I’m reading yet another wonderful book, American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor, and I wanted to share a passage that might shake up your ideas about “ancient tribes.” After describing the grim consequences of the Spaniards’ delusion that there had to be more rich cities laden with gold and silver somewhere north of Mexico, including the devastation of Mississippian culture caused by Hernando De Soto‘s 1539-43 expedition, Taylor says:
The demographic and cultural disaster profoundly disrupted the geography of power in the Mississippi watershed. At the time of Soto’s expedition, the densely settled villages of the powerful chiefdoms occupied the fertile valleys. Poorer and weaker peoples dwelled in small, scattered villages in the less fertile hills, where they lacked the means to sustain a centralized chiefdom. After Soto’s invasion and epidemics, the hill peoples became comparatively powerful as the valley chiefdoms collapsed. Indeed, the dispersed hill peoples suffered less severely from the microbes that fed most destructively on the human concentrations in the lowland towns. And the upland peoples absorbed refugees fleeing from the valleys to escape the epidemics.
In the depopulated valleys, forests and wildlife gradually reclaimed the abandoned maize and bean fields, while the refugees farmed the less fertile but safer hills. The resurgent wildlife included bison, common in the southeast by 1700 but never sighted by Soto’s conquistadores 160 years before. Far from timeless, the southeastern forest of the eighteenth century was wrought by the destructive power of a sixteenth-century European expedition. Soto had created an illusion of a perpetual wilderness where once there had been a populous and complex civilization.
By 1700, the paramount chiefdoms encountered by Soto had collapsed, with one exception: the Natchez people dwelling along the lower Mississippi River. Elsewhere, the paramount chiefdoms gave way to loose new confederations of smaller and more autonomous villages. The new chiefs possessed little coercive power; their people built them no pyramids; and their graves contained no human sacrifices. Eighteenth-century colonists called the principal confederacies the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Cherokee.
The new confederations exemplified the widespread process of colonial “ethnogenesis”—the emergence of new ethnic groups and identities from the consolidation of many peoples disrupted by the invasion of European peoples, animals, and microbes. Scholars used to assume that nineteenth-century Indian nations were direct and intact survivors from time immemorial in their homelands. In fact, after 1700 most North American Indian “tribes” were relatively new composite groups formed by diverse refugees coping with the massive epidemics and collective violence introduced by colonization.
The more history I study, the more I realize how fluid, permeable, and ever-changing are the human groupings we have been taught to think of as fixed and ancient. Once again: there is no such thing as purity.