Richard Thornton | May 9, 2017 | 23
The Forgotten History of the National Creek Confederacy . . . 1974 AD
There was an attempt in the 1970s to create one Creek Confederacy in the United States. It eventually fell apart into a few federally recognized tribes and dozens of small, unrecognized tribes, composed of Creek and Uchee descendants outside of Oklahoma.
Unless members of a non-federally recognized tribe are closely concentrated in one community or already members of an institution such as a church congregation . . . plus own a council house and dance ground . . . the chances are very slim that the tribe will last more than a few years. That is exactly what happened to many of the original member tribes of the new Creek Confederacy.
The year is 1973. During the previous decade organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) had raised the self-awareness of Native American descendants throughout the nation. An even more important change for Southeastern Muskogeans was the dramatic effort of a young governor in Georgia, named Jimmy Carter, to right old wrongs.
One of Jimmy’s first efforts after being inaugurated in early 1971 had been the demand to the Georgia General Assembly that all laws, which banned citizenship rights for American Indians, be repealed. Since 1828, Georgia had maintained laws, which forbade Indians from owning real estate, voting, attending public schools, being in a licensed profession or even speaking in court on their own behalf. Neighboring states quietly repealed similar, but not as severe laws in their states after Carter’s program got national attention.
By 1973, Carter had pushed through an act which allowed the State of Georgia to recognize Indian tribes regardless of their relationship with the federal government. The law also created an Indian Affairs Commission. Alabama and South Carolina followed suit. Florida passed a similar law, but to date has only recognized tribes that were already federally recognized.
In the exhilaration of the times, several elders of Creek descent in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina held a series of meetings in order to re-create the Creek Confederacy. They included country-western star, Neil McCormick (inventor of the electric steel guitar) and Bobby “Bearheart” Johns. McCormick had grown up on the Yellow River in Alabama, but was now living in deep Southwest Georgia. Johns had grown up on the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia, but now was living in Pensacola, Florida.
The dream of these elders was bring together all the Creeks and Seminoles in the United States into one confederated tribe, which recognized separate “tribal town” identities as in the old days. It would be, by far, the largest Indian tribe in the United States, as the Creek Confederacy had been in 1812. There were perhaps over a million Americans of at least some Creek or Seminole ancestry with no tribal affiliation.
The Muscogee-Creek Nation did not exist at that time. It would not be created until 1979. Individual Creeks and Seminoles in Oklahoma were interested, but there was NO ONE, who could represent the thousands of potential tribal members in their state.
Poverty was particular severe among Upper Creeks and Seminoles in Oklahoma. The Dawes Act allotments had dispersed them into being political non-entities.
Also, there was the problem of the over 5,000 Creeks in California, who left during the Great Dust Storms of the 1930s. There was no way of even identifying the families in order to contact them. In contrast, three tribal towns in Oklahoma, plus the Seminoles and Miccosukee in Florida were federally recognized. They were reluctant to give up their special identity. Of course, no one at the time knew that the Chickasaws had been founding members of the original Creek Confederacy.
Federal officials freaked out at the possibility of a national Creek tribe. The Nixon Administration had been terrified by the political activities of AIM. However, many AIM members were uneducated and were members of the indigenous tribes, whose personalities were notoriously bipolar. The Creeks were noted for being well educated and having cool-headed, bulldog stubbornness. Overnight, there would appear an organization far more powerful than any African-American civil rights group, that at least in constitutional theory was a sovereign nation within the United States.
Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrats went to work on the federally recognized Indians in Florida and Oklahoma. It was the old divide and conquer game. Certain politically influential, non-federally recognized Creeks in Oklahoma were promised that they could have federal recognition back and become quite wealthy as result, if they avoided alliances with the Creeks and Seminoles elsewhere. Nothing came of the trips between the Southeast and Oklahoma, except eventual creation of the Muscogee Creek and Seminole Nations in Oklahoma.
After being rebuffed, the Southeastern Creek leaders decided in 1974 to form the Southeastern Creek Confederacy, but also create large Creek reservations in Alabama, Georgia and northern Florida, which would be attractive to impoverished Oklahoma Creeks and Seminoles . . . always leaving the door open for eventual national reunification.
The election of Jimmy Carter as President in 1976, gave the Creek leaders hope that they would receive reparations for past wrongs done the Creeks. In particular, the leaders wanted the federal government to return a portion of the Ocmulgee Reserve near Macon, GA, which had been granted to the Creek Confederacy in perpetuity in 1805, but quickly overrun by squatters and real estate speculators. Macon’s leaders liked this idea, because a reservation would be a boost to tourism.
Also, Creek leaders wanted the Southeastern Archaeological Center returned to Ocmulgee National Monument from Florida State University. In 1973, Richard Nixon, by Executive Order, had moved the facility from Georgia and gutted the staff at Ocmulgee National Monument as punishment for Georgia’s Democratic Congressmen and Senators pressing for his impeachment. It took decades for Ocmulgee National Monument to recover from the damage done by the Nixon Administration.
Other smaller reserves were proposed to provide nuclei for Creek repatriation. A Creek Reserve was proposed around Fort Mitchell, across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus. In 1832, Creeks had been granted allotments in east-central Alabama, but saw them stolen away by the Treaty of Cusseta in 1836.
The Carter Administration had proposed the Talking Rock Wilderness Area, east of Carters Lake, whose creation had inspired the book and movie, Deliverance. The location was the site of the massive town of Kusa, which was visited by Hernando de Soto in the summer of 1540. The Creek Confederacy proposed that Talking Rock Wilderness Area become a Creek reserve as reparation for the 8.5 million acres of North Georgia that was stolen from the Creek Confederacy by the federal government at the Treaties of Hopewell and Augusta in 1785. Part of the land was secretly given to the Cherokees to be their new home, but the Creeks didn’t even know about the theft until 1790.
