The term "Five Civilized Tribes" derives from the colonial and early federal period in the history of the United States. It refers to five Native American nations--the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. These are the first five tribes that European Americans generally considered to be "civilized". Examples of colonial attributes adopted by these five tribes, which led European Americans to label them civilized, include Christianity, centralized governments, literacy in English, market participation, written constitutions, intermarriage with white Americans, and plantation slavery practices. The Five Civilized Tribes tended to maintain stable political relations with the European Americans.
In 2021, discrimination against the Freedmen by the Five Tribes was noted in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, and was why the Freedmen asked Congress to withhold housing assistance money until tribes addressed their citizenship status. This came after the fact the Cherokee Nation had already updated its constitution to no longer exclude the Cherokee Freedmen.
The Five "Civilized" Tribes were indigenous peoples of the Americas who lived in the Southeastern United States. Most were descendants of what is now called the Mississippian culture, an agrarian culture that grew crops of corn and beans, with hereditary religious and political elites. The Mississippian Culture flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern United States from 800 to 1500. Before European contact these tribes were generally matrilineal societies. Agriculture was the primary economic pursuit. The bulk of the tribes lived in towns (some covering hundreds of acres and populated with thousands of people). These communities regulated their space with planned streets, subdivided into residential and public areas. Their system of government was hereditary. Chiefdoms were of varying size and complexity, with high levels of military organization.
George Washington and Henry Knox implemented a policy of cultural transformation in relation to Native Americans. The Cherokee and Choctaw tended, in turn, to adopt and appropriate certain cultural aspects of the federation of colonies. At the time of the Declaration of Independence, the culture of the United States as a nation was, itself, emergent. Many of the cultural practices appropriated by The Five Tribes were ones that they found useful.
In the early part of the 19th century, the U.S. government initiated a displacement of the existing societies living east of the Mississippi River, including The Five Tribes, to lands west of the river. This federally legislated displacement initiative, dubbed the Indian Removal, forced a significant number of the Five Tribes to Indian Territory in other parts of the North American continent over several decades, many to what later became Oklahoma Territory. The most infamous removal was the Cherokee Trail of Tears of 1838, when President Martin Van Buren enforced the contentious Treaty of New Echota with the Cherokee Nation.
During the American Civil War, the politics of the Five Tribes were divergent. The Choctaw and Chickasaw fought predominantly alongside the Confederates while the Seminole fought alongside the Union. The Cherokee fought a civil war within their own nation between the majority Confederates and the minority, pro-Union camps. Despite attempts to remain neutral, the Creek were attacked by Confederate forces in the first three battles fought in Indian Territory. Creeks eventually fought both for the Union and for the Confederacy. As an element in Reconstruction after the Civil War, new Reconstruction Treaties were signed with the indigenous nations that had entered into treaties with the Confederate States of America.
Once the tribes had been relocated to Indian Territory, the United States government promised that their lands would be free of white settlement. Some settlers violated that with impunity, even before 1893, when the government opened the "Cherokee Strip" to outside settlement in the Oklahoma Land Run. In 1907, the Oklahoma Territory and the Indian Territory were merged to form the state of Oklahoma. Relative to other states, all Five Tribes are represented in significant numbers in the population of Oklahoma today.
Washington promulgated a doctrine that held that American Indians were biologically equals, but that their society was inferior. He formulated and implemented a policy to encourage the "civilizing" process, which Thomas Jefferson continued. The noted Andrew Jackson historian Robert Remini wrote "they presumed that once the Indians adopted the practice of private property, built homes, farmed, educated their children, and embraced Christianity, these Native Americans would win acceptance from white Americans. Washington's six-point plan included impartial justice toward Indians; regulated buying of Indian lands; promotion of commerce; promotion of experiments to civilize or improve Indian society; presidential authority to give presents; and punishing those who violated Indian rights. The government appointed agents, like Benjamin Hawkins, to live among Indians and to encourage them, through example and instruction, to live like whites. The tribes of the southeast adopted Washington's policy as they established schools, took up yeoman farming practices, converted to Christianity, and built homes similar to those of their colonial neighbors.
