Muscogee Nation of Florida

The Muscogee Nation of Florida, also known as the Florida Tribe of Eastern Creek Indians, is a Tribe of Creek Indian people whose home is centered in Bruce, in Walton County, Florida. The Tribe was renamed in 2001 during a constitutional reorganization to better represent its traditional roots and identity. The Creek predecessors of Muscogee Nation of Florida signed 11 treaties with the United States between 1790 and 1833. By these agreements, the removal of the ancestors of the present day Muscogee Nation of Florida began from their traditional homelands in the states of Georgia, Alabama and Florida. (See Attachment 1: Significant Creek Treaties and Treaty Cessions – Sidebar)

Those who formed our modern nation followed the Choctawhatchee River south into the State of Florida from Dale County, Alabama as early as 1837 to escape the federal government’s removal policies. That year federal officers had noted that some 200 Creeks lived at a village near Daleville. (See Attachment 2: Creek Wars letter dated 1837 – Sidebar)

By the 1850s, the Creek people had begun the process of forced adaptation to survive. Migration into Florida required the re-establishment of traditional grounds, communities, lifestyles, and governance. In 1852, the General Assembly of the State of Florida passed its own stringent racially discriminating laws:

“It shall be unlawful for any Indian or Indians to remain within the limits of this State, and any Indian or Indians that may remain, or may be found within the limits of this State, shall be captured and sent west of the Mississippi; provided that Indians and half-breeds residing among the whites shall not be included in this section.”

This Act removed any possibility of Creek people openly living traditional lifestyles, much less identifying themselves – or being identified – as members of a Tribe of Indians. The law did not prevent the Creek people that formed Muscogee Nation of Florida from creating settlements that were separate and distinct from white or black communities. However, the laws of the State of Florida required the public suppression of identifiable Creek self-governance, traditional ceremonies, racial identification, practices and lifestyles under the direct threat of removal or death. Today, this policy is described as Ethnic Cleansing.

 

“When I was 8 years old I was beat by my father to make me remember not to talk about being Indian in public because we’d be sent away … It’s been 80 years. I guess it’s all right to talk about it now.” (an added thought written on the side of her list of’ ‘Things to Remember’ for her first interview with a Historian in 1979)

Malzie Ward Pate, pictured, deceased 1997

 

The miscegenation or Jim Crow laws of the South became the determinant for racial identity. In the State of Florida, a non-reservated Indian living in Northwest Florida after 1852 was classified as white, negro, or mulatto. There were no allowances made in the State for Indian people who were not Seminoles, did not live in the Everglades, and had been forced to choose a migration into Florida or adhere to Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policies. The Creeks of North West Florida were legislated to disappear into the fabric of an emerging white or black population. The 1852 law of the General Assembly represented the first Act of Extermination by the State of Florida and remained part of the State statutes until the federal Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.

 

“My Mama used to bleach my knees when I was in elementary school away from Bruce because they were so dark she was afraid I’d get sent out of the white school. ”

Becky Ziegler – pictured, Tribal Member

 

When the categorization of “Indian” as a race disappeared, the legal impact was a documentary void in the Tribe’s history of recognition by external sources. There are no documents written by observers from outside Muscogee Nation of Florida to list the Nation as an Indian community. No anthropologists visited the remote community of Bruce, which was best located by following the Choctawhatchee River or poor logging roads. Outsiders were not welcomed to stay in the area. Logging camps had to remain away from the Tribal Community. In essence, Muscogee Nation of Florida was a closed community system. While Muscogee Nation can easily document 6 of 7 mandatory criteria for federal recognition, it cannot meet the current interpretation of 25 CFR Part 8~1. 7 (a) which requires “identification by an external sources” until after the Civil Rights Act was passed.

At this time, in-house interpretation and regulatory application made by personnel of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment requires documentation marked ‘Indian’ for every deca,de from 1900 to current day with no consideration for state laws that prevent the criteria from being met. Consequently, the only Creek Tribe to be federally recognized under these regulations was achieved only by Senatorial intervention in 1983.

