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August 22, 1999Salisbury Post; Rowan County, NC

 

Insight

Understanding the “original Southerners”

BY GEITNER SIMMONS
SALISBURY POST

           
When Juan Pardo and his men arrived at the village of Guatari in 1567, their most dramatic discovery was that a woman stood at the pinnacle of power. Guatari Mico —the Spanish name for Guatari’s female chief —was said to have influence over 39 chiefs in the region.

One of those lesser chiefs, Orata Chiquina, was also a woman with a high profile in Guatari, an Indian village near Trading Ford.

Southeastern Indian tribes — the “original Southerners,” one historian calls them —generally offered women greater access to power in all forms than did the nations of 16th century Europe.

“The European American association of men with ‘public’ activities and women with ‘domestic’ activities does not hold for native Southeastern societies,” says Chris Rodning, a doctoral student in archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill specializing in Indian studies. “... Cases of native women having significant public roles in their communities were bound to surprise Europeans accustomed to much more patriarchal societies.”

It’s true that at the time Pardo’s expedition was seeking to create a series of settlements in the Southeast, Queen Elizabeth I ruled England and Catherine de Medici wielded great influence in France. But across Europe, the vast majority of women remained entirely cut off from participation in political affairs.

The two leaders Pardo met at Guatari were not the only female chiefs the Spanish encountered in the Southeast. A quarter-century earlier, in 1540, Hernando De Soto led a large expedition through what is now South Carolina, and he found a female chief ruling the powerful Cofitachequi chiefdom. Even earlier, in 1503, the Spanish met a female Indian chief in Cuba. Spanish authorities hanged her.

Women enjoyed opportunities in traditional Southeastern Indian societies because native culture placed heavy emphasis on establishing blood relations through the mother’s family. In stark contrast to European traditions, the Guatari and most other Indians of the Old Southeast regarded only the mother’s side of the family to be their relatives.

“The mother’s brother was more important to a child than his biological father, who was of a different clan,” writes J. Leitch Wright Jr., a professor of history at Florida State University. “... An Indian youth had brothers and sisters in the same sense as Europeans did, but this same Indian youth also called the children of his mother’s sisters his own brothers and sisters.”

In Indian tribes with powerful chiefdoms, a person’s clan, or band of maternal relatives, stood at the center of life. A host of important possibilities for life all hinged on which clan one belonged to. The closer a person was related to the chief, the greater the advantages.

Archaeologists can’t really say how rigidly the Guatari organized their clans. Perhaps it was a tight hierarchy. Perhaps it was far more flexible.

“Do we have the kind of information to show that we indeed had a ranking of clans?” says anthropologist Stan Knick, director of the Native American Resource Center at UNC-Pembroke. “The answer is no.”

This is only one of many uncertainties regarding the Guatari and other Indian groups of the period. Yet, scholars do agree on a number of general points relating to Guatari culture.

The Guatari belonged to what archaeologists call the Uwharrie culture, which appeared in the North Carolina Piedmont around 1300 A.D. Uwharrie culture was part of a larger “Mississippian” Indian culture found through much of the eastern United States. Mississippian tribes depended on an intensive cultivation of corn and some hunting. They usually organized their society around loyalty to a chief.

Indians in the Mississippian culture were no longer nomadic but settled together in villages. This allowed the creation of an agricultural surplus, which often led to a social hierarchy within the tribe and to the rise of tribute payments from subservient chiefs to more powerful ones.

Such payments probably had a variety of additional meanings, both political and social, that aren’t clear today, says Rodning, the UNCdoctoral student.

The people of Guatari built houses in a round shape, according to a description by Juan de la Bandera, Pardo’s notary. The Guatari likely built their houses by setting poles in the ground and then bending them over to form a domed shape.

To cultivate their corn, they used hoes made of crudely shipped stone blades, says Charles Hudson, an archaeologist at the University of Georgia who has written extensively on the Pardo expedition. The Guatari made their own pottery, using a variety of decorative designs.

One problem in understanding the Guatari is that the Spanish viewed them and all Indians through the prism of a European perspective. A truer understanding of the Southeastern Indians requires seeing them on their own terms.

One example is the Indians’ spirituality.

“Christian people thought native people had many gods,” says Knick, of UNC-Pembroke. “That is a real misinterpretation of the data.”

The Southeastern Indians of the pre-contact period looked to a central creator figure responsible for everything —“he goes by different names in different groups,” Knick says —while also acknowledging spirits, which were a separate type of entity.