How different would be the sensation of a philosophic mind to reflect that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended. But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America - This opinion is probably more convenient than just.-- Henry Knox, Notes to George Washington from Henry Knox.
The Cherokee, (; Cherokee: , romanized: Aniyvwiya?i) are people of the Southeastern United States, principally upland Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. They speak an Iroquoian language. In the 19th century, historians and ethnographers recorded their oral tradition that told of the tribe having migrated south in ancient times from the Great Lakes region, where other Iroquoian-speaking peoples were.
Of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) have headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. The UKB are mostly descendants of "Old Settlers", Cherokee who migrated to Arkansas and Oklahoma about 1817. They are related to the Cherokee who were forcibly relocated there in the 1830s under the Indian Removal Act. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is on the Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina, and are descendants of those who resisted or avoided relocation. In addition, there are numerous Cherokee heritage groups throughout the United States, such as the satellite communities sponsored by the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee tribe is the largest tribe in the nation, having 729,533 members.
The Chickasaw are Indian people of the United States who originally resided along the Tennessee River and other parts of Tennessee, west of present-day Huntsville, Alabama, parts of Mississippi and the southwest side of Kentucky. They spoke some French and some English. Some historians credit the Chickasaws' intervention in the French and Indian War on the side of the British as decisive in ensuring that the United States became an English-speaking nation. Originating further west, the Chickasaw moved east of the Mississippi River long before European contact. All historical records indicate the Chickasaw lived in northeastern Mississippi from the first European contact until they were forced to remove to Oklahoma, where most now live. They are related to the Choctaws, who speak a similar language, both forming the Western Group of the Muskogean languages. "Chickasaw" is the English spelling of Chikasha (Muskogee pronunciation: [t?ika?:a]), that either means "rebel" or "comes from Chicsa". The Chickasaw are divided in two groups: the "Impsaktea" and the "Intcutwalipa". The Chickasaws were one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" who went to the Indian Territory during the era of Indian Removal. Unlike other tribes, who exchanged land grants, the Chickasaw received financial compensation from the United States for their lands east of the Mississippi River. The Chickasaw Nation is the thirteenth largest federally recognized tribe in the United States. The Chickasaws built some of the first banks, schools, and businesses in Indian territory. They also signed a treaty with the Southern United States during the Civil War and brought troops to fight for the Confederates.
The Choctaw are Native American people originally from the Southeastern United States (Mississippi, Alabama and, to a lesser extent, Louisiana). There were about 20,000 members of this tribe when they were forced to move to Indian territory. Many of them did not survive. They are of the Muskogean linguistic group. The word Choctaw (also rendered as Chahta, Chato, Tchakta, and Chocktaw) is possibly a corruption of the Spanish chato, meaning flattened, in allusion to the tribe's custom of flattening the heads of infants. Noted anthropologist John Swanton, however, suggests that the name belonged to a Choctaw leader. They were descended from people of the Mississippian culture which was located throughout the Mississippi River valley. The early Spanish explorers, according to the historian Walter Lee Williams, encountered their ancestors. Although smaller Choctaw groups are located in the southern region, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians are the two primary Choctaw associations. This tribe was predominantly farmers (like most Indians were at the time) until they were removed from their land. They have grown substantially since the Trail of Tears and there are currently about 231,000 members, making the Choctaw the third largest Native American population in the United States. The capital of the Choctaw Nation is currently located in Tuskahoma, Oklahoma.
The Creek, or Muscogee, are originally from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama. They resided there from approximately 1500 AD until they were forcibly displaced by the American Government in the early 19th century. Mvskoke is their name in traditional spelling. The Muscogee Creek tribe was not one tribe but a group of several, each of which had their own distinct land. Starting in 1836, the American government forced them to travel west of the Mississippi along with the other civilized tribes to "Indian territory". About 20,000 Muscogee members were forced to walk the Trail of Tears, the same amount as the Choctaws. Modern Muscogee live primarily in Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Their language, Mvskoke, is a member of the Creek branch of the Muskogean language family. The Seminole are related to the Muscogee and speak a Creek language as well.
