Peeling Away the Layers of Forgotten History

“I don’t want to talk about it! They treated us worse than the coloreds.”

That is what my Granny Ruby would generally say when we asked questions about our Creek heritage. Even her nickname, Ruby, was an enigma. Since the mid-1700s, one girl in her family in each generation was given the Creek name, Mahala, which means “teacher,” yet they always went by the name of Ruby. Many Creek families in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina had the same tradition, but no one today knows why.

My grandparents’ house was filled with hints of our Native American heritage. My grandmother made pottery by hand as a girl. As a young adult she wove baskets. In her later years, she focused on making lots of money from selling fried pies, made from dried fruit. My grandfather was a woodcarver in addition to running a general store. He was paid big bucks for carving massive wooden bowls, but in later years focused on smoking meats. He taught me how to fish, hunt and smoke meats, but sadly never gave away his secrets for carving paper thin wood bowls, two feet in diameter.

In my grandparents’ desk was a shoebox filled with aging, sepiatone photographs of ancestors long dead. In some photos, the people were dressed like white people of that era. In others the same people were dressed like Seminole Indians. That didn’t make sense because the Seminoles lived 500 miles to the south. No one would tell us the stories behind these photographs.

Each year the family elders would set the reunion on the full moon nearest the summer solstice, when the roasting ears were ripening. That’s the Green Corn Festival, but no one told our generation why. We occasionally traded letters with distant cousins in the Creek Nation in Oklahoma. No one would tell us why they went to Oklahoma.

When I was five, my mother received a phone call from a federal bureaucrat. She was offered 100 acres of land in Oklahoma as reparations for land stolen from her family in Georgia during the 1800s. I heard her say, “No, I don’t want folks around here knowing that we are Indians.” After she got off the phone, she lectured me sternly not to tell the neighbors that we were Indians.

Throughout the Lower Southeast, many Native American families have a similar complaint. The generation that grew up in the early 20th century refused to pass on the knowledge from the past. Their grandchildren were left with a yearning to find out who they really were.

There is a reason for this cultural hiatus. A little known fact is that there were more Creeks and Yuchi left in Georgia than were forced into Alabama and ultimately to the Indian Territory (Oklahoma.) Many were the descendants of Creek Indian veterans of the American Revolution or War of 1812. There were thousands of Creek and Yuchi women, married to white men. During that period, most Creeks who became Christians were beaten and banished from their tribal town. They soon moved to communities outside the Creek Confederacy, where other Creek and Yuchi Christian families were concentrated.

After all Creek tribal lands were ceded to Georgia in 1827, there were pogroms against Creek families, who remained in Georgia legally, during 1832, 1836, 1838, 1840, 1843 and 1855. Even though they were citizens of the State of Georgia, events such the Creek and Seminole Wars in Alabama and Florida would trigger random persecutions in Georgia. Almost always a family’s deportation would be triggered by a wealthy white planter wanting their land.

There was a law on the books in Georgia until Jimmy Carter was elected governor that stated American Indians could not own land, vote, attend public schools, hold a professional license or testify on their own behalf in court. However, the law was rarely enforced after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president. My mother was the first person in her family that the State of Georgia allowed to graduate from high school. She was valedictorian of her high school class, attended the University of Georgia on a full scholarship and graduated Summa Cum Laude. Later on in life she was Teacher of the Year in Georgia.

Typical of these pogroms was what happened to some of my relatives in 1855. A sheriff’s posse’ showed up at the farmhouse door without warning. Their livestock was immediately seized to pay “the cost of court expenses.” They were put in chains and marched 180 miles to the Alabama line. They lived in tents in Barbour County for a year until someone in the Creek Nation gave them money to travel to Oklahoma. Soon after their departure, their farm was auctioned off on the courthouse steps to some wealthy planter so he could grow more cotton . . . of course, with his slaves doing the work.

Things became radically better for Southeastern Creeks during the Civil War. The Confederate Congress declared all Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, Seminoles and Cherokees to be full citizens. The United States would not do that until 1924. For four decades after the Civil War, Southeastern Creeks could come out into the sunshine and openly practice their traditions. They still could not attend public schools, however. My grandmother attended a school in the basement of her Methodist church. It was taught by her minister, who held a Doctorate of Divinity from Emory University; not a shabby education.