Historic documents generated inside the community itself provide ample evidence for the continuity of Muscogee Nation from 1890 to the present. Even though the Tribe was forced to acknowledge the new policies of the State of Florida and try to survive them, Muscogee Nation of Florida continued to function. It maintained its traditional form of leadership, subsistence type of living, and shared economics. Second cousin exchange marriage became a way to protect Indian bloodlines in the remote areas of the community. (See Attachment 3 – Land Patent)

Records of two institutions, the Muscogee Nation of Florida’s school and its church, provide written evidence that the Creeks in and around Bruce survived throughout the twentieth century. Pine Level School was established in 1890. The name itself is historical, located in old Creek territory, and was brought to the Tribe’s new settlement at the base of the Choctawhatchee River, as was Antioch, the Tribal Cemetery and Tribal Ceremonial Grounds. Antioch is the site of the Battle of Cowpens, the most violent battle fought in Walton County, Florida during the Creek Wars. Pine Level School served primarily Indian students who were taught almost exclusively by Indian teachers. The school was renamed Bruce School during the hardest years of the Jim Crow laws.

A board of Creek Indian men administered the school with an elected liaison to the county education system. The school closed in 1954 because of a decreased population of Indian children in the area. During its years of operation, it afforded the community a place for social and political activities. The women met regularly to quilt, play bingo, and trade feed sacks to make clothing for the children in the community. The annual records of the school document the community of the Muscogee Nation of Florida for over 60 years. The school building became the property of the Bruce Women’s Club, an organization of Creek Indian women that still exists today.

The Bruce Women’s Club proudly returned this building to the Tribal Government for the Muscogee Nation of Florida. (See Attachment 4 – Register Page from Bruce School dated 1915)

For the past 150 years, Muscogee Nation of Florida has continued to maintain ceremonial and traditional practices. During the late 1800s, the community made a move to incorporate some sort of organized religion into the community through the work of outside missionaries and circuit riders. The institution of the Church was another example of the community’s efforts to co-exist with a dominant, dangerous and encroaching white society.

 

“One night my grandfather got called out to the front yard by the KKK. We knew they were going to try to bum us out. The voices got real loud and things were getting bad. All of a sudden one of the guineas up in the tree messed on the hood of the Grand Wizard and it made them all start laughing. We still keep guineas because they saved my Grandpa’s life.”

Dan Penton – pictured, Traditional Chief

 

 

Although the old ceremonies continued, the establishing of an acceptable church was used as a method to ensure the protection and survival of the Indian community. Handwritten church records document the names of community members who formed the church, the births and deaths of members, and the continued participation of Creeks in this institution from 1912 to present day. The records are still maintained in the same format. It is noted that the Alabama-Florida Conference of the Methodist Church recognizes the Bruce Methodist Church, established in 1912, as a Native American Church. The original Church rolls listed from 1912 to 1917 form the baseline document for membership in the Muscogee Nation of Florida. (See Attachment 5 – Church Roll dated 1912)

 

“I remember when there was dancing on the grounds at Antioch and I remember the old ceremonies going on back when “Diamond Joe” was alive. Any time there was problems, we just went to Mr. J.J. and he sorted them al/ out. ”

Idell Burnham (age 102)
Local Grave Houses

 

Muscogee Nation of Florida maintained a traditional practice of leadership vested in a central male or female passed down from one tribal member to another or, in later years, elected by the tribal membership. Leadership was based on the ability to serve as a liaison between the tribal people and the non-Indian communities because of bilingual abilities and literacy. These qualities were vital to the survival of Muscogee Nation for the protection from further erosion of Creek identity and culture.

The leader maintained a precarious balance serving as a representative, a mediator, a negotiator, and an advocate for the rights and protection of the community. The Ward family provided the succession of leaders within Muscogee Nation of Florida throughout the twentieth century. The names of these leaders and their order of succession are well remembered by community members. They are:

 

(L to R) William Josiah, “Diamond Joe” Ward, Jesse Josiah, “J.J.” Ward, Mano Ward, Maize Ward Thomas, Donald Sharon, John “Breck” Thomas, current Tribal Chairwoman, Ann Denson Tucker.

