American Indian culture of the Southeast

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 different Native American tribes living in the area.
  • Mississippian culture, dominant in the Southeast, drew in immense wealth, allowing natives to build enormous mounds and organized urban centers.
  • The Southeastern American Indians, namely the Five Civilized Tribes, created chiefdoms and later, alliances with the colonists. This earned them the “civilized” title, yet in practice, many of the tribes became socially and economically stratified.

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 land in the modern United States. Native Americans, not plantation owners, were the first to take advantage of such promising agricultural conditions. The prominent Native Americans in this area are known as the Five Civilized Tribes: Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles. Mississippian culture, dominant from 1000 CE onward, developing from the beginnings of farming in Hopewellian culture, which dominated a few centuries before in the Northeast.
Map of Mississippian cultures. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Common food practices: corn farming booms

The Mississippian peoples were excellent farmers. Notably, Cherokee women planted and harvested the crops. They planted beans, squash, corn, tobacco, sunflowers, and more. They supplemented their diets with gathering 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 had impressive output.
While they had great farming success, Southeastern Native Americans also continued to hunt and fish. They hunted deer with bows and arrows, as well as fished the rivers and Gulf of Mexico for protein. In southern Florida, Calusa people developed complex fishing and trapping systems for clams, mussels, and saltwater fishes.
Mississippians are also remembered by archaeologists for their intricate pottery and arrow points. They fashioned elaborate serving utensils and dishes for their bountiful food, as well as intricate weaponry to continue hunting larger animals.
A painting of Choctaw women harvesting, processing, and cooking maize by Francois Bernard. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Societal structure: the pre-Columbian urban centers

Mississippian culture continued the mound-building traditions of the Hopewellian people and extended them into the plains and southward. 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 in North America until Philadelphia surpassed it over 500 years later, in the mid-eighteenthth century. Monk’s Mound, at the center of Cahokia, is the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in modern America, expanding 955 feet in length and 100 feet in height. Cahokia declined sharply around 1250, probably due to environmental factors like overhunting or deforestation.
Cahokia at its urban height. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Poverty Point, another mound city, linked large trade networks throughout the Americas. Located in northern Louisiana, the city provided a place to export stone and clay items on dugout canoes up the Mississippi, towards the Great Lakes. In return, flint and soapstone came to the South from the Ohio River Valley. Historians also hypothesize that Poverty Point 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 walls.
A traditional Seminole chickee. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Social and religious norms: stratifying economic wealth

The agricultural boom of the Mississippian culture concentrated wealth at the top, further stratifying developing societies. The Creek people in Georgia enslaved people, mostly prisoners of war, and forced them to work their fields. Furthermore, 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 supremacy. Societies oftentimes had both peace chiefs and wartime chiefs—distinct for their purpose and their 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 different natural features, including the sun, corn, and water—the elements which sustained their fields, trade, and lives.

What do you think?

Compare and contrast Hopewellian (Northeast, 200 BCE to 500 CE) and Mississippian culture (Southeast, 1000-1300 CE).
Why do you think the agricultural success of many in Mississippian culture lead to high economic inequality? Explain the process by which wealth was concentrated at the top.
How did trade influence large Mississippian societies like Cahokia or Poverty Point?
Article written by Rebecca Zimmerman. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
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