Cherokee, the Green Corn Ceremony was the time when people were to forgive debts, grudges, adultery, and all crimes (with the exception of murder).

Among some groups, such as the Tuckabahchee and the Seminole, the Green Corn Ceremony was the time when sacred objects, such as brass and copper plates and medicine bundles, were renewed and publicly displayed. Among the Seminole, this is the time when the medicine bundle is renewed.

With regard to the Seminole’s Green Corn Dance, Danny Billie says:

“It defines who we are and what we are as traditional Indian people. It is the heart and soul of the traditional Seminole way of life.”