“The Europeans — and the Spaniards especially —were badly mistaken in saying the native people thought the wind had a spirit,” Knick says. “It was hard for European people to understand. They translated things into their own way and made it into something that it wasn’t.”

The difficulty understanding the Guatari even extends to their name. Most of the experts interviewed for this series pronounced “Guatari” as gwuh-TAR-ee. But one archaeologist pronounced it wuh-TAR-ee.

That’s not surprising, says Tom Hargrove, a doctoral student in archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill, given that the Indians were a preliterate people and their tribal names have been passed down second-hand through documents written in archaic Spanish.

Juan Pardo’s own journal of his travels included some curious misspellings, including “Boyano” for Moyano, one of his sergeants, and “Juada” for Joara, an Indian settlement near what is now Morganton.

Joara (pronounced ZHWAR-uh) and Guatari were the two dominant Indian groups west of the Yadkin River when Pardo and his men first traveled across what is now North Carolina in 1566-67. Weaker chiefs headed small settlements that dotted the Piedmont, and they pledged allegiance either to Guatari or Joara. It’s possible that Guatari’s influence may also have extended eastward to the upper Dan River and the headwaters of the Cape Fear River, says Hudson, the University of Georgia archaeologist.

In the mountains Pardo met several Cherokee-speaking headmen who did not appear to be organized into a chiefdom, although some of them may have paid tribute to the chief at Joara. Across the mountains lay a powerful chiefdom known as Coosa. The head of Coosa was considered a paramount chief, which meant he was better able to mobilize large numbers of followers — whether for war, construction projects or other endeavors — than were the chiefs of secondary powers such as Guatari and Joara.

There is considerable uncertainty, in fact, over how powerful, or how weak, the Guatari and Joara chiefdoms actually were.

Guatari Mico, the female chief of Guatari, energetically courted the Spanish, and her primary goal may have been to shore up her chiefdom’s possible political weakness. An event in November 1567 raises some questions along this line. Pardo was staying at Joara, an Indian village near present-day Morganton, when two chiefs visited him. Theytold him they wanted to shift their allegiance from Guatari to Joara. They asked the Spanish captain for permission to do so.

Pardo told them to retain their ties to Guatari. He also presented them with three chisels as good- will gifts.

The episode shows that Guatari’s authority was apparently unsteady. It also illustrates how the Spanish and Indians engaged in a complex diplomatic dance in which they continually maneuvered for influence.

Another relevant incident occurred in December 1567, when Pardo arrived at Guatari for a second time. Guatari Mico and Orata Chiquina, the two female leaders, greeted him warmly, and Pardo commanded that the lesser chiefs turn out to attend the construction of a fort there. The next day, hours passed until several lesser chiefs finally arrived late in the morning. Their late arrival could have stemmed from logistical problems. But it’s also possible they were reluctant to participate.

Joara, too, had problems in maintaining loyalty among subservient chiefs. In December 1567, Pardo was at Yssa, in what is now Lincoln County, when he met with three lesser chiefs from the area. He told them he understood that they were unhappy under the authority of the Joara chief.

Pardo told him to swear allegiance not to the Joara chief but only to the Spanish officer commanding the fort at Joara. The chiefs indicated support for his idea.

“The nature of the tribes and their relationships are some of the most interesting questions, but also the ones we can’t answer at all,” says David Moore, an archaeologist with the N.C. Division of Archives and History who specializes in western North Carolina sites. “Even when we talk about these groups of people in terms of ‘chiefdoms,’ we’re making assumptions —pretty well informed assumptions, but assumptions none the less.”

The power of individual Indian groups was often in flux, says Rodning.

By the 16th century, he says, “chiefs in many parts of Southeastern North America did not have extensive claims to power over the everyday lives of very many people.”

Alliances among chiefs probably went through cycles, Rodning says. “Instead of rigidly hierarchical relationships between chiefs,” he says, “Irather suspect that in the 16th century most chiefs had to continually negotiate their status through relations with other chiefs.”

In such an environment, Guatari’s chiefdom may have had trouble gaining solid footing, says Hudson.

“Guatari,” he writes, “seems to have been a young chiefdom whose subjects were neither very obedient nor very devoted to their female chief. ... One possible reason Guatari was so favored by the Spaniards is that the chiefs of Guatari may simply have been the most receptive and compliant of the chiefs whom Pardo met. This would be consistent with their being members of a rather weak chiefdom who were threatened by more powerful and better organized chiefdoms.

“They may have been anxious to have allies of any sort — even Spaniards.”

 

 

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