 

The communities and people of the Muscogee Nation continued to practice traditional form of government with its customs, medicine, language, hunting and fishing, and cooperative labor. During the early 20th century, the Tribe saw an increase in its membership. Men often maintained multiple households and households supported each other in a communal type living. By the late 1930s, the economics began to shift, which affected the Tribe’s indigenous area. Turpentine industries declined, as did logging. The Tribal community was faced with developing new methods to ensure economic survival. Liquor production filled this desperately needed void of revenue utilizing farming abilities and enabling the communities to locally produce crops for its creation such as corn, rice, and sugar cane.

This was a tribally sanctioned enterprise with most of the community members involved in either its manufacturing or its delivery.

 

“We were always poor growing up. I’d get sent up to Mr. Mano’s store. He used to just put the food on a tab like we were going to pay for it. He knew we couldn’t, but he a/ways made sure we got fed.”

Carol Pate – Tribal Member

 

In 1947, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made an announcement for a Land Claim Settlement that would affect the historic Creek Nation. The people of the Muscogee Nation of Florida were participants in this litigation through a supportive agreement with Creek Nation East of the Mississippi. Ultimately, the litigations required a suit be filed against Creek Nation of Oklahoma to prove the continuance of Southeastern Creek people. Designated representatives from this Tribe’s leaders were present in the halls of Congress when a determination was made in favor of Creek people.

 

“Thank you for your interest in the Creek Land Claim Sett/ements … However, you are mistaken about who [your people] are. All of the Creeks from the area you mentioned in your letter are either dead or removed … ”

Letter to J.J. Ward (pictured) from DOI/BIA

 

The case was resolved in 1957 and the Southeastern Creeks were determined eligible to share, in this settlement. Payment letters from the Department of the Interior were not issued until 1971, years after the death of community leader J.J. Ward, who had worked for almost 25 years on behalf of the Creek people in Florida. The Docket 21 Letters provided legal documentation that finally reaffirmed the existence of Creek Indian people in Northwest Florida. But, it was a minority that the State of Florida was unprepared to deal with. (Attachment 6 – Docket Letter of Chairwoman Ann Denson Tucker)

 

“ I was 18 years old when I got my land claim letter from Interior in 1971. I took the letter with me to register to vote as an Indian. The Clerk said that there wasn’t a race for “Indian “, but I could choose to be an Asian. She finally made me an “0″ for Other. It wasn’t easy to make the state identification system accept a racial change – it always labeled us as white or black by sight.”

Ann Denson Tucker
Chairwoman, Muscogee Nation

 

In 1974, the State of Florida created the Northwest Florida Creek Indian Council under Florida Statute 285 to deal with Creek Indian issues. Members of the leadership family of Muscogee Nation of Florida served on this Council, including: Mazie Rossell, Zera P. Denson, Donald Sharon, and Ann Denson Tucker. The State appointed council assisted the Creek people with elections to the formal structure of the Florida Tribe of Eastern Creek Indians in 1978, now known as the Muscogee Nation of Florida.

In 1986 the Senate and the House of Representatives for the State of Florida passed concurrent Resolutions that recognized the Florida Tribe of Eastern Creek Indians as the governing agent for Creeks in the State of Florida. During this same time, the Tribal government had cooperative agreements for repatriation in place with the Air Force, Navy, and the State of Florida. This agreement stayed in effect until NAGPRA prevented repatriation by non-federal Tribes. In other words, the Tribe no longer has the right to re-bury our dead. (See Attachment 7 – Resolutions passed by the Florida Senate and House of Representatives)