Federally recognized Creek tribes included the Muscogee Creek Nation, Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Alabama, Alabama-Quassarte Tribal Town, Kialegee Tribal Town, Thlopthlocco Tribal Town, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.
The Seminole are a Native American people originally of Florida and now residing in Florida and Oklahoma. The Seminole nation came into existence in the 18th century and was composed of renegade and outcast Native Americans from Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama, most significantly the Creek Nation, as well as African Americans who escaped from slavery in South Carolina and Georgia. While roughly 3,000 Seminoles were forced west of the Mississippi River, including the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, who picked up new members along the way, approximately 300 to 500 Seminoles stayed and fought in and around the Everglades of Florida. In a series of United States wars against the Seminoles in Florida, about 1,500 U.S. soldiers died. The Seminoles never surrendered to the US government, and consequently the Seminole of Florida call themselves the "Unconquered People". Federally recognized Seminole tribes today include the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Seminole Tribe of Florida. For about twenty years after the move to Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Seminoles refused to live with the Muscogee Creek tribe or under their Government until they finally reached an agreement with the Government to sign a treaty and live with them. The Seminoles favored the North during the Civil War and remained loyal to the Union and proceeded to move north into Kansas.
The term "civilized" has historically been used to distinguish the Five Tribes from other Native American groups that were formerly often referred to as "wild" or "savage". Texts written by non-indigenous scholars and writers have used words like "savage" and "wild" to identify Indian groups that retained their traditional cultural practices after European contact. As a consequence of evolving attitudes toward ethnocentric word usage and more rigorous ethnographical standards, the term "Five Civilized Tribes" is rarely used in contemporary academic publications.
The word "civilized" was used by whites to refer to the Five Tribes, who, during the 18th and early 19th centuries, actively integrated Anglo-American customs into their own cultures. Sociologists, anthropologists, and interdisciplinary scholars alike are interested in how and why these native peoples assimilated certain features of the alien culture of the white settlers who were encroaching on their lands. The historian Steve Brandon asserts that this "adaptation and incorporation of aspects of white culture" was a tactic employed by the Five Nations peoples to resist removal from their lands. While the term "Five Civilized Tribes" has been institutionalized in federal government policy to the point that the US Congress passed laws using the name, the Five Nations themselves have been less accepting of it in formal matters, and some members have declared that grouping the different peoples under this label is effectively another form of colonization and control by white society. Other modern scholars have suggested that the very concept of "civilization" was internalized by individuals who belonged to the Five Nations, but because much of Native North American history has been communicated by oral tradition, little scholarly research has been done to substantiate this.
In present-day commentary on Native American cultures, the term "civilized" is contentious and not commonly used in academic literature. Some commentators, including the Indian activist Vine Deloria Jr., have asserted that it is demeaning and implies that the indigenous peoples of the North American continent were "uncivilized" before their contact with the habits, customs, and beliefs of Anglo-American settlers. The term is based on the assumption that different peoples possess objective "degrees" of civilization that may be assessed and raises the question of just what qualities define "civilization". Consequently, it is considered a judgmental term whose meaning is dependent on the user's perspective, and thus best avoided.
The Five Tribes participated in Native American slave ownership and enslaved black people before and during the American Civil War. They supported the Confederacy during the war, severing ties with the federal government, because they were promised their own state if the Confederacy won. After the end of the war, the U.S. required these tribes to make new peace treaties, and to emancipate their slaves. They were required to offer full citizenship in their tribes to those freedmen who wanted to stay with the tribes. Numerous families had intermarried by that time or had other personal ties. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared all slaves in the Confederacy--states in rebellion and not under the control of the Union--to be permanently free. It did not end slavery in the five border states that had stayed in the Union. Slavery everywhere was abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in December 1865. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, passed over the veto of President Andrew Johnson, gave ex-slaves full citizenship (except for voting) in the United States. The Fourteenth Amendment was passed to make clear that Congress had the legal authority to do so. The Fifteenth Amendment gave voting rights to all adult males; only adult males had the franchise among whites. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are known as the "civil rights amendments", the "post-Civil War amendments", and the "Reconstruction Amendments".
