Mikko Bobby “Bearheart” Johns
Southeastern Native Americans lost a great leader just recently. We notified you when we got word that he had passed to his eternal reward, but waited to tell his life story until the Perdido Bay Tribe had created a document that truly honored his services to mankind. It is attached as a MS Word document. You will be blessed by it.
There is one thing that I would like to add. What many people do not realize is that when Bobby Johns was growing up, many people with Native American heritage were ashamed of it . . . and they were still being treated as third class citizens. Even when I was growing up, there was NO Muscogee-Creek Nation and NO organized Creek or Shawnee tribes in the Southeastern United States. I can still remember my mother lecturing me when I was five, not to tell our neighbors we were Indians. She had just been offered by some federal employee on the telephone, a tract of land in Oklahoma as reparation for land stolen from the family in the early 1870s in Georgia. She declined because she didn’t want anyone to know her family’s Native American heritage. Indian!
Bobby Johns was one of a handful of men and women in the Southeast, who first stood up and said, “I am proud to be a Native American and it is time for our people to come together again.” The original dream was to have one Creek Confederacy for the United States. Shawnees had a similar dream. Unfortunately, that never happened, but Bobby Johns worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to present Native American culture in the most positive light possible.
Bobby Thomas Johns was born in Gum Swamp on the Ocmulgee River, deep in the forests of Dodge County, Georgia, on March 24, 1936. Though he never knew the warmth, acceptance and ceremonial blessing of a cohesive native community, his roots were deeply embedded in Muscogee Creek Indian life ways. His days were filled with time-honored traditions of his heritage, and from an early age Bobby learned the ancient skills of his Creek ancestors–to hunt and fish and to survive in the forests and swamps. He learned oral traditions and history as well as arts and crafts skills passed down to him through his elders.
Bobby’s parents were hardworking people. His father labored in the turpentine industry and his mother strove to keep the family warm and fed as they moved from job site to job site all around southeast Georgia. In his youth and throughout his life, Bobby enjoyed a deep connection with his devoted maternal uncle and mentor, Alton Evans, who gave him stability and sanctuary through difficult times. He would always remember and pass along Uncle’s teachings, especially his counsel that the most important lesson he would ever learn was to live like a real human being.
On his 12th birthday, Bobby was afforded an extraordinary experience that would shape his character for the rest of his life. On this day, Uncle Alton took his beloved nephew deep into the Okefenokee Swamp by boat and left him, without food or weapon, on a floating island. Uncle’s only instructions were, “Find out who you are.” Twenty four hours later Uncle returned to collect a profoundly changed young warrior. Years would pass before the two ever discussed the mysteries of that swampy retreat where cypress knees stood in the moonlight like ancestral sentinels watching over him while bull gators roared incessant mating calls deep into the night.
Bearheart the Chief
Entering a swamp years ago, led by Uncle to passage, he
Sat a boy of twelve, scared and humble, by cypress knee.
The night sang to him as only she can sing her song,
Left he this swampy cradle a man, a warrior, a Chief to belong
To a people noble, proud and caring…a people called Muscogee
And serve he them well, this man known as Nakuse Feke.
Softness in voice disguises determination in his heart,
To lead the Muscogee to remembrance and recognition in history’s part.
Looking into his eyes, you drift to a life 200 years ago
When lived the mighty Muscogee people before they were forced to go.
You see the happiness of child, and listen again to mother’s song,
And feel again the warrior’s heart running through forest strong.
A oneness you find with Earth Mother, enveloped in the warmth of Her scars.
And dream you will of totems to seek your place beneath the stars.
To be a student of the Bear is to gaze softly upon a moon
That looked down on others of similar blood and found Removal too soon.
To walk in his track and look down the road beside him,
Is to view a life of the proud and lovely Muscogean.
– William S. Cartwright Quiet Dog, Muscogee Creek November 7, 1997
Bobby loved the freedom of a boyhood in a nearly idyllic setting with adventure at every turn, but he also knew the sting of prejudice. Going to school was never pleasant, for invariably he met with taunts of “swamp nigger” from classmates. Deeply troubled, he became resentful and did his best to avoid the torment of school. Uncle Alton’s wise counsel instilled courage, and he resolved to live his life without bitterness, to believe always in the brotherhood of man, and to participate fully in the world around him.
