Teaching Creek heritage in the 21st century

Submitted by Richard L. Thornton (talamachusee@aol.com)

Prominently displayed on the office wall of the Muskogee (Creek) Tribe’s Chief Justice, Patrick Moore, is a tattered old flag. At first glance, one might assume it was a Civil War ancestor’s regimental banner. The Okmulgee, Oklahoma attorney, though, will be quick to tell you that it is a 200-year-old battle ensign of the Creek Navy. Yes, the Creek Confederacy once had a small gunboat navy, which patrolled the Gulf Coast and rivers of their lands. This little-known fact is one of many that distinguish the Muskogean people’s heritage. Unfortunately, among modern-day Creeks, few know anything about their heritage prior to being forced to leave their Homeland in the Southeast.

Led by such dedicated people as Judge Moore and Cultural Resources Director, Joyce Bear, the Muskogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma has embarked on a multi-tiered educational program to raise public awareness of the richness of their ancient culture and to instill pride among tribal members in their accomplishments. A university has been founded, which will train Native American professionals. Creek students are being taught about the accomplishments of the Muskogean peoples prior to the disastrous impact of European invasion, and again prior to the forced deportation of many Creeks to Oklahoma. Tribal leaders are also reaching out to people of Creek descent back in the Creek Homeland of Georgia, Alabama, eastern Tennessee, northern Florida, and South Carolina. Many Creeks, especially those of the Hitchiti-speaking branch, did not go west, and instead assimilated into the American frontier culture or hid out in the swamps of Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. In the near future, tribal leaders plan to build one or more living history towns where visitors can experience life as it was in the Southeast prior to European contact. They also anticipate a major expansion of the tribe’s anthropological museum in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma Creeks take great pride in their culture’s survival. Several times, apocalyptic losses of population have almost exterminated them. In the 1500s and early 1600s, the Muskogeans lost perhaps 90-98 percent of their population to European diseases, Spanish weapons, and English/Spanish slave raids. Between 1812-1838, somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 Creeks died as a result of warfare, terrorist attacks by bands of frontier thugs, or the Trail of Tears. The Creeks were intentionally placed on lands in Oklahoma that were claimed by six “wild” tribes such as the Sioux and Comanche. It was thought that in a short time the wild Indians would exterminate the Creeks. Instead the Creek Mounted Rifles quickly defeated all enemies (Indian and White) and the Creeks became the dominant political force on the Western Plains just prior to the Civil War. During the American Civil War, over one-third of the Creek Nation died. Ironically, it was the minority that sided with the North that especially suffered. They were put into concentration camps in Kansas, where many starved to death. The South considered the Creeks to be full (and militarily valuable) citizens, so did their best to maintain the pro-South faction’s welfare.

After the Civil War, the Bureau of Indian Affairs adopted divisive policies, which would encourage the tribe to disband as soon as possible. It is interesting that the most authoritative book on Creek history, The Road to Disappearance, was originally written by Angie Debo in 1941, when it was assumed that the Creeks would become invisible within a decade. However, today Creek culture is thriving, and the Oklahoma branch alone is one of the largest tribes in the United States.

Virtual Reality Educational Tools

Over the past two years, my architecture practice has been providing the Muskogee (Creek) Nation with full-color virtual reality computer models of ancestral towns and ceremonial villages in the Creek Homeland. These are used in exhibits and on educational websites. Professors use my first book, Ocmulgee Under Five Suns, as the primary teaching aid for explaining Muskogean Culture prior to European Contact. More recently, I prepared virtual reality models of 63 Native American town sites throughout the Southeast, Ohio Valley, and Mississippi Valley for use in the Creek’s educational programs. Members of other tribes are beginning to attend classes at Muskogee University, so the professors thought it was appropriate to expand the cultural base of their curriculum.

Ocese’ Model

Since the autumn of 2005, I have been working on a very interesting project for the Oklahoma Creeks. They requested that I build a large photo-realistic model of the Mother Town, Talwa Ocese’ (pronounced Ochessee in English.) Anthropologists know this site as “the Lamar Village at Ocmulgee National Monument.” It will be on display in the lobby of the Creek’s office building and also be used to educate groups of students from the local schools. I had initially assumed that this would be a simple project ‚“to get my feet wet” prior to going on to building models of more famous sites like Italwa (Etowah Mounds). Readily available resources said that the Lamar Village was a small community that appeared about 200 years after the large mounds at Ocmulgee were abandoned, and itself was abandoned a short time after European Contact.

However, after obtaining a little-seen 1973 archaeological report from the National Park Service*, my understanding of the Lamar site changed drastically. As usual, the actual archaeological information on the site contrasted greatly with museum exhibits and general assumptions made by the archaeological community. Ocese’ was a large 22.6-acre town on an island! The island was still visible as late as 1800. Two hundred years of severe flooding and deep sedimentation has significantly changed the appearance of the site. “Lamar’s Island” was not just a Late Mississippian-Lamar Culture settlement, but a location for periodic human habitation for thousands of years.

According to the NPS report, during the Archaic and Sedentary periods, the site of Ocese’ had originally been a horseshoe bend in the river. Archaic and Sedentary period peoples camped or built villages there from time to time. The truncated platform mound at Ocese’ was begun around AD 1200, only about 50 years after construction ceased on the Great Temple Mound at Ocmulgee. The Spiral Mound appeared to be a sacred location that was in use during the Early Mississippian period and was aligned with several structures at Early Mississippian Ocmulgee and Brown’s Mount. Even more surprising was the fact that the ceramic styles and chronology at Ocese’ matched those at Italwa. The probable dates of the Itawa style pottery suggest that there were Italwa culture people living on the island while the Early Mississippian Ocmulgee was occupied— but they were a different people than those at Ocmulgee proper. Ocese’ continued to prosper after Italwa was temporarily abandoned. At some undocumented point in time, an estuary of the Ocmulgee River cut across the south end of the circular palisaded town and a new wall was built. Historical period artifacts found on the Lamar Village Site suggested that there had been some occupation of the site up until the late 1700s.


Life Among the Common Folk at Italwa (A.D. 1205), Etowah River Valley, Georgia

Creek cultural leaders were delighted with the chronological information contained in the National Park Service report because it seemed to reinforce their ancient tradition, that Ocese’ was the point where the Muskogee people stopped migrating eastward and began settling down. It should remembered, however, that although the “true” Muskogee are the dominant ethnic influence in the Oklahoma Creeks, there were many other branches of the Muskogeans in the Creek Homeland such as the Hitchiti, Okone’ (Oconee), Kvsa (Coosa), Chiaha, Tamathli, Yamase’, Taskeke’ (Tuskegee) , Koasati, Alabama, and Tvkabace’ (Tuckabachee.) The traditions of today could actually be a blend of many traditions in the Homeland. Nevertheless, the virtual reality images and now the physical model have stimulated the interest of Creek leaders in protecting their heritage in the Homeland. Many positive actions may spin off from this educational effort.

* The report was a summary compiled from comments made by archaeologists at a seminar in April 1973 sponsored by the National Park Service. The authors were Donald Crusoe, Stephen A. Deutschle, Robert S. Neitzal, John T. Penman, and Hale G. Smith. No other bibliographical information is available.