The Impact of Colonialism During The Mississippian Period on The Native Americans


When exposed to excessive thermal variations, if it gets too hot or too cold, the glass will shatter and sometimes completely break. In the case of the Native Americans of the American Southeast during the 16th to 18th century, European colonist influence towards a more capitalistic society as well as the introduction of other foreign concepts was too much for the native world to bear. The traditions and cultures prior to the presence of Europeans shattered and nearly dissipated into the cracks of history. Colonialism during the Mississippian period had cataclysmic repercussions on the Native American societies. By exploring the American South and setting about pushing their own traditions and customs on the natives the European colonizers expedited the gradual decline of the Native American chiefdoms. During the Late Mississippian era, colonialism shattered the way of life of the peoples in the American Southeast by imposing their own set of values and practices before the Native American societies were ready for the new concepts.

The concept of the Mississippian Shatter Zone describes the way the Native American societies in the southeast United States became unstable and eventually fell during the Late Mississippian era of the 1600s to the 1800s. The instability was created by “the conditions of the structural instability of the Mississippian world” as well as the “inability of Native polities to withstand the full force of colonialism” (Ethridge 2009:2). One of the more significant studies follows the chiefdoms of the Carolina Piedmont and their gradual decline before and after the emergence of European settlers. Despite being the dominating chiefdoms of the 16th century, during the time of Hernando de Soto’s expedition in the area only one was prominent (Beck 2009:115). The information gathered during this time gave historians and anthropologists alike information about the evolution of chiefdoms had they been allowed to function without European influence. 

Previous to the appearance of the Europeans, Native American societies were organized into chiefdoms, but according to Beck (2009:116) the Native American chiefdoms before the invasion of European colonists showed evidence that it was not the most stable of governmental systems. The Native American chiefdom is a type of political organization of the farming and gathering variety in which the chief and his family live on a mound while the other inhabitants live in the surrounding area, working to keep the community mostly self-sufficient (Ethridge 2009:3-4). The chiefdoms varied in size, ranging from simple chiefdoms of about 5000 people to paramount chiefdoms of which could have been home to about 16,000 people (Ethridge 2009:7-8).  Like many other polities, chiefdoms did have conflicts and it was up to the chief to keep the peace and settle disputes when they arrived (Etheridge 2009:4). According to Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s Native interpreter, about two years before De Soto’s expedition headmen of the paramount chiefdom of Cofitachequi had rebelled against the cacica and kept the tribute, a mysterious “plague” resulted in many residents of Cofitachequi leaving, and the leader was implied to be immensely paranoid -- always armed with weapons (Beck 2009:116).  The meaning of “plague” could have a literal meaning, the Native Americans faced deadly diseases before the Europeans knew of the New World, or a metaphorical one, that the people of the chiefdom began to rebel or were unhappy with the chief’s leadership and decided to go elsewhere. Cofitachequi is not an outlier, chiefdoms rose and fell quite often and anthropologists speculate they fell due to soil exhaustion, drought, depletion of core resources, military defeats, or other stressors that the chiefdom fundamentally could not handle (Etheridge 2009:7). By the time Europeans arrived, the Native American chiefdom of Cofitachequi seemed to be on the brink of societal collapse, given enough time the chiefdom as a political system could have fallen altogether. 

When the Europeans began to settle in the southeastern part of the United States and brought their own way of life to the Native peoples the Europeans effectively demolished the cultures and traditions of the New World. The two substantial factors in the decline of the Native American populations of the southeast were disease and militaristic slaving societies. Approximately 90% of the native population was wiped out from disease of the Old World (Ethridge 2009:10). However, some scholars theorize that the rise of militaristic slaving societies contributed to the 90% population loss more than from disease (Beck 2009:134). Slavery was not a new concept to the Native Americans, they had taken prisoners of war from other chiefdoms and had them work as slaves but Europeans encouraged participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade with promises of better weapons and goods from the Old World by being a part of the global market (Ethridge 2009:--). Spurred on by these promises, militaristic chiefdoms would raid other chiefdoms, killing those unfit to work or able to fight back and kidnapping everyone else in between (Ethridge 2009:--). If they did not die in the raids or get captured the remaining Native Americans would flee in search of safety (Ethridge 2009:--). The introduction to the competitive market, militaristic slave trade, and new disease were too much for the New World to bear which resulted in a massive loss of life and an overhaul of customs in favor of methods the ensure co-existence, or sometimes survival, with their new European neighbors.

The chiefdoms ultimately fell and the Native American populations were given no choice but to establish their own place in the new societies. As the chiefdom was deemed obsolete many of the tribes well-known today were organized from those that remain from the fallen chiefdoms (Beck 2009:--) The colonial-era coalescent communities such as the Creeks, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and the Cherokees were formed and through means like marriage, adoption, language, and former chiefdom alliances were all used in various ways to glue different groups together to create different subcultures (Ethridge 2009:--). Some old traditions like town councils and clan organization remain while new traditions took root in some tribes (Ethridge 2009:--). Some tribes worked with the Europeans while others stayed away from their neighbors (Ethridge 2009:--). From the rubble of the outdated chiefdom came a new culture in the Americas.

The older New World had fallen due to European influence as well as internal issues with the chiefdom which led to the shattering of the Mississippian shatter zone. While the events seem to have a domino effect on each other the process of hundred years of pressure on the Native American population that eventually led to the collapse of the chiefdom. Whether the factors were internal or external chiefdoms were doomed to be replaced with an efficient polity made to suit the evolving needs of the people.

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