At 17, at his mother’s insistence, Bobby reluctantly moved with her to Warner Robins, Georgia, where he enrolled in high school. Remembering the troubles of the past, he kept quiet about his Indian heritage, and for the first time in his life, felt a sense of belonging among many new friends who responded to his warm personality. He joined in school activities with enthusiasm, but sometimes he went alone to explore the swamps and creeks and sacred places of Georgia to keep in touch with the voices of his ancestors.
Bobby eventually enlisted in the Navy to become a warrior for his country. As he filled out the enlistment forms, he stated his race as Creek Indian. The recruiter corrected him, saying there were no Native Americans in the state of Georgia. His military duties eventually took him to Nevada where he also spent off hours working as a ranch hand and hunting guide. Sometimes he went alone to the Indian reservation to sit for a time with the elders. It was here the vision for his life’s work – to learn, treasure, preserve, and live the values of his Muscogee Creek heritage began taking shape.
Back in Georgia, Bobby married and became a family man. He began his life’s mission by visiting his sons’ school to talk with pride about the Creek people. He joined the Jaycees to learn how to get things accomplished in the real world and served at many levels, including State President. During these years, he won numerous awards for service and leadership. His proudest achievement was helping to lead the drive to get the Sabine Polio vaccine to every county in Georgia. From this time, the course of Bobby’s life became rocky. A severe debilitating illness forced retirement from civil service and eventually led to divorce and the heartbreak of a broken family.
In 1979, with improved health and a new marriage, Bobby responded to a long-time inner calling to live in Pensacola, Florida, where he took employment as parts department manager at a car dealership. Having made Pensacola his home, Bobby continued to perfect his craft skills and used his art to reach out whenever and however he could to teach others about his Creek Indian heritage and make friends for his ever-growing dream.
By1989, Bobby had earned recognition as a Master Folk Artist by the Florida Folk Life Division of Cultural Affairs. He won an Individual Artist Fellowship in 1990 and served as Artist in Residence for all Escambia County middle and high schools in 1991. Capping it all, in 1993, he was honored with the prestigious Florida Folk Life Heritage Award.
A massive heart attack in 1993 left Bobby once again fighting for his life. With his devoted wife, Marian, by his side, the two flew to Milwaukee where he would undergo five bypasses. His prognosis was extremely poor, but a phone call from his elder brother telling him he had the heart of a bear gave him hope and his familiar warrior name, Bearheart. Forced into early retirement, but thankful to be alive, Bearheart turned his thoughts to expanding his life’s work with renewed energy.
In 1994, following through with plans long in the making, he gathered a handful of Creek Indian family and friends, and Perdido Bay Tribe of Southeastern Lower Muscogee Creek Indians, Inc. was officially born. As founder and Chief of Perdido Bay Tribe of Southeastern Lower Muscogee Creek Indians, Inc., a grassroots, 501C(3) non-profit organization, Bobby dedicated his full energies to community service and sharing his unique Southeastern Creek Indian cultural heritage through art and education. Serving as educational consultant and lecturer on Muscogee Creek art, culture and history, the name, Bearheart quickly won a place of high regard in the community as he conducted cultural presentations to schools and other organizations. Children all over northwest Florida came to think of themselves as “Bearheart’s Warriors.” He also served as a member of The Florida Creek Indian Council and proudly represented PBT at the dedication of the Fort San Carlos De Austria Cemetery and ceremonial reburial of disturbed ancient remains in accordance with the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. Over the years Chief Bearheart served on numerous civic and cultural committees encouraging a clear understanding of Native American participation in the greater community.
