Gallery of Fine Art Photography - Atlanta GA

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Southern Heritage – Indian Civilization

Lumière’s new exhibition Southern Heritage – 500 Years In The Making uses photography as a metaphor for the Heritage of the American South.
American history, as described by European settlers and their descendants, is often couched in terms of discovery, though native peoples arrived in the Americans many thousands of years before Europeans.
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At the end of the last Ice Age, tribes crossed the Bearing Land Bridge, which connected Asia to the Americas approximately 15,000 years ago. Scientists believe at this time, the Bering Land Bridge was a 600-mile wide region linking Siberia and Alaska. Once filled with small shrubs, which could be used to fuel fires and sustain human life, the Bering Land Bridge now lies underneath the waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas.
The Indian Confederations of the South were part of this 15,000-year-old American civilization. The largest of these, the Mississippians, occupied a wide expanse from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean for a thousand years. These industrious peoples constructed towns with plazas and earthen mounds surrounded by defensive fortifications made necessary by wars with regional tribes. The prime mound was usually topped by a temple for ritual and was the residence for the tribe’s chief.
Etowah Indian Mounds

Etowah Indian Mounds

One of the best examples of these mounds is the 54 acre Etowah Indian Mounds in Bartow County, Georgia, that was once home to several thousand Indians from 1000 AD to 1550 AD. According to the State of Georgia park service, the Etowah Mound is the most intact Mississippian site in the southeast and encompasses six earthen mounds, a plaza, village site, and a defensive ditch. By the time Hernando de Soto travel through the area in 1540, archaeologists generally agree that the Mississippian culture was in decline and the Etowah Mounds site was abandoned.
Mississippians tended to be small farmers who lived near rivers, which provided water and nutrients for crops. The social structure of these communities usually revolved around elites and commoners. However, social standing was not based on wealth and military power, as much as spiritual beliefs held dear by the tribes. Elites, like the chief and his family, were thought to have descended from deities such as the sun god, and therefore possessed unusual supernatural powers.
The Gaules, a branch of the Mississippian nation, occupied the area around the sea islands of Georgia and Carolina. It was the Gaules who welcomed French explorer Jean Ribault in 1562 at Parris Island, which is now part of South Carolina. Ribault, a protestant, played an important role in colonizing the southeastern region for France.
Two years after the landing at Parris Island, Ribault took command of Fort Carolina, a French colony in what is now Jacksonville, Florida. A larger Spanish force soon landed a few miles south near modern day St. Augustine, marched on Fort Caroline during a hurricane, easily destroyed the fledgling French outpost. Now the Spanish ruled over the land of the Gaules.
Gaule Village Site, on Darien River

Gaule Village Site, on Darien River

The British also desired this strategically located land. In 1661, a Gaule village at a Darien River site was destroyed by Westo Indians (allies of the British) in order to drive out the Spanish.
Eventually the Gaules came into conflict with Spanish missionaries. There was a general insurrection in 1597 during which most of the missionaries were killed and the missions destroyed. This led to the Spanish settlement with England in the “Disputed Territory” that is now Georgia. The Westos themselves were later driven from their village at the navigation head of the Savannah River (near what is now Augusta) by the Shawnee.
Like so much of American history, a look beneath the surface reveals a complicated and fluid world. For example, policies regarding treatment of the Indians by the Spanish, the French and the English were not uniform. Different European powers managed the Indians in ways driven by their individual economic interests and cultural beliefs.
Spanish flag