Creek leaders also wanted small Creek reserves designated next to the Wetumka, AL sacred grounds, the Okefenokee Swamp, Pensacola Bay and St. Catherines Island, GA, which had been granted in perpetuity by the British Crown, but seized by Georgians illegally. Until the 1890s, the Okefenokee Swamp had been occupied by a band of Creek Indians, but because Creeks were not allowed to own real estate in Georgia, the state had allowed Northern timber companies to seize their homesteads.
How we got to where we are today
The issue of gambling caused the Southeastern Creek Confederacy to fall apart. Apparently, certain white business interests had been encouraging the creation of a new Creek Confederacy as a means of establishing casinos in several states. Most of the Creek elders in the Southeast balked at being associated with gambling. However, persons were identified among Oklahoma and Poarch Creeks, who agreed to support establishment of gambling casinos in return for being granted federal recognition. Once the Muscogee Creek Nation had established a chain of casinos, some of its leaders put obstacles in the way for the three much older, federally recognized tribal towns of Thlopthlocco, Kialegee and Alabama-Quassarte having their own casinos.
Meanwhile, the Florida Seminole Tribe has consistently put obstructions in the way of federal recognition being granted to some legitimate Creek communities in northern Florida. No matter what is said, the real reason is that they do not want competing Indian casinos in the northern part of the state.
Some of the Creek Reserves in the Southeast almost became a reality. At Georgia Tech, I had been one of Jimmy Carter’s first Governor’s Interns. One of my colleagues was beautiful Caron Griffin, who was also of Creek descent and later married Chip Carter. Mid-way through the Carter Administration, I had already developed a reputation in community planning and was contacted by the Department of Interior about developing concepts for Creek reserves next to Ocmulgee National Monument and on the site of the ancient town of Kusa at Carters Lake. The Ocmulgee Creek Reserve would contain the relocated Southeastern Archaeological Center, while the Talking Rock Reserve would contain a museum devoted to the De Soto Expedition and Kusa.
Work had progressed on the site analysis for about three months when the Iranian Islamic radicals seized the United States embassy in Tehran. From then on, the Carter Administration was focused on preventing a war with Iran while returning the embassy staff safely to the United States. My work on the Creek reserves was allowed by Department of the Interior bureaucrats to sputter along to nothingness.
A little known fact is that Jimmy Carter’s closest allies were moderate Republicans and Democrats, who worked with him in his efforts to balance the budget and make the nation free of dependence on Arab oil. His arch-enemy was Ted Kennedy and a faction of Northern Democrats, who hated anything in the Southeast. They blamed Southerners for the assassination of John Kennedy. Ted Kennedy thought that by obstructing Carter’s efforts and painting him in the (I hate to use the term, but) liberal media as a country bumpkin, he would be elected president in 1980.
What appeared to be the situation between 1978 and 1980 is that pro-Kennedy factionalists in the Department of Interior thwarted efforts of Carter appointees to enact programs to right past wrongs done the Southeastern Indians, because we were viewed merely as Southern rednecks with a nice tan. The federal recognition of the Muscogee-Creek Nation did come about, because Oklahoma Democrats were strong allies of Carter. Back then, both Oklahoma and Texas were bastions of Moderate Democrats.
The State of Alabama came through on its promises to the Creeks. Fort Mitchell was designated a National Monument dedicated to Creek history. The Wetumka Council Grounds and Archaeological Zone were given to the Poarch Band of Creeks as a reserve to be used in perpetuity in its natural state. A portion of that site is now a gambling casino.
In 2008, Escambia County, Florida (Pensacola) gave the Perdido Bay Tribe a reserve. Perdido Bay was one of the founding members of the Southeastern Creek Confederacy.
As for most of the Native American tribes that formed in the 1970s in Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina . . . those that were not associated with churches or did not acquire real estate for dance grounds and council houses dribbled away. All of the elders, who attempted to start the National Creek Confederacy have now passed on to their eternal reward. The tribes, they started, still exist, but in greatly reduced membership and without regular contact with other Creek tribes.
There were a legion of “Cherokee” tribes in the 1970s and early 1980s, formed by people of questionable Native American ancestry. The 1980s and 1990s, four competing Cherokee tribes in Georgia, composed of people, who didn’t look Native American, fought in court over who was the real Cherokees. Most of the artificial Cherokee tribes have dwindled into being seldom viewed web sites maintained by individuals, who call themselves the Principal Chief of the “Grand Muckity Muck” Cherokee Nation. Yep . . . one person nations.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote constitutions for the re-constituted Southeastern tribes in Oklahoma that denied enrollment to anyone, whose ancestor did not sign the Dawes List. I was told by Judge Patrick Moore that over 5,000 Creeks in Oklahoma had refused to sign the list because they knew that it meant their farms would be re-allotted.
My Creek great-grand parents in Georgia refused to sign the Dawes List for the same reason, but I do have relatives, who are citizens of the Muscogee-Creek Nation. I look far more “Injun” than they do. My grandmother’s oldest brother did move to Oklahoma in 1905 and take a Creek allotment, on the basis that his family was listed as Creek in the US Census.
Meanwhile, certain BIA bureaucrats and tribal officials have continued to stoke caca into the ears of those Native American descendants, who carry BIA cards. They told that they are the “real” Native Americans and that they should shun members of non-federally recognized tribes. Playing such ego trips is just more of the divide and conquer game that destroyed the Creek Confederacy in the early 1800s.
Some things never change.
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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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