The 21st Century Renaissance of the Muscogee Nation
Written and Produced By: Brittany Harlow
In Partnership With: Mvskoke Media
(MUSCOGEE NATION) “Muscogee people are descendants of Mound Builders in the southeast, and we have come from very sophisticated societies and endured for thousands and thousands of years. And we will continue to do that.”
Raelynn Butler is the manager of the Muscogee Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Department. She told us through the union of several tribes, these “Mound builders” built massive tribal towns and earthen pyramids along the river valleys of Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
Mention of the Muscogee people first started showing up on European records in the 1500s. They got the alternate name “Creek” from invading European powers, which divided them into “Upper Creeks” and “Lower Creeks” depending on their location.
“We have a long history of doing government-to government business with these foreign powers and negotiating rights and sovereignty on behalf of our people, since the 1700s,” Butler said.
She said each generation has had to deal with some sort of ethnic cleanse, genocide, or forced removal since they arrived.
The stance the young United States took on its native people was made clear with the Naturalization Act of 1790, which excluded American Indians from U.S. citizenship, classifying them as “domestic foreigners” instead.
In 1819, the U.S. passed the Indian Civilization Act, which included laws and policies to create Indian boarding schools across the country.
But the worst was yet to come. On March 28, 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to forcibly remove the tribes from their ancestral homelands.
The Creek refused to relocate. They signed a treaty in March 1832 to exchange land for protection of ownership of their remaining lands. The federal government did not uphold it. Instead, the military came in and forced them out anyway.
Thousands of American Indians were forced to walk more than 5,000 miles to Oklahoma.
“It’s estimated over 4,000 people died on the Trail of Tears, or what we call the Road of Misery,” Butler said. “Nene estvmerkv. And we were not only removed by land, but by boat. And in cases as prisoners of war, handcuffed and chained to these boats shipping us through the Gulf and up the Mississippi River, and then into Indian Territory. And so even trying to rebuild after removal, several thousand more people died because they arrived sick.”
Later, during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, Muscogee citizens fought for both the Union and the Confederacy or were punished for not taking a side. During the reconstruction, they were forced to give up another 3.2 million acres of land.
In spite of the adversity, the tribe adopted a written constitution in 1867 and established a new capital in Okmulgee.
Two new treaties between the federal government and the Muscogee and Seminole Nations resulted in the tribes selling their land in Oklahoma under agreement it would go toward other Indian tribes and freemen.
“I think just even the number of treaties we've had to see that it was never enough, always being pushed further and further West, and as much as we could compromise and tried to sustain our way of life, it was constantly challenged,” Butler said.
In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison opened two million acres of that land for general settlement. “Sooner” settlers started coming in before they were legally allowed to.
Meanwhile, federal government and church officials continued to rip children from their homes, torturing them into abandoning their Indigenous culture and assimilating into white society. Countless died in the process.
“We still see ramifications of that time period and what it's done, and the historical trauma it's caused our people,” Butler said. “And especially loss of language today.”
In 1893, Congress set up the Dawes Commission. Lands that were once communally held were stripped into single lots and allotted to individual tribal members. The commission forced American Indians to register membership to a single tribe, stripping part of their inheritance and heritage if they were of multiple tribes in the process. Land containing valuable resources was segregated and leased under government supervision, then eventually auctioned away.
“And so, there were just systematic efforts to divide, and really what the Dawe’s Act did, too, was to take away our tribal government,” Butler said. “It disestablished our forms of government and way of punishing people, it made sure that the government was in charge of everything.”
But that still wasn’t enough. In 1898, Congress passed the Curtis Act, abolishing tribal courts and subjecting all persons in the territory to federal law.
Muscogee citizen Chitto Harjo lead the opposition against the federal government’s efforts to dismantle the Muscogee National government and seize their lands, as well as those of the other Five Civilized Tribes: the Cherokee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw nations.
In 1905, the five tribes sent Congress a constitution to become a separate Indian state called Sequoyah, but Congress refused to consider it.
Instead, President Theodore Roosevelt offered a compromise that combined Indian Territory and Oklahoma Territory into a single state on equal footing. From Roosevelt’s proposal came “The Oklahoma Enabling Act” which he signed into law in 1906.