The Spanish

Sailing under a commission from Queen Isabella of Spain, Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola in 1492 and claimed the land for the Spanish Crown. When word reached Isabella, she immediately decreed that the natives were her subjects and were morally equal to all her other subjects including Spaniards. The Indians were to be treated humanely, without slavery, but she demanded they be converted to Christianity and taught European ways.
Columbus immediately disregarded her decree, and these Caribean Indians were treated as prisoners of war, forced to work and even to pay tribute – giving gold and other valuables – to the Spanish.
Some influential Spanish clergymen found these policies abhorrent, and tried to work out a more peaceful and just way of converting the Indians.
The Spanish built a mission system in the new world. “Beginning in the middle years of the sixteenth century, Spanish priests, with the support of the Crown, began to establish supervised communities in frontier areas. A few priests would go into an area, learn the local Indian dialect, and begin to preach the gospel. They would persuade the Indians to build a village, accept Christianity, and settle into a sedentary life. The process was extremely dangerous and sometimes the friars lost their lives; however, they often succeeded,” according to historical documents quoted in The Encyclopedia. By 1675, the Spanish ministered to 20,000 Indians at 35 missionaries in the Southeast.
However, the Spanish also treated the Indians with great brutality, compelling them to work as slaves, until their dwindling numbers, forced the Spanish to import slaves from Africa.
English flag

The English

The English settled Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, almost a century after the Spanish made their first permanent settlements in the New World. However, like the Spanish, the settlers were faced with co-existing with the Indians.
The English tried to trade trinkets, firearms and blankets with the Indians in exchange for furs. They also tried to buy land from the Indians, but since the Indians did not believe in a system of ownership and exchange of title, these attempts failed. In the. Indians had a spiritual relationship with the natural world – they did not think the earth was built for mankind to tame and parcel out in tracts.
Eventually, like the Spanish, the English tried to enslave the Indians and convert them to Christianity. However, they were far less successful in these endeavors than the Spanish, for several reasons. Most the English settlers were families, not single men or soldiers like the Spanish, so there was less intermingling of the races. Also the Indians of Virginia and the Carolinas did not die out as quickly as the Caribbean Indians that the Spanish first encountered.
While the English tried to convert Indians to Christianity, they did not go about it with the same ferocity and with an organized system of Missions, as the Spanish did. The English colonists basically set up towns that mimicked their villages back home in England. They did not invite the Indians to come and live with them in these towns. In 1651, the English did establish “praying towns” which were settlements where Indians were encouraged to live like Europeans and embrace Christianity.
The Encyclopedia, a resource that synthesizes original historical sources, gives a succinct account of the British attempts to manage the Indians:
In the English Colonies, the pattern was a succession of trade, attempts to secure land, misunderstanding, and conflict. The result was that the Indians were generally in retreat after the first few decades of the colonial period, especially as the Indians learned that close association with the colonists was likely to result in sickness and death from European disease, like smallpox. Efforts to enslave the Indians were given up fairly early and the effort to Christianize them, although part of the agenda of the early period of colonization, never developed as extensively as it did in Latin America. The most important difference, however, was the absence of intermarriage.
France flag

The French

The French colonies in the New World were generally organized around the fur trade, instead of agriculture. This meant they did not view the acquisition of Indian land as critical to their success as did the English. The French moved northward fairly early in the colonial period, as they were outmanned by the Spanish in Florida and coastal Georgia. The French exploited inter-tribal relationships to establish trade with the Huron, Montagnais and the Algonquin along the St. Lawrence River and inland towards the Great Lakes.
There are instances of French land grabs and brutality towards the Indians, such as their enslavement and sale of members of the Natchez tribe in the 1700s. French Jesuits also had some success in converting the Huron tribes to Christianity, though the French did not practice mass conversion as did the Spanish and English. The French colonists are generally considered by historians to be the most humane of the European powers.
The patterns established by the European leaders basically continued as colonists pushed ever westward, seizing or buying land as they expanded. After the American Revolution, the “new” Americans continued their journey towards the Pacific. This expansion guaranteed continual conflict, violence and a population shift favoring colonists, who became independent Americans.
When The United States Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, it established what was perhaps the most impactful example of Indian mistreatment, as the entire Cherokee nation was forced to leave their land.2 When by 1838 only 2,000 Cherokees had migrated, the U.S. government sent in 7,000 troops, who forced the remaining 16,000 Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. This began the march known as the Trail of Tears, during which 4,000 Cherokees died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.
2 John Alexander Williams, Western Carolina University
See a portion of the exhibition here: Southern Heritage.
Posted in: a Deeper Look

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