University of Tennessee scholar rediscovers his Native roots
Native American Heritage Month
Thoughts on Being Native American
by Dr. Ray W. Burden, Jr.
Editor’s Intro: Dr. Ray W. Burden, Jr. has had extraordinary experiences in his life. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, some of the fondest memories of his childhood were the trips over to rural Northeast Georgia, where his mother grew up . . . in particular, the family reunions. Georgia Creek family reunions are a subtle way of celebrating the Green Corn Festival without anyone else realizing it. Back then, they were held on the weekend of the full moon nearest the Summer Solstice and the ripening of the “roasting ears” of corn.
Ray served in US Naval Intelligence. He earned a Masters Degree. He and his wife then returned to the country. They grew their own vegetables, managed a dairy farm and then owned a farm supply store. He went back to college and obtained a Doctorate in Education. From then on he was a Agricultural Extension Agent . . . eventually becoming the Director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Cooperative Extension Office. Most recently, Ray has been employed by the University of Tennessee. Under contract with Homeland Security, he has been working as a consultant to Native American tribes around the United States . . . helping them to prepare for emergencies caused by natural events, industrial accidents and terrorist attacks.
It is fascinating how many Creeks and Seminoles invariably become involved with “Special Ops” or “intelligence-gathering activities” in the military. POOF’s own Jim Rhodes was a Special Ops soldier with the US Army in Vietnam. So was Jim Billie, the Principal Chief of the Seminole Tribe in Florida. My great-great uncle commanded a troop of Apache scouts during the hunt in northern Mexico for Pancho Villa in 1917. Ray and I were involved in related activities with the Navy, but never knew it until recently, because of the 20 year “don’t tell anyone” requirement.
Ray Burden’s Thoughts
Some of my earliest and happiest memories are sitting on the porch of my grandparent’s house and listening to Papaw talk about the Bone family and our Creek Indian heritage. He would count to 10 in what he said was “Indian” in a rhythmic chant that mesmerized me. He would tell us the tale of the “crazy Injun’ Bone that jumped up at a banquet, drew his sword and cut off the heads of all the Tory men at the table.”
At the time, it didn’t occur to me that a Creek Indian in the 1700’s would probably not be using a sword! But the story has a ring of truth in the fact that our ancestor, Jack Bone (grandfather of Tiger Bone), led a band of Creek “Special Forces” for the patriots during the Revolutionary War. He always said that his grandmother, our great-great grandmother, who was named Mahala, was an “Indian.” At one point in my early years, I even started to identify myself on forms as American Indian. I was told that I could not do that and stopped for many years. Now, thanks to genetic testing and you, my cousin, I know that the stories of my Grandfather Sam Bone were not just family tales.
Early in 1971, I picked up a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and literally devoured the book in a few hours. I was profoundly impacted by the truths of what had occurred to our Western brothers and sisters. A few years later, I watched the movie Billy Jack while I was serving active duty in the US Navy near the end of the Vietnam War. Once again, I was profoundly moved to the point that I made some changes in my spiritual life that have stayed with me to this day.
Unfortunately, despite these deep emotional and intellectual events, I never took the next step to strive to make the plight of our People better. Then, 3 ½ years ago, I had the opportunity to lead the development of two FEMA-sponsored training courses for tribal nations. These courses were not to be edited versions of existing FEMA courses. They were to be developed with tribal nations as the sole target audience. During the course of the development, I was able to work with numerous Native American groups including the United South and Eastern Tribes, and the Tribal Emergency Management Association. I also worked closely with FEMA’s Tribal Liaisons and the Dept of Homeland Security’s Tribal contact. I finally felt like I was doing something to help our People. I have had the honor to teach the courses several times to numerous tribal groups.
I am reminded of an old story about a Holy Man. His village was located in a mountain valley along a beautiful river. The villagers always looked to him to guide them during times of hardships. One spring, heavy rains in the mountains resulted in a devastating flood that left the village virtually destroyed. The people of the village went to find the Holy Man and seek his advice on how to recover. However, he could not be found. His son, whom the villagers also looked to for advice and assistance worked many long hours trying to assist with the recovery.
They begged the son to go find his father so that he could led them. The son searched for many days and finally found his father at the head of the river stacking stones. The son pleaded with his father to return but the father continued to stack stones. Finally, just as the son was about to leave, the father looked up and said, “You are helping our people to recover from this flood, and that is good. I am building a damn to prevent floods from destroying our people.”
Now, I am certainly not a Holy Man or the son of a Holy Man, but I do feel like what I can do is show our People how to mitigate and prevent future disasters that can threaten their lives. My phenotype does not provide a physical appearance that many individuals would associate with Native Americans. But since we are Creek with a genetic heritage that is Maya, the phenotype would certainly not fit with “popular” stereotypes. This is not an issue for me.
When I am asked about my heritage while delivering these courses, I readily share with them my background. In a recent delivery for the Blackfeet Nation, I shared my Creek background with the local Point of Contact, telling her that I am actually Creek (Yuchee). She immediately started telling me about the Yuchees and how they were treated. Don’t know if that had any impact on the eventual outcome of the course, but one of the individuals who had been somewhat recalcitrant during the first day, became one of the best students and was constantly offering me insights into how the Blackfeet operated their emergency management. BTW, he was a close friend of the Point of Contact.
Peace be with all of you.
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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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