Between 1820 and 1870, five Indian nations in the southeast adopted constitutions, engaged in for-profit cotton export, created tribal school systems, established courts, police, and remained economically and politically independent and self-sufficient. The five nations—Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole also retained many forms of traditional culture within their new constitutions and ceremonial life.
The Creeks and Seminole honored the traditional political and cultural autonomy of villages, and villages remained the primary political unit of their nations. Throughout the five nations, in some villages Christian church communities replaced village communities, and many village communities spread out over the land, while retaining ceremonies and dancing within the old village centers, or stomp grounds.
Each member or family maintained their own livelihood on a share of tribal land that was used along traditional lines of use and occupancy. Before the Civil War, some entrepreneurs used black slave labor to support plantations and export of cotton. Many became wealthy. Most tribal members maintained small farms, and traded cotton, corn, cattle, hogs and furs to purchase necessities and luxury manufactured goods. After the Civil War, the entrepreneurial classes turned to cattle grazing, and managing tenant farmers, who were U.S. citizens who lived on tribal land at the invitation of a tribal member. There were no paupers among the five nations.
The level of political and economic freedom and institutional innovation found in the southeast nations between 1820 and 1870 has not been matched even by the self-determination policies and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the present. Many American Indian tribes are currently looking for pathways to economic, political and cultural sustainability and autonomy. It can be helpful to understand where tribal communities have flourished, as in the southeast, among the so-called Five Civilized Tribes.
A key to understanding the extraordinary patterns of autonomy and change in the southeast is that the U.S. government had not yet fully established administrative control over the southeastern nations. After 1870 to the present, the U.S. increased political, legal, and bureaucratic control over Indian nations, and only in the last few decades have tribal nations begun to extract themselves from direct external management.
Tribal governments became economically and politically dependent on federal administration and funding. Tribes still operate under many constraints. Trust land is managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and often tribal members receive rents for small pieces of jointly held land. Poverty remains a major issue. Economically, the southeastern nations made their own decisions about accepting and working within the cotton export industry. The majority made the transition to farming.
The combination of economic self-sufficiency and political autonomy was very powerful. During the same period in the 1800s, many tribal nations were engaged in the fur trade. The fur trade, however, after 1820, declined owing to the rise and widespread use of manufactured cotton textiles and the over exploitation of fur bearing animals both by Indian and non-Indian hunters. Without the fur trade, many Indians nations were forced farther west and into conflict with other Indian nations, or to sell land and live impoverished on Indian reservations. With economic impoverishment came political dependency, and social distresses of alcoholism, disintegration of family supports, and social and psychological trauma. This new kind of poverty and dependency was never known to tribal communities before.
The southeastern nations, although self-sufficient and politically independent, were dismantled in 1906, in part because most tribal members did not display the individualistic self-interest that Americans associated with civilized society. Nevertheless, the five southeastern nations are shining examples of what can be and was achieved by indigenous nations when they had freedom and opportunities to choose political independence, market engagement, and economic self-sufficiency, while upholding many of their traditions and values.