Southeastern Native American Rituals

I guest-posted at the Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History about working in Mexico’s National Archive and some other under-utilized archives for colonial Spanish documents. If you’re interested in archives, do also check out Casey Schmitt’s post about working in Spain, Hannah Bailey’s post about French archival work, Jessica Parr’s about research in London, Christopher F. Minty’s about archival work in North America, and Aaron Graham’s about researching in Jamaica.

Here, though, I want to springboard from a presentation I gave at William and Mary’s Graduate Research Symposium in 2015 about the role of Native American ritual as demonstrated in colonial documents. Insights from one expedition, and other historical documents, can speak to political and economic concerns of both historians and anthropologists as well as specific interpretations of Southeastern Indian materials recovered by archaeologists.

My translation of a 1790 report of a ferocious beast guarding a silver mine in Central Florida is now hosted on the Early Americas Digital Archive.  This translation was done in Allison’s Bigelow’s Colonial Translation course at William and Mary with help from her as well as Danielle Tassara, Hannah Berk, and Claire Gillespie in the course with comments also from Jack Martin, Stephanie Hasselbacher, and Felicity Meza-Luna. Cameron Strang has already published about this fascinating report in his 2013 William and Mary Quarterly article where he interprets the journal and related testimony of the expedition by Lower Creek Indian Yaolaychi, translator Alonso Hill, and a reputable gentleman Don Bartolomé de Castro y Ferrer. True to current trends in colonial history, his article provides a wealth of insight into geopolitical ramifications. However, what drew my attention and John Worth’s—who pointed me toward the document (as he has countless other resources!)—was ritual practice and place-making. To stereotype a bit, anthropological interpretations of such themes seem lacking in much historical research, while insights from colonial documents is similarly often missing in archaeological interpretations of prehistoric rituals and materials in Native North America.

Bernardo de Gálvez took advantage of the American Revolution to retake Florida from the British in 1781. He appointed Colonel Vicente Manuel de Céspedes y Velasco Governor of East Florida and a cousin, Bartolomé Benites y Gálvez, treasurer. Benites y Gálvez, in his role as treasurer, commissioned an expedition to search for a silver mine, and his documents in the East Florida Papers include a detailed journal the expedition and interrogation of Yaolaychi. From the 1770s-1790s, material by Bernard Romans, William Bartram, James Adair and others was published for an English-speaking audience, and their works have added a great deal of knowledge to Southeastern Native American conceptions of place. However, Yaolaychi’s interpretations (and perhaps manipulations of rivalries between the Governor and Treasurer of East Florida!) offer even more.

A wealth of place-names, translated by Jack Martin, dot the journal. Many are simply straightforward terms in Muscogee, e.g. “big spring” or “little spring” (oykeyw-oci) or “Water near the town of Itocome” (Oichitocome). Others speak of danger– Chitosase is Muscogee for “there are snakes there.” One reference in particular, though, speaks of reverence, even by the Spanish, who note a place where three rivers meet, describing it as a sort of pit, which is named YcanaJauque. This term literally means “Earth Door” or “Open Ground.”

“With His Breath He Attracts and Cuts the Spirit of the People,” is one of the phrases used to describe this beast and seems to refer to Creators of Southeastern Indians. For the Yuchi, ritual ceremony honors the “One who is Breath” who united the four winds and granted them life.[i] Perhaps even more relevant is the Mikasuki term for the Creator– fisahki:komihci—the maker of breath and life.[ii] Hitchiti, the dominant language of Yaolaychi’s hometown, was mutually intelligible with Mikasuki so this description as a deliberate reference to the power of creation seems plausible.

Alonso Hill interpreted Achuquilipalasco, what he called the beast, as meaning “very fierce animal.” This term is difficult to translate literally, but a term in the center, killi, is a Choctaw word that can mean either large or growling,[iii] which seems to fit Hill’s interpretation. To prepare for hunting it, Yaolaychi took off his clothes aside from a breech-cloth and spread musk over his face and neck, which matches other descriptions of hunting strategies. Yaolaychi described hearing the beast had a “head similar that of a bear; though without ears, or with anything adhered to the head, and with a gold-colored head and neck, whose tongue is parted in half in the form of scissors, or like a serpent, with a body looking like a bear, with a short tail. And, it had very tough skin, which he verified by its being shot at and rejecting bullets that instead rose up in powdered form, or like smoke at the spot where they were given.” He goes on to say “if it discovers a bird, deer, any other animal, even a man, it exhausts him, causing him to faint and be surprised so much that he cannot move or take any action, all of which is necessary for the beast to sustain itself.”


Drawing by Dessa Lightfoot

Yaolaychi nervously leads them around a mound, which he says is over the beast’s cave and the Spaniards agree the spot was noteworthy in being the only bit of non-flat land. After turning, Yaolachi sees the beast and runs away. Hill and Castro also “both saw the beast, which was on foot, heading to his cave, and they were able to observe that its head was as had been explained, its shining back and body so intensely silvered that the sunlight refracted off it in the same way as the moon shone off a mirror.”