A petition for federal acknowledgment was turned into the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1978, but was returned the same year because of major changes to 25 CFR Part 83. During the period of 1978 to 1995, the Tribe wrote 3 separate petitions for recognition. The first two petitions were not submitted, primarily because of changing BAR policies and rulings on other Creek petitions, including the Senate Administrative recognition of Poarch Band of Creeks in Alabama. Muscogee Nation of Florida submitted its petition to the BIA/BAR in June of 1995. In 1996, the Tribe received its Technical Assistance letter from the BAR (now OFA). The Tribe finalized it’s response to this letter in 2002. It was placed on the “Ready, Waiting for Active Consideration” list in January, 2003. However, at that time, the Tribal government was notified that federal regulations had once again changed and that it needed to convert 120,000 documents int() a computer database for the Office of Federal Acknowledgement – 63 banker boxes of information – and that all data must be organized and separated on a criteria basis. In other words, if one document is required for all 7 criteria, it has to be copied 7 times. In the case of Muscogee Nation of Florida, an amount in excess of 840,000 sheets of paper could be required. The Tribe cannot bear this financial burden. While the Tribal government continues to try to meet new regulations with no mechanism for being ‘grand-fathered in’, our elders die without federal recognition. (See Attachment 8 – Letter dated January 31,2003 from R. Lee Fleming, DOI/BIA)

A written Constitution was set up in 1978 with the assistance of the Northwest Florida Creek Indian Council. Tribal codes were completed and adopted by 1990. The Tribe has an acceptable accounting system in place with regular audits for state and federal contracts. The Tribe runs a congregate meal site inside its Council House for the local community and is now establishing a volunteer fire department with the help of local Hub Zone personnel. The Tribal Government maintains good working relationships with local communities, participates in many community sponsored events, and has numerous resolutions of support from state officials and local governments, including the Walton County Board of County Commissioners.

A generation has been born and a generation has passed away while Muscogee Nation of Florida continues to make enough petition changes that an ineffective and unfair process can be satisfied. The problems encountered by Muscogee Nation of Florida is uniquely the case of a Southeastern Tribe, who must respond to a set of regulations that deliberately ignore the violent policies, history, and impact of Jim Crow laws on its one hundred – year past (the only time period that the Office of Federal Acknowledgement currently considers). The Tribe cannot be recognized by an external entity as an Indian Tribe when its people were not allowed to be Indian.

Muscogee Nation of Florida has 408 members who have met stringent membership criteria. Tribal members have provided vital records demonstrating their ancestry from persons whose names Margi Gatti, Storyteller are recorded on the church register from 1912 to 1917, a direct relationship to the Parsons-Abbott Creek Census of 1832 in historic Creek Nation, and must maintain active ties to the Bruce community. More than one-half of Muscogee Nation members live within a 10-mile radius of the Tribe’s Council House. More that 80 per cent live within a 30-mile radius. Almost all Tribal members live within 50 miles of Bruce, Florida.

Members of the Muscogee Nation of Florida are not members of any other federally recognized Tribes. The Tribe has a 7 -acre land base in Bruce and has 13 acres of 4000- year-old shell mounds that it keeps in protective trust for the benefit of all people. The County Commissioners of Walton County Florida gave the mounds to the Tribe. There are limited services provided to the Tribe’s membership. (See Attachment 9 – Tribal Demographics from 1900 to Present)

 

“The Tribe helped me get money to go to college on through Indian Education when I was 18. It was the difference in my getting my degree.”

Ella Mae Walters – Tribal Member

 

Muscogee Nation of Florida has never been a part of another Tribe except through the cooperative effort of early Tribal leaders in the Land Claim Settlements of the 1950s. Tribal members still live on original Florida homesteads that date back to the mid-19th century. The people of Muscogee Nation of Florida have lived together, labored together, worshiped together, and stayed together as a Tribe despite the adversities created U.S. government Removal Policies and by a state government that attempted to legislate the Tribe out of existence through categorical removal and forced assimilation.

 

“We’ll be an Indian Community no matter what happens to us with Indian Affairs. It’s what we’ve always been and what we’ll always be. I hope one day they’ll understand us and what we’ve been through.”

Bill Ward – Tribal Member
Youth Council Members

 

The Muscogee Nation of Florida now seeks a restoration of its relationship with the United States, which was established by treaties, disrupted by removal, and suppressed by racist laws. The Muscogee Nation of Florida Tribal Council calls upon the United States to rectify injustices of the past, reaffirm treaty relations, and restore recognition of the Tribe’s sovereign rights. (Attachment 10 -Letters of Support from Coushatta, Alabama Coushatta, Seminole, and Coleville Confederation)