Creek Religion and Medicine

Creek Religion and Medicine

Creek Religion and Medicine

Creek Religion and Medicine


Weaving together a wide array of historical sources with oral accounts gathered from fieldwork, this classic study provides a valuable overview of traditional Creek (Muskogee) religion and medicine. John R. Swanton visited the Creek Nation in the early twentieth century and learned about many important aspects of Creek religious life and medicine. Subjects covered in this book include Creek conceptions of the cosmos; religious stories; death and the afterlife; spiritual forces and beings; various rituals, including the Busk ceremony; prohibitions; the power and skills of different religious practitioners; the cultural force of witchcraft; and herbal and spiritual remedies. Many of these beliefs and practices have been present throughout Creek history and persist today. Creek Religion and Medicine showcases the vibrant culture of an enduring southeastern Native people.


James T. Carson

I read Creek Religion and Medicine as an undergraduate, well before I had ever heard of ethnohistory. Not until my doctoral studies some years later did I come across ethnohistory as a methodology for studying the Native American past. the timing was important not just for my own development as a scholar but for the evolution of the subject as a whole. in the study of the Native Southeast, there is no chickenand-egg question to bedevil students and scholars. Swanton came first, ethnohistory came second, and the field has developed in such a way that what was written in the early decades of the twentieth century continues to shape scholarship as the new century begins.

John Swanton worked for the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology for more than forty years. He searched archives for historical documents that shed light on indigenous cultures, and he spent a lot of time in the field speaking with Native informants about their beliefs and their memories of the past. Swanton published his findings in dozens of articles and several books on topics as wide ranging as language, religion, and folktales, and one would be hard pressed to name a more influential figure in the development of Native American history. This book was published originally in 1928 under the title Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians in the forty-second annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, and it has had an enormous impact on how historians have written about the Native South.

What makes the book important is Swanton's identification of basic underlying features of Native culture in written historical sources and in contemporaneous oral testimony. Besides the circles and crosses that cropped up regularly in Creek dances, ceremonies, and rituals, he also pointed out the enduring importance of fire to Creek conceptions of their universe. Fire lay at the center of Creek religion not just as an earthly representation of their greatest spirit but as an everyday manifestation of their relationship to their creator. Medicines and dances tied the people to the animals and plants that inhabited the world around them and offered them tools with which they could both combat diseases and other misfortunes and commemorate their triumphs.

For all his ability to comb archival sources and catalog cultural features, however, Swanton rarely engaged in overt analysis. the task of transforming his initial findings into an applicable body of theory about southeastern Indian culture fell to later generations of scholars. Angie Debo was one of the first historians to study the Creeks, and she relied on Creek Religion and Medicine to ground her study of . . .

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