As an artist, Chief Bearheart worked tirelessly to create historical reproduction artifacts for museums and other educational programs as well as original wood carvings reflecting his own interpretation of his cultural heritage. Participation in shows, displays and demonstrations include: Florida State Capital Building; Florida State Historical Museum; Florida Folk Festival; Southeast Native American Festival, Columbus, Georgia; Pensacola Cultural Center; Pensacola Regional Library; Pensacola Historical Village; Pensacola Museum of Art, Native American Traveling Trunk program; Pensacola Historical Museum Creek Classroom; Great Gulf Coast Arts Festival, Daughters of the American Revolution; Earth Day Celebration; Friends of Big Lagoon; Okefenokee Heritage Center, Waycross, Georgia.; Burnt Cane Museum, Metairie, Louisiana; and the Anna Lamar Switzer Center Gallery, Pensacola State College.
An especially rewarding honor for Chief Bearheart came in 2005 when he was invited to appear as a demonstrating artisan at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society held in Atlanta, Georgia. Long recognized as a Master Folk Artisan in Florida, this occasion was a long-awaited homecoming filled with warmth and honor in his home state as he was greeted by appreciative folklorists from all over the world.
Opening in 1994, PBT’s first Cultural Center on beautiful Perdido Key, Bearheart’s Gallery, quickly became the go-to place for snowbirds and summer visitors. This was, perhaps, his first major public outreach, and during the culture center’s 5 years, Bearheart almost single-handedly kept the bills paid through the sale of his fine arts and crafts now in collections around the world.
Long before a world of information became widely available via the internet, Chief Bearheart and Perdido Bay Tribe began a worldwide outreach to students and teachers via the tribe’s website, Perdido Bay Tribe. Incorporated into PBT’s current online educational pages is a compilation of basic information first shared one-on-one with teachers and student researchers during those early years. The lessons were later compiled in a booklet entitled “Life Ways of the Early Southeastern Muscogee Creek People.” Initially this booklet and later CD was published by PBT for free distribution to educators throughout the southeast.
Late in 2002, a decade after his initial life-saving bypass surgery, Bearheart suffered another major heart attack which nearly took his life. By sheer determination and the blessings of modern medicine, the man with the heart of a bear bounced back again. Back on his feet, he carried on with his mission, perhaps a little more slowly, but with the same will and enthusiasm. Then in 2009, Bearheart faced yet another challenge when diagnosed with stomach cancer. Despite being at very high risk he opted for surgery and a full course of chemotherapy and radiation. All the while, with even more determination, his heart and mind were looking to the future and the goals he still wanted to reach.
Among Bearheart’s most remarkable characteristics was his ability to envision possibilities and to tackle an idea head-on with unshakable determination. As a risk-taker, he sometimes failed, but he always bounced back and never entertained the idea of giving up on his dreams. One of PBT’s most successful projects began this way some years ago, when Bearheart learned about the possibility of acquiring a 34-ft. surplus USDA mobile field office vehicle. Even though he had no idea how he could find the funds to create a traveling museum, he applied for the vehicle, and within a year, the big empty Winnebago was parked and waiting in his yard. Then the search for support began and by the next summer PBT was basking in beautiful promises of support, which just as quickly melted away. Still, Bearheart would not give up.
Eventually he and his grant writer made an inquiry to the Florida Humanities Council about developing a mobile museum and received encouragement to apply for a major grant. Even though the task was daunting and the deadline looming, they tackled the job and Bearheart’s perseverance paid off. By mid 2006, nearly two years later, PBT was funded to begin this daring and unique venture. Soon the design and fabrication of the museum exhibits and exterior graphics were underway. In the mean-time, the mechanical integrity of the aging vehicle needed serious attention and additional grants to fund up-grades and repairs were written. This, along with much work by dedicated PBT members, the Bearheart Mobile Museum of Muscogee Creek Culture made its grand debut in April of 2007; nearly 4 years after the seed of an idea began to sprout in Bearheart’s imagination. At the time of his death in February 2013, the “Bearmobile” had logged thousands of miles and many thousands of visitors over nearly 6 years, and Bearheart was busily seeking funding for much needed upgrades and repairs to continue another 6 years.
