Muscogee Nation Indian Territory: From Oral History to Found Poetry

Volume 28, No. 3 - Spring 2017
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MUSCOGEE NATION ORAL HISTORY TO FOUND POETRY

The Indian-Pioneer History Project began in the spring of 1937, when scores of young field workers set out to interview elderly Oklahomans who could recall life during territorial days. Funded by the federal government’s Works Progress Administration and sponsored by the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) in cooperation with the University of Oklahoma, this ambitious experiment in oral history documented a time in the not-too-distant past when Native peoples ruled Indian Territory. When the project ended in the summer of 1938, it had generated some 11,000 manuscripts bound in more than 100 weighty volumes. “This resulted in the preservation of priceless recollections of many people,” said the OHS president in 1939, “some of whom have already passed away.”

Hundreds of Muscogee (Creek) Indians were among those who shared their memories of life before Oklahoma statehood. Some could recount oral traditions reaching back to Muscogee origins, while others told stories of their ancestors’ forced removal from the old country to Indian Territory. Many related firsthand accounts of the American Civil War and its effect on the Muscogee Nation Indian Territory, which split between pro- and anti-Union factions. Not a few had something to say about the allotment of their lands and the dissolution of their government during the run-up to statehood. Standard interview questions focused on political and economic affairs, but the Muscogee respondents also commented on various cultural and ecological developments.

The collected narratives comprise a haphazard archive, and the typewritten manuscripts can be difficult to read and to search. They have been referenced occasionally by historians and other scholars, and consulted by private individuals conducting genealogical research. There is a single book-length publication, Nations Remembered, composed of short, anonymous excerpts arranged thematically while intermingling Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole sources. But 80 years after its inception, the Indian-Pioneer History Collection remains a formidable and underutilized resource for the study of Oklahoma Indian life.

As an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and a professional student of Muscogee history and culture, I have long been intrigued by this unique but uneven assemblage of Muscogee voices. There is plenty of repetition and extraneous detail but also lots of important information presented in matter-of-fact narration, and many passages that sing with vernacular English and the occasional Mvskoke language expression. Working through these interviews, I have pondered the possibilities for presenting this invaluable material to a wider audience. The literary genre of found poetry offers an effective method for recovering orality from archival texts, grounding written language in the spoken word, and for performing the critical retelling that is a hallmark of Indigenous oral tradition.

The Found Poetry Review describes the found poem as “the literary version of a collage.” Working with “traditional texts like books, magazines, and newspapers” or “nontraditional sources like product packaging, junk mail, or court transcripts,” the writer excerpts words and phrases and arranges them “to create a new piece.” Verbatim Found Poetry prefers simply to “extract a whole passage of text from writing that is not meant to be poetic, and add line breaks.” I try to strike a balance between these polar approaches, judiciously excerpting and arranging passages while preserving the integrity of each narrator’s voice, and sometimes juxtaposing multiple narrators to generate a dialogue that reflects my own, contemporary interests and concerns.

The three found poems that follow are part of a book-length manuscript drawn from Muscogee interviews in the Indian-Pioneer History Collection. These particular pieces address three key moments in Muscogee history: origins, removal, and statehood.


Backbone of the World

the creeks
we were told by the older folks
immigrated from the west
          the chiefs of the tribes and
the members wondered very much
where the sun come or started from
          they thought it had
a place of abode somewhere
          finally they and the chiefs
agreed or decided to go east
to find where the sun started

there were many clans
          they were on the west slope
of north america
and the immigration started by
forming a line stretching
across the whole country

they travelled or moved camp
all at the same time
and in that way all the indians
moved from the west or
from the rocky mountains
the backbone of the world
they travelled till
they came to another body of
great water atlantic ocean
          still the sun was
beyond the big water
and they could not go any further
so each chief of the different tribes
took all their tribe and went their way
very much disappointed
          and from here they scattered
every direction
looking for a place or location
to settle and begin
a new life in a new country
          •
when the first white men set foot on the american
soil they found savages who lived their daily
lives so differently from their form of living
inasmuch that the white men were quick to say
that these red men were uncivilized

the next thing that arises in the mind is what
is civilization
          is it the life that we live today that we
must take for an example
          were the people of mosaic days uncivilized
when they would take their gains from the fields
that they tilled and offer part of it as a
sacrifice of praise to the supreme being

then we may say that where there is a group of
inhabitants who as they see the sun rise from
the east and sink in the west and when they
observe the different seasons of the year come
and go bringing them food to eat because of
these evidence they should worship the invisible
on earth as well as above and though he may be
invisible always present and caring for his
people that these people are intelligent wise
charitable neighborly and religiously good

Samuel Jefferson Checote, b. 1866


Designated by the Removal

1

there was the certain customary method of
moving the site of the busk grounds this
moving being designated by the removal of the
tribal council fire to the desired location
          it was the custom for the tribal town
chief tvlwv mïkko with usually two other
men to accomplish this task of moving the
council fire which never was extinguished all
during the rites of moving it

these two chosen men were not free to eat any
kind of food that they wished but only took
meals then called hompetv hvtkï white meals
          these meals usually consisted of one or
two different dishes made of white articles of
food it contained no kind of seasoning or
flavoring that had been added
          there was the usual indian corn bread that
was white and without leavening and white safke

2

there were several men carrying reeds
with eagle feathers attached to the end
          these men continually circled
around the wagon trains or during the
night around the camps
          these men said the reeds with
feathers had been treated by the
medicine men
          their purpose was to encourage the
indians not to be heavy hearted nor to
think of the homes that had been left
          some of the older women sang songs
some of the dead were placed between
two logs and quickly covered by shrubs
some were shoved under the thickets and
some were not even buried but left by
the wayside

3

when they got to this country
they selected land for a new
town or stomp ground
          this was sandy land and
these men dug a hole in the
ground with their hands until
the top of the ground came to
their shoulders with the tips of
their fingers on the bottom of
the hole
          then they brought the fire
and put it into the hole and
added fuel to it

they kept a fire there a long
time but it was finally put out
and they have to rebuild a fire
when they have a meeting there

Simon Johnson, b. 1886
Mary Hill, b. 1890
Mose Wiley, b. 1886


Statehood in Any Form

1

one of the most prominent and
best known citizens of the creek nation
during indian territory days was
missus mary lewis herrod

she was born in the early forties exact
date unknown at a little indian village
on the verdigris river

missus herrod was the first woman to
teach in the creek national schools
and the first to teach english to the pupils

she was also a true indian
and believed that they were thoroughly
capable of handling their own affairs
without the interference of the united states

she attended the meetings of the creek
councils at okmulgee and kept informed on
all affairs of their government
missus herrod was bitterly opposed to
statehood in any form particularly did she
not want to be joined to oklahoma territory
which at that time was supposed to be
populated with an undesirable class of
people so strong was she in her opposition
she said that if the indian territory was
admitted as a state with oklahoma territory
and the name oklahoma adopted
i will never write another letter if
i cant write indian territory on my letters
          and she never did

2

there were no mice or rats here
until after the white people settled

Kate Shaw Ahrens, b. 1864
Sarah Fife, b. 1861


James Treat is an enrolled citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and author of Around the Sacred Fire: Native Religious Activism in the Red Power Era.

Editor’s Note: Read more at “More Found Poetry from Muscogee Nation Indian Territory”.


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