by Joseph B. Mahan, Executive Director, Westville Village, Lumpkin, Georgia
Originally published in The Midwestern Epigraphic Society Journal
[Editor’s Note: The first Westville Symposium, the parent of ISAC, was held in 1972. The Dr. Joseph Mahan, DFMES story can be found documented in MEJ 9, 1995.]
The Yuchi have been among the least known of any of the Southeastern Tribes. Their history prior to the beginning of the Eighteenth century and their relationship to other tribes, either present or past, have been details which were most obscure in the existing literature.
The supposition has been general that the Yuchi themselves have retained no information on the earlier periods of their own history. This supposition has been perpetuated and strengthened by being repeatedly stated or implied by successive scholars in the studies of Southeast Indians.
The present author has found, in fact, that until well into this century, Yuchi tribal leaders purposely preserved a vast store of traditional history and religious ceremonialism which they taught by rote to selected members of each succeeding generation. Although the changing social and economic conditions under which the present Yuchi live have made this teaching more difficult. Much knowledge of their past still exists among them. This included the speaking of their ancestral language by many of the living Yuchi. This language is unrelated to any other and has long been classified as the single existing branch of a distinct linguistic family.
Much of the traditional tribal knowledge was retained through the encouragement and under the tutorage of two chiefs (father and son) who, combined, held the hereditary position for a period of ninety years (1867-1957). These two men, Samuel W. Brown and Samuel W. Brown Jr., were unceasing in their efforts to maintain tribal unity and to perpetuate their ancestral religion.
Because of his position and his unique role in his tribe, a statement recorded on tape by Samuel W. Brown, Jr. purposely for me in July, 1957, has particular significance. This statement of the history of his people has proved to contain the key to tribal identifications and relationships which have heretofore eluded students of Indian history. Brown’s statement has been thoroughly tested against all available data concerning the peoples he mentions. It has been found to be in agreement with known facts and to supplement these facts extensively. Only through detailed investigation of the Southeastern Indians were some of the names discovered which Chief Brown used so familiarly. It was then that the full significance of his statement became evident.
Speaking of his own people and their history as he had been taught it from his youth, Brown said:
These people were the Tsoyaha or Yustafa Waeno or better known as Yuchis. And their original name was Tsoyaha Waeno, which was the governing word, as it is of today, from their starting point. And their leader had many nations. Spiritually they inherited instilled in them their lineage for generations to come. They had a tribal town, a big one at Custifa. That is a Yuchi word. And it was said by the old people that was what they called Tsahlalawaeno or Tsahwaeno, that they called themselves Sawanogee. That is not a Yuchi word.
They traveled and branched off in different branches and from this Sawanogee became known to the public and to the world as Shawnees. They also branched off in groups. There was a big tribe of them and one bunch called itself Ispogogee, another one Kispogogee and another Iste Muscogalgee and the last was Musquovee.
The key, of course, to understanding Chief Brown’s statement is to determine the meaning of the proper names he uses.
Yustafa Waeno means “first people” in the sense of preceding all others rather than being foremost. Yustafa is “first” and Waeno is “people”.
Tsoyaha is more difficult to translate. It’s meaning is understood by Yuchean speakers, however, and approximates “people of the sun.”
Chief Brown is speaking of the Tsoyaha, seemed to say that they were also called Yustafa Waeno. It has been stated above that the latter name means first people in Yuchean. There is an incongruity in the statement, however, in that the term waeno denotes persons other than the Yuchi speakers who have listened to the taped recording or the chief thus recounting tribal history. They simply do not understand why he–of all people would have used waeno in referring to the Yuchi.
Moreover, Brown, seemingly with a purpose, continued to use the word in this unusual manner, in fact he appeared to emphasize it by saying:
…And their original name was Tsoyaha Waeno, which was the governing word, as it is of today, from their starting point. And their leader had many nations… They had a tribal town, a big one at Custifa. That is a Yuchi word. And it was said by the old people that was what they called Tsahlalawaeno or Tsahwaeno, that they called themselves Sawanogee. That is not a Yuchi word.