Other community and educational service areas Chief Bobby Johns and PBT have been involved in include a nationally award-winning USDA Cultural Documentary, work with US Navy, US Federal Prison, Pensacola Junior College, Escambia County Schools, Three Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council, Project Associate, Office for Applied Ethics, Executive Advisory Board, University of West Florida, Assistance for Native Americans with disabilities through grants from the Able Trust, the Shawl Circle Project of the Florida Dept of Health to promote disease prevention through education of Native Peoples and the Red Road to Health Diabetes Prevention Project. In 2010, he presented the Florida Department of Health with its first ever resolution from a native community for National Native HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Shortly thereafter, Bobby received an invitation to deliver the opening prayer for the Florida State Senate, another first for a Native American.
Perhaps the most treasured honor of Bearheart’s life was paid to him in his home state of Georgia. In the summer of 2011 he was awarded the title of “Fellow of the Bennett History Museum” and the Funk Heritage Center of Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia. The Funk Heritage Center is dedicated to telling the story of Native Americans in the Southeastern United States.
During the course of developing his art and educational outreach, Bearheart was approached by John Harper of Three Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council to explore the possibility of a sponsorship arrangement. Thus, PBT’s long-term relationship with Three Rivers RC&D and future involvement in Environmental Education began. Bearheart began serving on Three Rivers RC&D Technical Advisory Committee and as a USDA/NRCS, Earth Team volunteer. Soon he began to receive invitations to speak for Native Americans on environmental issues. He was especially glad for an invitation to attend the national convention of The Ecological Society of America held in Savannah, Georgia in 2003. Speaking to scientists and educators from across the country, he was asked to give his perspective as a Southeastern Native American on the environmental problems in the region as they had evolved over his lifetime. Then in November of 2007, he was recognized as Honorary State conservationist by then NRCS Florida State Conservationist, Niles Glasgow.
With his usual optimism, for several years, Bobby took every opportunity to petition Escambia County officials for the use of a parcel of county land that did not qualify for development, but could provide a place for PBT to develop its own grounds for tribal use. His requests were well received and in October 2007 the Escambia County Commission voted to offer PBT an opportunity beyond Bobby’s wildest dreams-a serenely beautiful site with an existing structure suitable for multipurpose use at the edge of the vast expanse of the planned Jones Swamp Nature Preserve in Southwest Pensacola. PBT’s board of directors gladly accepted, and an agreement mutually beneficial to Escambia County and Perdido Bay Tribe was secured. Escambia County officials had long-range plans for developing the grounds into a living swamp eco-system exhibit and PBT’s role would be to develop a museum and cultural center and eventually serve as hosts to the visiting public. Chief Bearheart and his team quickly set out to develop the museum as the county carried out their development plans. In the meantime, Bearheart applied for and received official government designation as a migratory bird habitat for Jones Swamp. In November 2011, Native Paths Cultural Heritage Museum and Environmental Education Center officially opened to the public.
With Native Paths well established, not much time passed before Bearheart’s never-ending drive for progress set PBT on the path to developing a greenhouse on the property for the purpose of propagating native plants to help in the restoration of the Jones Swamp preserve and other wetland preservation projects throughout the area. The grant-writing process continued under his leadership with great success. Even as the greenhouse was nearing completion, Bearheart’s fragile health began rapidly failing. He made the decision to turn tribal leadership over to his son, Robert Johns Cedar Bear, who had been working with him for many months, thus leaving his dream in capable hands.
Just two days before his death, both Bearheart and his successor received a blessed, unexpected honor to mark the passing of the baton. On this day, the director of the Wildlife Center of Northwest Florida brought two rehabilitated red-tailed hawks for the two men to release. Bearheart mustered the energy to walk outside and several tribe members joined him beside the newly completed greenhouse, While supported by Robert’s strong hands, he donned heavy leather gloves, and lifting his weary arms high in the air, set the young red-tail on its flight to freedom. As Robert paused for a photo just before the second release, his father and all the tribe recognized Chief Robert Cedar Bear Johns as their new leader.
Bearheart’s Message to Native Peoples
As I think back over my life I can’t help but see how some things have not changed from the old ways–but unfortunately some have–as during the removal and somewhat prior, our people were already being separated from each other and being used that way. We were talked into harming our own people for meager gain. But we all know this! What hurts so very much is seeing the same thing happening today and it is us doing it to each other.
