Two hundred thirty years ago the sovereignty of the newborn United States was inextricably interwoven with that of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Today is no different, as last week’s events in Washington, D.C. demonstrate.
From the Library of Congress to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, America’s capital was inundated with accolades to Muscogee women receiving the highest honors in the arts, leadership, and public advocacy.
As Ambassador to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, I could not be more proud.
Thursday I was honored to attend the inaugural reading, commencing Joy Harjo’s term as the first ever Native, U.S. Poet Laureate. The reading was held at the Library of Congress, and the line of individuals hoping to get into the Coolidge Auditorium stretched seemingly forever down the long marble hallway. Staff reported that more than 1200 showed up that night to hear Joy, more than any other poet laureate has ever seen on their inaugural eve. Joy came on stage to a raucous, never-ending standing ovation, and I watched as the audience hung on her every word. Her poetry touched all who attended that night; we laughed, we cried, and most of all, we celebrated. We were witnessing history. The first ever Native U.S. Poet Laureate.
It is not lost on me that our first Native U.S. Poet Laureate is Muscogee. Our Nation is home to some of the highest thinkers and creative artists. Joy is a citizen of Creek Nation, and she explained to the audience how her cultural experience and survival as a Muscogee woman have profoundly impacted her poetry. She also created space to recognize and honor the sovereignty of her Nation. The entire evening’s program began with a prayer from Robin Soweka, the warrior, or Tvstvnvke, from Hickory Ground, one of our traditional ceremonial grounds. Following this prayer from one of our esteemed ceremonial leaders, the Librarian of Congress invited Principal Chief James Floyd to the stage, and he provided a welcome on behalf of all of Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Following Chief Floyd’s address, the Librarian of Congress came on stage and gifted our Chief a framed portrait of Chitto Harjo, from the Library’s archives.
The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. Chitto Harjo is one of Creek Nation’s most significant Ambassadors, and one of my personal heros. At a time when Creek Nation’s sovereignty was on the line amidst federal implementation of allotment policies, Chitto Harjo passionately advocated to preserve Creek lands and sovereignty. Despite the many devastating effects of allotment policy, due to the advocacy of Chitto Harjo and others, critical aspects of Creek Nation’s nationhood, including its reservation boundaries, were retained.
Today, I serve as the official ambassador to Creek Nation — a role I do not take lightly. And as the U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy now serves as a cultural ambassador to the Creek Nation. Just as Chitto Harjo faced adversarial attacks on our nation’s sovereignty, Joy’s role as a cultural ambassador comes at a time when our nation’s sovereignty is under attack. Oklahoma is seeking to have the Creek Nation Reservation judicially dis-established in the Supreme Court — just one building down from where we celebrated Joy’s inauguration. In a country with a long history of marginalizing, or outright dismissing, Native voices, Joy’s role as U.S. Poet Laureate provides a powerful platform to educate non-Natives about who Native People are today.
The very next day, I was honored to attend a symposium at the Smithsonian NMAI entitled “A Promise Kept: The Inspiring Life and Works of Suzan Shown Harjo.” The symposium featured luminaries from all across Indian Country, from Rick West and Kevin Gover to Mary Kathryn Nagle and Mark Trahant, all who came to discuss Suzan’s influential role as a policy advocate, writer, and curator. Suzan’s contributions to Indian Country cannot be overstated. She has advocated tirelessly on issues related to treaty rights, abolition of racist sports mascots, sacred places’ protection and access, religious freedom and language revitalization—and her efforts have been incredibly successful. Working in collaboration with many other celebrated Native rights advocates, Suzan has been integral to the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Religious Freedoms Act, the act that gave rise to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on the Washington Mall and so much more. She served as executive director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) from 1984 through 1989, and her poetry and playwriting have won accolades and awards across the United States. In 2014, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest honor a civilian can receive from the U.S. President.
The symposium itself was powerful, as presenter after presenter added layer upon layer of photos, quotes, and other forms of evidence to document Suzan’s profound impact. Her father was a Muscogee Creek citizen, as well as her son Duke, and she grew up accompanying her father to his family’s ceremonial grounds, Nuyakv. Although she is undeniably proud of her citizenship in the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, she is also seen by many as a prototype of a strong Muscogee matriarch. Her Muscogee roots run deep, and she has spent years defending all sacred places, but especially Hickory Grounds, a sacred ceremonial ground that contains the burials of our Muscogee forefathers.
The recent celebration of Suzan’s critical work as an artist, a policy advocate, a leader, and a protector of our ceremonial Hickory Ground draws its roots to the historic sovereign-to-sovereign relationship between Muscogee (Creek) Nation and the United States.
In 1790, President Washington signed a treaty with the Muscogee Creek Nation, and in order to do so, he negotiated with the Head of the Muscogee delegation—a leader from our ceremonial Hickory Ground — the ground Suzan has worked so hard to protect. Together, meeting often in Washington’s home, they shaped and secured the southwestern boundary of the United States. This became known as the Treaty of New York, since the capital of the infantile United States was in New York.
At a time when international nations questioned the sovereignty of the newly born United States, President Washington sought to sign treaties with the Indian Nations whose sovereignty had previously been affirmed through their treaties signed with France, Spain, and England. Following the ratification of the new U.S. Constitution, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was one of the first to sign a treaty with the newborn United States.
In addition to Joy’s celebration and Suzan’s honors, another powerful event highlighting our strong matriarchal tradition recently occurred. On September 14, Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizen Sarah Deer was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in upstate New York. Among her many contributions to the arenas of law and policy, she was recognized for her staunch advocacy to end domestic violence and sexual assault against Native women in securing the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
The recognition of two Muscogee women in the United States capital honors not only the continued sovereignty of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation—but also, the United States. As the celebration of these historic events occurred practically within earshot of the Supreme Court, the symbolism could not be more poignant. I am confident that the work of these two incredible Muscogee women will build on the foundation laid by our historical Ambassadors, such as Chitto Harjo, and embolden us as we face renewed attacks on our sovereignty today.
It is a great day to be Muscogee.
Jonodev Chaudhuri is Ambassador for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He is an attorney and the former chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission.