Reflections on the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Conference

(And a Note on the Name of Mary Ann Battis)

In late May of 2015, I was an invited speaker at the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band Conference held at Langston University’s Oklahoma City campus. The conference was planned by Rhonda Grayson and her colleagues, a group of descendants of blacks enslaved by Creeks and of Afro-Creek people that has been meeting for years. Their aim has been to build community ties among themselves and to achieve recognition as citizens by the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma.

My presentation, “Complex Identities in Afro-Native History,” focused on Mary Ann Battis, an Afro-Creek adolescent girl who was a star student at a Methodist boarding school in the Creek Nation of Alabama in the early 1800s and who became a fictionalized character in my novel, The Cherokee Rose. The other presentations ranged widely, reminding me of what I enjoy most about freedpeople descendants’ conferences in Oklahoma. In my experience, these gatherings include a vibrant mix of academic history, local and grassroots history, genealogy, and creative expression. (In the past, at the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association conferences have featured readings from the WPA slave narratives.) This event was no exception. There were leading historians in the field of Creek history, speakers from the National Park Service, panels on topics like the Underground Railroad as well as Federal Recognition, a Civil Rights themed dance performance, family genealogy posters and slideshows, and a showing of the new documentary film Bloodlines.

This was the first time I had viewed Bloodlines, a moving, grassroots film produced and written by Camera Rose and Chantel Rose and directed by Camera Rose. It chronicled the ongoing campaign of freedpeople descendants to be recognized as citizens of the Creek Nation. A strength of the film was the series of first person interviews with people whose names or stories will be familiar to readers of Creek history because many of their ancestors were prominent Black Creeks (such as Cow Tom). The interviewees’ ancestors had been enrolled in the Creek Nation since the Civil War era but had their enrollment revoked in modern times (1979) through the election of a new Constitution by the Muscogee Creek Nation. The children and grandchildren of these dis-enrolled individuals took up the cause of re-enrollment and formed the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band organization (formerly the African Creek Indian Freedmen). One interviewee and his cousin said they had presented their cases (including written documentation of Creek ancestry) in the Creek enrollment office and in the tribal courts, with negative results in the enrollment office, a positive outcome in a Creek lower court, and an ultimate defeat in the Creek Supreme Court where the justices refused to give a reason for their decision. In her interview, Rhonda Grayson set aside the lightning rod issue of blood quantum, which is often used to define who is or is not native. Grayson said: “We have blood, but it’s not about blood. It’s about the 1866 Treaty.” (She is referring here to the post-Civil War treaty between the US and Creek Nation that guaranteed the inclusion of former slaves.) One of the most poignant moments in the film was when a woman seemed compelled to offer an answer to the unspoken question of why she would want to be part of a community that doesn’t accept her. Her response was: “I have a right to be acknowledged and define who I am.” Interviewees expressed their desire for recognition as being about culture, heritage, and the respectful recognition by others of their identities, rather than being about access to benefits as some critics of their movement charge. After failing in their attempts to be recognized by the Creek Nation, descendants featured in the film revealed their latest strategy: seeking separate federal recognition as an Afro-Creek tribe. This film would have been stronger if it had included representations of the Creek government’s position (even in the form of recorded public comments). Nevertheless, it was a riveting production and revealing chronicle of the plight of descendants of Afro-Creek people and blacks enslaved by Creeks.

My vote for best title of the conference goes to Mowa Choctaw writer Cedric Sunray for his paper, “Jim Crowfeather in Indian Country,” “Jim Crowfeather” being Sunray’s term for prejudice against native groups with significant or visible black ancestry. His focus was on the federal recognition process, which he sharply argued is biased and subtly race-based. (For more on the morass of federal recognition for southern tribes, I highly recommend my friend Brian Klopotek’s book, Recognition Odysseys.) I was warmed by the opportunity to see Melinda Micco again, a Creek-Seminole historian and ethnic studies scholar whom I first met as a graduate student, and I was pleased to be reacquainted with historian Gary Zellar, author of African Creeks.

I learned two intriguing and important tidbits for my own mental file cabinet at the conference. The first was a new piece of information about Sugar George, a black-Creek interpreter of the 19th century. President of the Creek Indian Freedmen Band, Ron Graham, a descendant of Sugar George, explained that the name was bestowed upon his ancestor because of a sweet tooth! The conference also included an indigenous language session with “Maskoke” speaker Marcus Briggs-Cloud, who tried imparting some Creek words and phrases on members of the audience. Briggs-Cloud had heard my presentation on Mary Ann Battis (which I was pronouncing like “Bat-hiss”) and suggested that her name may have had more of a French pronunciation like “Bat-teez.” Since Mary Ann was from the Alabama area and her African American father had traveled there from parts unknown, I think Briggs-Cloud might just be right!

I look forward to learning more at a future conference.

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