The system has been so thorough in indoctrinating one against the other, Nation against Nation, down to a small clan trying to survive under many of the same old methods. What does matter is that this small clan is ignored or ostracized when their only “crime” is they don’t or can’t meet the roll of humanity that has been drawn up in a “legal” document by a heartless department of “our” government. A people who were able to hide their identity from fear as an army of terrorists were gathering all they could find that were “Indian”–many had managed to “escape” in some manner. Often the Europeans concealed them for they were great slaves. As time passed they were overlooked and allowed to stay in an unseen environment. The word, assimilated, is unworthy–they were always looked at and treated unjustly.
Fast forward to present day – this same clan of humans are now scattered throughout the country where they have gone to find work or each other. These same peoples are still treated as subhuman. They have no “legal” identity as per the federal government and sadly, the “federally recognized” do not identify with them either. So we have Native American descendants that with all their personal efforts are denied the God-given right to be known for who they are, whence they came, and can be jailed if they say they are Indians i.e. The “Arts and Crafts Act.”
For the sake of God the Creator, Indian people wake up! Reach out to each other like in the way you help a down and out brother. If a lower quantity of blood flows in their veins than in yours, so what? It’s still our blood. If you have a round house and winter comes, as it does for many, bring them in for shelter and food. The old ones never let an elder, widow, or orphan be cold and emaciated when the strong warriors were successful-all shared the bounty regardless of their station in life . . . it’s called being a real human being. Those who have lived under this awesome burden for so long must be freed and recognized for who they are, regardless of quantum, and brought together in the arms of all our people.
Ignore the rules we now follow and help write the one we should be following. There’s a chill in the world that needs our attention–hate is consuming us at every turn. We must look back to a time when all was beauty and caring. Humans, living, breathing persons of great intelligence are being driven into decadence and hate. Creator, bring us back together and let us be one Nation of American Indians that never mean any harm to another. Give us back our pure hearts and human skills. We had it right in our government, our social process, our survival by sustaining sources of food and warmth. Just take it one day at a time, embrace another human who may or may not be “federalized.” I know you will feel the same love and caring returned as you have given.
These are things I had to say for we never know when the opportunity will be silenced forevermore. So do as I have chosen to do-speak out loud-some will hear, some may not, but you have done your part. You may be surprised at how many think as you do. Let’s start making it right; what can it hurt? It took much more time and energy to make it this way. Ask the government through whatever source you have to right this wrong-to identify people as they identify themselves. Native Americans are a strong people-all we need is to be unified!
Walk in Brotherhood and Sisterhood and let’s do it together . . . Bobby T. Johns Bearheart
We must never stop Dancing
Dancing With the Mekko
It has been thirty-plus years since I became a part of our Tribal Leader’s life. During this time I listened to his visions of making a difference in the welfare of his people and preservation of his culture. A few years ago, we were invited to a tribal meeting in our area. One objective was to join and help. On the ride home he was very quiet, and knowing he was in deep thought, I asked what he was thinking. Calmly he explained his realization that night, that if his dream was to have a chance, a different path would have to be followed.
From that moment on, a new idea was conceived and nurtured through all the plans and legal requirements to give voice to The Perdido Bay Tribe of Lower Muscogee Creek Indians, Inc. Growing slowly, but steadily, PBT’s voice has been heard in our schools, community, state, and even in our federal government. I have often heard this man proudly say, “We have earned credibility and the respect of those who know us. With these credentials, I fear no boundaries and accept no limits to our dream.” I see a light in his eyes when he says, “With people of this caliber in our tribe, how can we fail? I feel no hesitation in moving to bigger and better things for our people.” As Bobby liked to say, “Sorry about the horse; load the wagon.” I want to thank each of you for staying the path with him so our many achievements could be possible. We will never stop dancing!
Marian Mayapple Johns 2011
Bobby Johns Bearheart
Man of vision, heart, determination, and an unfailing sense of humor
Your Spirit Lives and Inspires us All!
Sunday morning, February 3, 2013: Mekko Bobby Thomas Johns Bearheart passed away peacefully at home. His dream lives on and his spirit soars where the red-tails fly.
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