Rotarians learn about Indian life

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 1, 2005

When you think of the Native Americans living in our area a couple of centuries ago, what picture comes to your mind?

Do you envision teepees, feathered war bonnets and plenty of buckskin-clad braves on horseback?

If so, you'd be wrong.

On Thursday, Robert Thrower, tribal historic preservation officer for the Poarch Creek Band of Indians, gave Greenville Rotarians a glimpse into the history of Indian life in Alabama.

"There are a lot of misconceptions people have about American Indians – how we looked, where we lived, how we dressed," Thrower said.

The Atmore native, who is one-quarter Creek and three-quarters Scots-Irish and English, said many of today's Indians don't look much different than their counterparts of European ancestry. Intermarriage between European men and Indian women over time literally changed the face of the American Indian.

"All Indians do not have straight black hair, a darker complexion and no facial hair," Thrower, who sports a mustache and light brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, said.

"We have a few full-blooded Indians that you would quickly identify as being Native American. Then again, we also have some blue-eyed blondes in the tribe," he said.

At one time, Creek territory made up three-quarters of what is now the state of Alabama. And those Creeks definitely didn't live in wigwams.

"There were no teepees for a thousand miles," Thrower explained.

Creeks lived in village and each Creek family had four houses: a winter house, a summer house,

a warehouse and a storehouse. The latter two served as a tool shed and food pantry, respectively.

"Those houses were made with posts driven into the ground, and materials were woven together and coated with mud to make the walls. The winter houses were more heavily insulated, and the summer houses had holes in the walls – a sort of early Indian air conditioning," Thrower said with a smile.

"After the Europeans came along, the Indians began to imitate them and build log cabins, though they kept their thatched roofs," he said.

Indians traveled by foot and by water ("we had interstate highways back then, but it was by water, not road").

When early Spanish explorers left behind some of their horses, Indians gained another means of transportation, Thrower said.

As for the "DUM-dum-dum-dum" drumbeat we've all heard in countless movies and television shows

– "no Indian tribe I've ever heard of played the drum like that," Thrower laughed.

He said he suspects it was the popularity of western movie serials that led the common usage of the inauthentic beat.

One of the biggest misconceptions about his ancestors, he said, deals with the way Indians dressed.

"For 2,000 years, Indians basically had no choice but buckskin and fur for clothing. But that had changed by the pioneer days," Thrower said.

For his audience, he donned the type of clothing items typically worn by Creek Indians during the Trail of Tears.

Starting with a colorful blue and red ruffle-trimmed French coat with a hood, he added a woven beaded sash around his waist along with matching knee sashes, which Thrower explained would have been worn over leggings.

A bandoleer slung over the shoulder and a small printed turban-style hat, trimmed with a large white ostrich plume, completed Thrower's historically accurate outfit.

"This isn't what most folks imagine Indians wore in those days. However, the French traders were getting as many buckskins as they could to ship abroad. In turn, the Indians were adopting European clothing as their own," Thrower explained.

When asked if the rather elaborate-looking costume was the sort of thing worn everyday, Thrower said it was.

"For formal occasions, everything was fancier than what you see now."

One item the Indians retained from their native attire was the moccasin. "Those moccasins – the most comfortable shoe you can wear – varied from tribe to tribe. You could look at a Indian's shoe and know what tribe they were from," Thrower said.

Thrower, a teacher, writer, poet, traditional artist and student of traditional medicine

(who also happens to be an ordained Baptist minister) has been giving presentations on

Southeastern Indian culture for over 20 years.

Rotarian Daisy Norman was one of the club members who enjoyed looking at the many historical items, from a buckskin to a turtle shell shaker, that Thrower had brought with him.

"It was a great program, very informative. Col. Tisdale always come up with interesting programs for us," Norman said.

The Greenville Rotary Club meets each Thursday at noon at Beeland Park. For more information about the organization, contact their president, Dr, Everett Snow, at 382-2121.