As he indicates clearly, Sawanogee is not a Yuchi word: it is a well-known historic name of the Shawnee. In way of emphasis, however, Brown had more to say concerning the Sawanogee:
They traveled and branched off in different branches and from this Sawanogee became known to the public and to the world as Shawnees. They also branched off in groups. There was a big tribe of them and one bunch called itself Ispogogee, another one Kispogee, and another Iste Muscogulgee and the last was Musquovee.
It must be understood that this was not a casual, unconsidered remark or the result of an impromptu interview. At the request of the present author, Chief Brown was carefully phrasing, at an unhurried pace, a resume of Yuchi tribal relations he hoped would one day be of help to historians. He was in the comfortable environment of his own living room with no strangers present and, moreover, he had a highly personal reason to strive for exactness. This lay in his frequently–stated desire to bring order to the confusion he knew, from personal experience to surround the history of his and other Indian tribes. On the same reel of tape immediately after making the foregoing statement, his personal feelings became evident:
As I have been told by the older people, I am speaking today the most corrupt history and language–He was speaking English–that could be conferred upon a people for one purpose and that purpose was to get a foothold. And the best evidence of that is the red man has no country today. But the vintage from those people are still living and still active in their environments. I’m speaking now as to the Yuchi people.
As he knew the formal Yuchi language better than any person living and was in the frame of mind indicated by the latter quotation, he made no mistake in the implied meaning of a common Yuchi word. He used waeno deliberately.
Concerning the writing of a proper history, he wrote on another occasion. “There is so much of it, it would take lots and lots of time, but we must think of the past, to bring richness for the future.
Although the Shawnee and Yuchi are certainly not the same people and there would ordinarily be no reason to suspect a close cultural relationship as their respective languages belong to separate linguistic families. Chief Brown clearly knew of a period of closest intimacy between the two peoples.
Upon close analysis, the names themselves help in defining this relationship. With the exception of Sawanoge, the names are in the Yuchi language and that name also is the Yuchean Tsahwaeno with perhaps a modified pronunciation and the suffix gee from another language. In Creek as well as Cherokee this is recognized as a nominative indicator meaning people. It is not the terminating syllable of the name Cherokee, but is not recognized by Mooney, the primary authority, as belonging properly to the language itself. Swanton, in several places, appears to consider it a shortened form of the Creek–ulgee, people. He never explicitly so states, however. He does, later attribute the name Muscogee as having come “perhaps originally from Shawnee and having reference to swampy.”
Gatchet, Swanton’s source for this interpretation, had suggested the Shawnee word Muskkiequi which he gave as “lake or pond.” The earlier author had also added other information which is relevant to the present study. He said:
The Shawano call a Creek person. Humasko, the Creek people Humaskoge. Here hu is the predicate prefix: He is, she is, they are… and appears often as ho, hui ku, the suffix gi, ki being the plural ending of the animate order of substances in Shawano.
It appears from this that the name is in the Shawnee language and thus may be referring to Shawano people. As Shawano, itself, is simply Tsah people, the meaning of this stem name should be explained. It is the Yuchean name both for snake and eagle! The sense of the term, then, seems to foe a Shawnee name for themselves–as it lacks the third person prefix, ho or hui, thus indicating their identification with the eagle or snake people.
In the case of the Shawnee, it was the snake.
1. Addie Rolland George, private interview, Columbus, Georgia, October, 1969.
2. S.W. Brown, Jr., to author, August 24, 1957.
3. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokees, 15, 519.
4. Swanton, Early History , 215; Ibid , Southeastern United States; Ibid., 218 Indian Tribes of North America, Bulletin of American Ethnology, Bulletin 145 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952), p. 160. (Hereinafter cited as Swanton, Indian Tribes of North America).
5. Ibid. , Indian Tribes of North America. 160.
6. Jake Big Mosquito, private interview recorded on tape. Mounds, Oklahoma, June 1968, see also Speck, Ethnology, 71.
For more information please visit: http://archives.columbusstate.edu/findingaids/mc32.php
Who exactly were the Yuchi Indians who controlled the Southeast long ago? and where did these Sun Kings come from?