Benitez y Galvez asked if other similar beasts existed elsewhere, and Yaolaychi mentioned one near the Cherokee Indians, another close to the town of Nocasuque, and another distant from the royal road of Tocoy to the north. Such a broad regional distribution of this belief seems likely—nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists have described similar creatures, such as Cherokee Uktena[iv] and enormous Horned Serpents.

Jackson Lewis[v] described the Horned Serpent, an animal present in many Southeastern Indian traditions, to John Swanton as “This snake lives in water and has horns like the stag. It is not a bad snake. It crawls out and suns itself near its hole. . . . It does not harm human beings but seems to have a magnetic power over game. If any game animal, such as a deer, comes near the place where this snake is lying it is drawn irresistibly into the water and destroyed…”[vi]

The tie to deer consumption is interesting, but this beast had disposed of a hunting party so may not match such a description as John Swanton collected over a century after the 1790 expedition. However, a similar magnetic power of a water-dwelling beast that guards power and metal, who can only be approached through ritual preparation, certainly ties with a variety of Southeastern and broader spiritual beliefs about Creation and the World.

These spiritual beliefs existed before European contact. Based on nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists such as John Swanton, archaeologists have interpreted hybrid animals like Yaolaychi’s Beast and Jackson Lewis’ Horned Serpent, as well as powerful thunderbirds and underwater panthers, as being both breathtaking and dangerous. At times, conflicts arose between these beings, as depicted as competing influences on pieces of art, such as this shell gorget of the Caddos of present-day Texas.

Other beings guarded nexuses between our World and Upper and Lower Worlds. This stylization of Mississippian-era worldviews by Jack Johnson and Kent Reilly includes a water panther in a cave under a mound, perhaps akin to Yaolachi’s beast.

upper_lower_worldsMississippian-era cosmos as interpreted by Kent Reilly and others, depiction by Jack Johnson. Incidentally, Kent Reilly is presenting “George Stuart and the Archaeological Site of Etowah, GA: The Imagery of Ritual and Symbolism in Mississippian Art” at the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington, DC on Friday June 10 from 6:15-8:45.

While the Spaniards were ignorant of any broader meaning behind the mine’s guardian, they may have participated in a ritual for safety and good fortune on the way home:
“During this morning, after they had passed a very bad night with a great deal of rain and cold, they made specific signals for the day, which were two clouds of smoke with gross herbs and tree moss and two musket-shots; then the same again. They hung a quilt in a tree, and made several other movements and fires to draw attention. But nothing was sufficient, and a second bad night happened.”

Common themes of Cherokee spells involved addressing the vulnerability of night using the power of smoke[vii], with one spell in particular involved draping cloth over a particular species of tree and wafting smoke from tobacco, gunpowder, and different herbs at daybreak. As was probably the case in 1790, knowledge of the specific materials needed for the ritual is restricted, which, coupled with the lack of concentrated interest by colonial Europeans, makes precise comparison of eighteenth-century to twentieth-century ritual practice difficult.

Strang’s 2013 article rightly considers this expedition in light of other Southeastern Native American stories of hunting and of spiritual danger. His perspective as a historian of science allows him to show that even in the eighteenth century, European officials could still be confused about their New World. But curious and stubborn Europeans like Benites y Galvez, when they utilized insight from Native Americans, offer more than just insight into geopolitics and science. These and other eighteenth-century documents[viii] remain underutilized by historians, archaeologists, and cultural anthropologists for connecting present-day anthropology of Native Americans to the colonial era and even a more distant past. This expedition, authorized by an irritated cousin of a war hero, and carried out by Spaniards ignorant of scientific methods that held a Lower Creek family hostage, only scratches the surface of eighteenth-century insights into Native American worldviews. Further interpretation of historical documents, even ones filed in financial papers, have so much more to say about the survival and transformation of Native American ritual and religion from prehistory to the present!

[i] Jason Baird Jackson 2003. Yuchi Ceremonial Life: Performance, Meaning, and Tradition in a Contemporary American Indian Community

[ii] Bill Grantham 2002. Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians.

[iii] Byington 1915 Dictionary of the Choctaw Language.

[iv] James Mooney 1902 Myths of the Cherokee

[v] Jackson Lewis’ great grandson published Creek Indian Medicine Ways: The Enduring Power of Mvskoke Religion

[vi] This quote, from Swanton’s 1927 “Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians” was quoted from pg 494 of the Creek Sourcebook edited in 1987 by William Sturtevant.

[vii] see Alan Kilpatrick’s 1997 The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee as well as work by his parents Jack F. and Anna G. Kilpatrick.

[viii] See for example Greg Keyes’ “Myth and Social History in the Early Southeast” pp. 106-115 of Patricia B. Kwachka’s 1994 edited volume Perspectives on the Southeast: Linguistics, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory.

About Patrick Johnson

I'm an anthropology PhD candidate studying archaeology and history of Southeastern Native Americans and writing a dissertation about the diplomatic and daily life of Yamasee Indians in eighteenth-century Florida. Find me at or if you're so inclined!
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