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Native American culture of the Southeast

GEO (Theme)
KC‑1.1.I.C (KC)
Unit 1: Learning Objective B
The dominant Mississippian culture of the Southeast signaled agricultural success and urban development for a variety of Native American groups. 


  • The Southeastern region of North America was an agriculturally productive region for many Native American groups living in the area.
  • The Mississippian culture built enormous mounds and organized urban centers.
  • The Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast created chiefdoms and, later, alliances with European settlers.

Geographic and temporal setting: the Mississippian period

This region stretches down the Mississippi River and into the area surrounding the Gulf of Mexico, through some of the most fertile lands in North America. Native Americans were the first to take advantage of such promising agricultural conditions.
The prominent Native American groups in this area were known as the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. Mississippian culture, dominant from 1000 CE onward, developed from the beginnings of farming in Hopewellian culture, which dominated a few centuries before in the Northeast.
Map of Mississippian cultures.
Map of Mississippian cultures. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Common food practices: corn farming

The Mississippian peoples were excellent farmers. Notably, Cherokee women planted and harvested crops, including beans, squash, corn, tobacco, and sunflowers. They supplemented their diets with acorns, nuts, seeds, and fruits. Since they did not use any fertilizer, they had to burn the fields and create new ones every season. This required immense amounts of time and labor but ultimately led to large crop yields.
While they had great farming success, Southeastern Native Americans also continued to hunt and fish. They hunted deer with bows and arrows and fished in rivers and in the Gulf of Mexico for protein. In southern Florida, Calusa people developed complex fishing and trapping systems for clams, mussels, and saltwater fish.
Mississippians also created intricate pottery and arrow points. They fashioned elaborate serving utensils and dishes for food, as well as weaponry for hunting larger animals.
A painting of Choctaw women harvesting, processing, and cooking maize.
A painting of Choctaw women harvesting, processing, and cooking maize. By Francois Bernard. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Societal structure: urban centers

Mississippians continued the mound-building traditions of the Hopewellian people and extended them to the south and west. Mississippian mound societies were larger and more complex than previous communities, indicating unprecedented population growth and wealth.
Cahokia, near modern-day St. Louis, was home to an estimated 40,000 Cahokian people, after whom the city was named. It became the major urban trade center along the Mississippi River and remained the largest city ever recorded in North America until Philadelphia surpassed its population numbers 500 years later. Monk’s Mound, at the center of Cahokia, is the largest pre-contact earthwork in modern America, expanding 955 feet in length and 100 feet in height. Cahokia's population declined sharply around 1250, probably due to environmental factors such as overhunting or deforestation.
Artist's representation of how Cahokia may have looked at its height.
Artist's representation of how Cahokia may have looked at its height. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Poverty Point, another mound city, linked large trade networks throughout the Americas. Located in the northern part of modern-day Louisiana, the city provided a place to export stone and clay items on dugout canoes up the Mississippi River. In return, flint and soapstone came to the South from the Ohio River Valley. Historians hypothesize that Poverty Point also had religious significance, indicated by large plazas most likely used for worship.
Most people lived in hamlets, or villages, which would form political units of under one thousand people. Seminoles, in modern Florida and Georgia, constructed villages out of chickees, buildings with thatched roofs and open sides.
Photo of a chickee.
A traditional Seminole chickee. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Social and religious norms: stratifying wealth

The agricultural boom of the Mississippian culture concentrated wealth at the top. The Creek people in Georgia practiced slavery, forcing prisoners of war to work their fields. The Southeast Native Americans were the first to organize villages around chiefdoms, in which families were ranked by social status and proximity to the chief himself.
Chiefs lived in elaborate wooden structures atop large mounds, indicating their power. Societies often had both peace chiefs and wartime chiefs, with distinct purposes and leadership strengths.
Historians know little about the religious practices of the American Indians in the Southeast. Yet they agree that the groups had a spiritual connection to the land and used the mounds for ceremonies worshipping natural features, including the sun, corn, and water, the elements which sustained them.

What do you think?

Compare and contrast Hopewellian (Northeast, 200 BCE to 500 CE) and Mississippian culture (Southeast, 1000-1300 CE). How were they similar? How were they different?
Why do you think the agricultural success of Mississippians led to social stratification?
How did trade influence large Mississippian societies like Cahokia or Poverty Point?

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