There are currently 574 federally recognized Indian nations (also known as tribes, bands, communities and by other terms) in the U.S. according to the National Congress of American Indians. About 229 are located in Alaska and the rest are in 35 other states. Of that number, five were called the "Five Civilized Tribes," a term which didn't save them from being forcibly removed to "Indian Territory," in the 19th century. So, where did that term come from and who were they?
By the time the first European settlers arrived in America, there were already more than two dozen Native American tribes living in and farming the fertile soil of the Southeast, in the area today encompassing the states of North Carolina down through Georgia, Florida and the Gulf Coast. Like other Native peoples who came in contact with Europeans, these Southeastern tribes were ravaged by diseases like smallpox. Over time, they learned to adapt to the encroaching white culture in ways that they believed would secure their survival and sovereignty.
Many members of these Southeastern tribes converted to Christianity, for example. They took to wearing European-style clothing and living in frame houses. They adopted the agricultural practices of their Southern white neighbors, including ownership of enslaved people, and sold goods in a market economy. They intermarried with whites, spoke English, and sent their kids to schools run by Christian missionaries.
As a result, by 1800, five of the largest Southeastern tribes were routinely referred to by U.S. government officials as "civilized," explains Andrew Frank, a scholar of Indigenous and Seminole history at Florida State University.
"American officials drew a distinction between these five tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and somewhat the Seminole — and what they would call the 'wild, wandering and uncivilized' tribes elsewhere," says Frank.
The Cherokee were the largest of the "civilized" tribes. By 1830, they had a written constitution with a democratically elected assembly and chief, and they published a newspaper in both Cherokee and English.
"Among Southern whites, those earmarks of 'civilization' suggested that there was a willing assimilation into American culture," says Mark Hirsch, an historian with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian.
But Frank says that appearances can be deceiving. If you look back deeper into Native American history, Native peoples always incorporated new technologies and customs from their neighbors. And when circumstances in their environment changed — a drop in wild deer population or the introduction of maize — the people changed with them.
"But in almost every instance, the adoption of these new outside things was done for the purpose of protecting Indigenous people, not abandoning them," says Frank. "Despite the appearance of 'civilized' customs, Native people had no interest in becoming part of the United States. They had no interest in assimilating into a white norm. How better to resist the oppressors than to learn their language?"
'Civilization' Was No Protection
The irony, of course, is that the much-heralded "civilization" of the five largest Southeastern tribes ultimately didn't protect them from being driven off of their tribal lands. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, authorizing the forced relocation of Southeastern tribes out West to Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), an act that gave rise to the Trail of Tears.
Instead of fighting Jackson's order with guns, bows and arrows, tribes like the Cherokee wrote newspaper editorials accusing the U.S. of failing in its Christian obligation to be good neighbors. When the federal government negotiated the fraudulent Treaty of New Echota that relinquished tribal control of their lands, the Cherokee took a "quintessentially civilized response," says Frank. "They filed a lawsuit and wrote a petition to the U.S. government."
The "1836 Protest Petition," written by Principal Chief John Ross, pleaded the Cherokee case in language that could have been torn from the Declaration of Independence.
The petition fell on deaf ears, as did an earlier Supreme Court ruling that barred government interference in the sovereign tribal lands. Jackson and his supporters would stop at nothing to get their hands on Indian lands, "civilized" or not.
"That's the indignity of it all," says Frank. "The United States says, 'If you do X, Y and Z, then you can stay.' So they do X,Y, and Z and also A, B, and C, and lo and behold the desire for Indigenous land overwhelms it all. In the end, it's all about race, not about culture."
Out West, the Five Tribes Embraced their 'Civilized' Status
Before removal, the five largest Southeastern tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — may have individually employed the word "civilized" to differentiate themselves and lobby for preferential treatment, but it wasn't until their arrival in Indian Territory that they became known collectively as the "Five Civilized Tribes."
"We see this throughout history," says Frank. "Often terms that are born of derision or cultural misunderstanding get embraced by the people themselves as tools of resistance. How better for the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory to distinguish themselves as being deserving of recognition than to embrace this term?"
The Five Civilized Tribes joined forces under this new label as a unified negotiating block with the U.S. government. They were still independent tribes, but they shared an identity that they hoped would protect them in the harsh new reality of Indian Territory. Did it work?
"Indigenous people didn't fare well in the 19th century in the United States; that's just a baseline fact," says Frank. "That being said, some Indigenous people fared worse, and some Indigenous people were treated even more harshly by the U.S. than others. In the end, though, the Five Civilized Tribes were put on reservations and subjected to all sorts of indignities."
Hirsch at the National Museum of the American Indian says that the term Five Civilized Tribes became "shorthand" for describing the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole well into the 20th century. But as an 1894 census of the Five Civilized Tribes makes clear, the "civilized" status of these tribes didn't win them much respect in the eyes of white America.
"The term 'civilized' was originally applied to them in contradistinction to the life of the wild Indian tribes, but as a whole their condition is not the civilization of the Anglo-Saxon," reads the census report. "The civilization of The Five Tribes has not been accomplished without a vast expenditure of time and money by white people. No Indians in the United States have received such care from the whites or have been aided so much by the United States."