It was a period of virulent racism between1905 and 1932 that caused my grandmother’s generation to not pass on their heritage. She and her siblings were not allowed to hop onto the mule wagon and go into town, because white kids would throw mud and manure at them. She was in a hard-working middle class farm family, who owned their land and obeyed the laws. Their crime was having black hair, tan skin . . . and perhaps not being properly submissive.

2006: the year when they just went too far

Beginning in 2000, Creeks from around the nation began to overcome 165 years of forced isolation on the new-fangled internet. The Creek-Southeast message board provided a means for people to trade their family histories and knowledge of the past. Oklahoma Creeks knew virtually nothing about their heritage before the Trail of Tears. Southeastern Creeks had forgotten the languages and the traditional dances. By 2005, it was becoming a research tool on which Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles with post-graduate and professional degrees were rapidly peeling away the layers of forgotten knowledge by sharing research.

Then in early 2006, a group of white women in Georgia, who had recently come into positions of power, inexplicably launched a cultural war against Georgia’s Creek Indians. It didn’t make any sense, because the main complaint that whites always had against the Creeks was that their women were equal in all things. Creek parents could not strike children, and men who beat their wives were punished severely. Creek women had the right to vote and hold office years before white American women did.

The Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma had been donating $5000 a year to the State of Georgia to support archaeological research at Etowah Mounds. Nevertheless, the annual Creek Indian Festival at Sweetwater Creek State Park was banned. A delegation of high ranking elected officials from the Muscogee-Creek Nation was un-invited two weeks before the annual Creek Barbicoa at Etowah Mounds State Historic Site. The name of the banquet was changed at the last minute to “A Woodland Feast” and North Carolina Cherokee officials were invited in their place.

Shortly thereafter a delegation of North Carolina Cherokees showed up at Etowah Mounds and demanded that all references to the Creek Indians, all books written by Creeks and all art created by Creeks be removed from the museum. The books and art were removed for several years, but not the signs mentioning the Creek Indians. The state had no funds for that shenanigan.

The Cherokees had absolutely nothing to do with the construction of mounds and pre-European town sites in Georgia. They were nowhere around. The first map to show a Cherokee village in Georgia was printed in 1725. In 1776 the British Army estimated that there were 25 Cherokee men of military age in the entire Province of Georgia, which then included Alabama and Mississippi. However, Cherokee refugees poured into Northwest Georgia toward the end of the American Revolution and in the 1780s.

Later that year, Gina Abraham, the new Georgia DOT commissioner, along with a female archaeologist, newly arrived from Illinois, issued a massive press release throughout the nation, which announced that a planned archaeological investigation, funded by the GDOT, was going to prove that the Cherokees had occupied Georgia for 1000 years. The site was a Native town upstream from Etowah Mounds. Its mound had been thoroughly investigated by two famous archaeologists, Robert Wauchope and Arthur Kelley. Both men assessed it to be one of the ancestral towns of the Creek Indians.

Irate Creek descendants from around the state sent letters to Abraham, demanding that she retract and correct the onerous press release. She refused. However, neither she nor the newly arrived archaeologist ever made anymore public claims about the town site being Cherokee.

A Creek female professor with a PhD in Anthropology urged us to immediately organize a political action group before the out-of-state Cherokees with their casino money and these white feminists on a power gig got away with completely re-writing Georgia’s history. She warned, “Today Georgia, tomorrow the whole Southeast.” She also warned us that the tribal and government bureaucrats were buying the loyalty of archaeological firms with consulting contracts and of anthropology professors with research grants.

Ironically, what eventually evolved was a research alliance whose rules banned partisan political activity. When our tempers cooled down, we realized that even as a fairly large organization, we could not begin to match the financial power of federally recognized tribes with their gambling casinos or the political power of entrenched bureaucrats.

What we did have was our brains. The Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles in recent years have emphasized advanced education as the most effective means to equalize the playing field. We would stress thorough, scientific research as the weapon to challenge the inaccurate speculations of white archaeologists or the power plays of bureaucrats. The People of One Fire was born. Eight years later, People of One Fire researchers are turning the American history books upside down.

Richard L. Thornton is an architect and city planner.