Ethridge, Robbie. Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World. 2003 ed. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Creek Country is a work that accomplishes a great deal. Robbie Ethridge explores Creek culture and how it shaped and was shaped by the physical landscape. This study is not a history, but a interdisciplinary study encompassing archeology, ethnography, anthropology, ecology, botany, history, and biology. While this would seem to be a great deal of information to place in a two hundred and forty page work, Ethridge does not lose focus. What she does is create a detailed look into a lost landscape and the cultures that lived and used it.
Not since William Cronon’s Changes in the Land has a environmental history presented such an intriguing view of pre-European America and the changes European culture brought to the land. Ethridge organizes Creek Country into chapters that explore various aspects of the Creek world. Each chapter is arranged chronologically and presents changes over time in a clear, well researched manner. Ethridge litters Creek Country with maps and the images early European explorers sketched during their ventures into the wilderness. Ethridge dispels a number of misconceptions of pre-European America. According to Ethridge the landscape of the Creeks was not and endless untouched forest. The world of the Creeks was a varied area or wetlands, forests, highlands, and rivers.
Much like Cronon’s research with New England Amerindians, Ethridge argues that Creeks were active in changing and manipulating their landscape. Ethridge breaks down the landscape down by how Creeks utilized the environment. Ethridge explains where and why Creeks farmed, raised cattle, and hunted. According to Ethridge Creek farms were community projects, with plots alloted to each matrilineage. In addition to the communal fields many families maintained smaller private plots. Ethridge also explores Creek farming methods and how they were altered through European acculturation. Livestock and hunting are also explored. Much like Cronon, Ethridge proves that Amerindians viewed the land as sacred, but they were not opposed to clearing land for farming, burning fields for fertilizer, or selecting appropriate crops for the local soil.
Creek Country is an interesting addition to New Indian history. Much like Ward, Ethridge writes from the perspective of place. Where Ward focused on the Ohio Valley as a colonial hinterland, Ehtridge places the Creek lands that covered parts of modern Alabama and Georgia in the center of her research. While much of Creek Country focuses on the lives of Creek Amerindians and how their culture changed after contact with Europeans, the landscape is the stage on which this narrative is set. Ethridge ties the Creeks to their landscape. She links many of their cultural characteristics to the shape of the landscape they lived on. Ethridge explains the changes in Creek culture through the changes in their landscape. Ethridge clearly links the Creek world view to their relationship with the natural world.
One interesting aspect of Creek Country is how Europeans challenged Creek behavior. Many of the issues between Europeans and Creeks stemmed from Europeans violating Creek taboos. Ethridge details Creek behavior citing numerous examples of how Creeks considered Europeans as unnatural, or at the very least unclean. Creeks were likely to dispose of items that Europeans touched while visiting and often felt challenged by Europeans who unconsciously challenged their bravery by violating cultural taboos. Ethridge’s research presents Creek culture as being tied directly to the natural world. While other historians such as Braund and Calloway have detailed this relationship through the hunting of deer, Ethridge presents a deeper side of Creek that is reminiscent of Mooney’s collection of myths. Creek Country presents how Creek relationships with Europeans that goes beyond the violence and economic relations that many New Indian historians explore presenting a convoluted socio-political environment.
If there is one major criticism of Creek Country it would be Ethridge’s canonization of Benjamin Hawkins. Ethridge makes extensive use of Hawkins’s writings and observations citing a lack of Creek produced sources. This is a common trend in Amerindian history, yet Ehtridge makes it a point in her research to call Hawkins a good man. She makes this claim despite his ethnocentrism , use of slaves, and undermining of Creek freedom through debt peonage. She cites that Hawkins was a man of his time, a tired phrase that is used to defend many early Americans in their abuses towards women and non-whites. The question is: how does Ethridge define a “good” man? She states that Hawkins was often fair to his Creeks yet not above the political intrigues or enforcing harmful treaties. Her use of Hawkins as a source and her examination of his historical role are excellent works of academia that are sadly tainted by her forthright support of Hawkins. Her praise is out of place and is unverifiable.
Beyond Ethridge’s use of Hawkins’s writings she makes use of many European accounts. These sources allow her to generate a unique look of Creek life before severe intervention by Europeans. Many of these sources are maps and sketches of the natural environment. Journals, accounts, letters, and government documents are all present in her list of primary sources. Ethridge utilizes these sources not only to represent the early American landscape but to explore how Creeks interacted with Europeans. These sources present European/Amerindian relationships as complicated and rife with misunderstandings. Bartram’s experiences are an excellent example of the complexity and occasional danger of these relationship. Unsurprisingly Ethridge utilizes Cronon’s works in Creek Country. Cronon’s environmental histories, especially Changes in the Land are go-to interdisciplinary studies. Beyond Cronon, Ethridge uses works from various fields of study to craft an excellent work.
Creek Country is a solid study of Creek life and how changes in their culture can be seen through changes in the natural landscape. Ehtiridge places the Creeks into their landscape as active participants. In a non-chronological narrative she explores the changes Europeans, and later Americans , wrought not only on the Creeks but the natural landscape. This story is told from the multiple perspectives of Creeks, Europeans, and the land itself. Creek Country is not a New Indian history, but an interdisciplinary work that shares many common factors with New Indian scholarship. This is an important work that dispels the myths that the media and public school system perpetuates concerning Amerindians and pre-European America.