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Reel Injuns

Stan Cartright of the Perdido Bay Muskogee-Creek Tribe wrote a note in response to the film review of “Reel Injuns.” It struck a poignant emotional response with me because so much of my fond childhood memories paralleled those of Stan’s . . . especially about catching large turtles for our grandmother’s to cook. One slight difference. It was my grandmother who made the baskets, while my grandfather carved wooden bowls for mixing flour. As a young woman, my grandmother also hand-made pottery, but she no longer did that, when I was around.

Stan grew up in the Muskogee-Creek territory of west-central Georgia, while I always lived in Itstate-Creek territory. At age 8 my family moved from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Georgia Mountains. Instead of a cave, my mother took me at age six to Ocmulgee National Monument to view the royal burial that was then on display. She told me, “Richard, this could be one of your ancestors.” At age 16 my Methodist minister, who was also Creek, took me to the burial display at Etowah Mounds and told me the same thing.

Stan’s comments point out something very important that indigenous peoples living in Oklahoma often forget. While the descendants of the Southeast’s indigenous peoples, still living in the Southeast, have typically forgotten their original language, many day-to-day cultural traditions were maintained that are no longer practiced in Oklahoma. Both boys and girls were out running in the woods as soon as we could walk. I still do! We all spent many a day wandering through freshly plowed fields, looking for potsherds and arrowheads . . . knowing that the artifacts could have been made by our ancestors. We all have kept close watch on the ruins of our ancestral towns. Such places are very personal and spiritual to us, not abstract locations on the map.

At age 11 I first became aware that there was something really, really important that occurred in the valley where the Track Rock ruins are located. It was through that valley that my Boy Scout Troop hiked and camped for three weeks. I earned enough merit badges to become one of the youngest Eagle Scouts ever. One of them was the Archaeology badge. However, it took many decades for me to answer the vague spiritual feelings of that young Boy Scout.

Here is Stan’s list:

The other day while deer hunting, I began to think of all the things that I have done, being taught primarily by my father and grandmother. Some may have been of European origin, I don’t know, but read and consider:

  1. Tracked logger head turtles in streams and pulled them from beneath the banks, sometimes with a gig, sometimes by hand
  2. Tracked logger head turtles in ponds by following their “bubble trail” and catching them as they surfaced for air
  3. Tracked deer taking them with bow and arrow and with rifle
  4. Made and hunted with bow and arrow as a young man, knapping points from stone – store bought was not available
  5. Trapped turtles with baskets, some of which were made of white oak strips
  6. Trapped rabbits with boxes and sometimes having run some in holes retrieved them with a stick thrust into the hole and twisting it, thus bringing the rabbit out
  7. Watched my daddy run a rabbit down and catch it and me doing the same at age 17
  8. Watched my daddy run a fox down and catch it just to show he could
  9. Hauled water from streams to our 1850’s house, no electricity, no well
  10. Killed or doctored animals according to the phase of the moon
  11. Wore clothes fashioned from flour sacks
  12. Fished for suckers during their Spring spawn run
  13. Seined hidden, natural ponds with home made seins
  14. Run and fished trot lines baited with doe balls cooked by the woman
  15. “Robbed” honey bee nests for the honey, using smoke from pine boughs
  16. Slept on the banks of the Flint and Chattahoochee River for days at a time, with no cover, tent, etc. – fishing wasn’t a sport, it was a way to get supper
  17. Watched my grandfather weave baskets from oak and cane; watched my grandmother make quilts
  18. Ate my share of fish heads, cause nothing went to waste
  19. Lived at the base of the mountains of The Cove
  20. Hunted those same mountains for days at a time
  21. Taken to caves in The Cove and told my ancestors once lived in them
  22. Listen to my aunt tell of “bird switching” and roasting those birds over the fire in the house
  23. Participated in funerals that lasted for days and days…..this was in the 50’s, folks don’t do this anymore
  24. Flipping rocks in The Flint, for “rock worms” with which to bait trot lines
  25. Way back when, hunting whatever, with only the light of the full moon to reveal what might be supper
  26. Spending all day in the mountains picking blueberries
  27. Being doctored by what ever grandmother had gathered from the woods
  28. Being conjured over or “spoken over” in a unrecognizable language for healing

This list is not all inclusive, but all these thoughts came to me the other day as I sat in the woods.

Hope that you enjoyed the list.

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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