To help freedmen transition from slavery to freedom, including a free labor market, President Abraham Lincoln created the Freedmen's Bureau, which assigned agents throughout the former Confederate states. The Bureau also founded schools to educate freedmen, both adults and children; helped freedmen negotiate labor contracts; and tried to minimize violence against freedmen. The era of Reconstruction was an attempt to establish new governments in the former Confederacy and to bring freedmen into society as voting citizens. Northern church bodies, such as the American Missionary Association and the Freewill Baptists, sent teachers to the South to assist in educating freedmen and their children, and eventually established several colleges for higher education. U.S. Army occupation soldiers were stationed throughout the South via military districts enacted by the Reconstruction Acts; they protected freedmen in voting polls and public facilities from violence and intimidation by white Southerners, which were common throughout the region.
In the late 20th century, the Cherokee Nation voted for restrictions on membership to only those descendants of people listed as "Cherokee by blood" on the Dawes Rolls of the early 20th century, a decision that excluded most Cherokee Freedmen (by that time this term referred to descendants of the original group). In addition to arguing that the post-Civil War treaties gave them citizenship, the Freedmen have argued that the Dawes Rolls were often inaccurate, recording as freedmen even those individuals who had partial Cherokee ancestry and were considered Cherokee by blood. The Choctaw Freedmen and Creek Freedmen have similarly struggled with their respective tribes over the terms of citizenship in contemporary times. (The tribes have wanted to limit those who can benefit from tribal citizenship, in an era in which gaming casinos are yielding considerable revenues for members.) The majority of members of the tribes have voted to limit membership, and as sovereign nations, they have the right to determine their rules. Descendants of freedmen believe their long standing as citizens since the post-Civil War treaties should be continued. In 2017 the Cherokee Freedmen were granted citizenship again in the tribe. The Cherokee Nation was the first to update its constitution to include the Cherokee Freedmen as full citizens.
Because the Chickasaw allied with the Confederacy, after the Civil War the United States government required the nation to make a new peace treaty in 1866. It included the provision that they emancipate the enslaved African Americans and provide full citizenship to those who wanted to stay in the Chickasaw Nation. Today, the Choctaw-Chickasaw Freedmen Association of Oklahoma represents the interests of freedmen descendants in both of these tribes. But the Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma never granted citizenship to their Freedmen. The only way that African Americans could become citizens of the Chickasaw Nation at that time was to have one or more Chickasaw parents or to petition for citizenship and go through the process available to other non-Natives, even if they were of known partial Chickasaw descent in an earlier generation. Because the Chickasaw Nation did not provide citizenship to their freedmen after the Civil War (it would have been akin to formal adoption of individuals into the tribe), they were penalized by the U.S. Government. It took more than half of their territory, with no compensation. They lost territory that had been negotiated in treaties in exchange for their use after removal from the Southeast.
In 2021, the Five Tribes made headlines as a group when the Cherokee Freedmen asked Congress to withhold housing assistance money until tribes addressed their citizenship status. This came after the fact the Cherokee Nation had already updated its constitution to no longer exclude the Cherokee Freedmen. In 2018, congress removed the blood quantum requirement for land allotment for the Five Tribes, though it had not been a tribal citizenship requirement. However, even "so-called purely 'descendancy' tribes such as the Five Tribes with no blood quantum requirement jealously guard some proven, documentary link by blood to distant ancestors. More than any single BIA requirement, however, this criterion has proven troublesome for southeastern groups [seeking federal recognition] because of its reliance on non-Indian records and the confused (and confusing) nature of surviving documents." The Five Tribes have also had a hand in shaping the current BIA Federal Acknowledgment Process for other tribes.