Oklahoma officially became a state in 1907.
The federal and state governments continued to take control of tribal land throughout the state, which was then redistributed to individual citizens.
“I think as we talk about the traumatic events in these battles that we've overcome, that it's really a story of survival and resiliency,” Butler said. “To continue to carry on. And that we use the strength from overcoming those obstacles to continue to grow and thrive.”
It wasn’t until 1971 that the Muscogee people would finally elect a Principal Chief without approval from a U.S. president. They drafted and adopted a new constitution and dedicated themselves to every right owed to them as a sovereign nation.
In 2020, the sovereignty of the Muscogee Nation was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the court ruled the State of Oklahoma had no jurisdiction to prosecute American Indian defendants for major crimes committed on tribal land, because Congress had never disestablished the tribes’ reservations in the Oklahoma Enabling Act.
Coming up on two years later, local governments are still trying to figure out how to right hundreds of years of legal, jurisdictional, and ethical wrongs. And the State of Oklahoma is trying to keep anything from changing at all.
“Time and time again,” Butler said. “Every 20 years, it seems, something else is an issue, or Indian country is under attack from a new policy or way. Because the tribes are seen as barriers, and all we have always wanted was to be left alone and to live our lives and our culture the way we've always done.”
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John M. O'Connor called on the Supreme Court to overturn or limit the McGirt decision. On January 7 of this year, the Supreme Court said no.
“We have always seen these treaties as the supreme law of the land, and always have one of them to be upheld,” Butler said. “The Supreme Court, the highest court of the land and authority, had a ruling that said there was a promise at the end of that trail because we had given up so much. We have lost millions and millions of acres of land, and in return, it was for this reservation we have here today.”
Butler said the most surprising response to the McGirt ruling has been the almost hatred and animosity aimed at the Muscogee Nation.
“Even as citizens, somebody who has lived in Tulsa my whole life, born and raised there, and pay taxes there,” Butler said. “To kind of feel like I'm being discriminated against because I have a red car tag.”
“What the media is saying, and making it sound like all of this is Creek Nation’s fault. And I feel like we get a bad name and role, and even can feel that in the communities we live in, that we're not appreciated or welcome in our own reservation. And in our own spaces. When the nation time and time again has shown how much they do, not just for the citizens, but every Oklahoman that lives on the reservation.”
Like road improvements, donations to schools, and even free Covid vaccines.
Despite the resistance, the long-coming renaissance of the Muscogee Nation will not be held back.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, the Muscogee Nation has doubled cross-deputization agreements to more than 60, including the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, doubled its own police force, increased funding and additional prosecutors at their own Attorney General’s Office, and amended their tribal code to be more in line with state statutes, amongst other changes.
The creative arts are flourishing, as well.
“A lot of things happening now are really breaking stereotypes and helping the larger community understand and recognize that we're human,” Butler said.
In 2019, Muscogee citizen Joy Harjo was appointed the 23rd Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress. She has since been appointed two more times, only the second poet in history to be appointed a third term as U.S. Poet Laureate.
The hit “Reservation Dogs” co-created by Seminole/Muscogee filmmaker Sterlin Harjo premiered on Hulu in 2021, the first TV series featuring an all-Indigenous team of writers, directors, and lead cast.
“I don't think anyone grew up every thinking we would hear Muscogee words on TV or that we would know people that were in the show,” Butler said. “And so, I think everybody knows somebody who was in it or was a part of the production or got to be an extra.”
In September, Muscogee citizens voted to make free press a part of their constitution, the first time for a Native American tribe to do so.
“We're living in such a historic time now as well, that will be in the history books and will be forever talked about,” Butler said. “And so, I think for all of us, it's a great time to be indigenous. Because this was something that didn't just impact the Muscogee Nation but has impacted all of Indian country.”
“We're in a time now that voices that have been silenced or have never been heard before have a platform, and there is more opportunity for our stories to be told. And people are listening.”
This story is part of VNN’s "Community Voices: The Indigenous Perspective" subseries, which shares the personal triumphs and professional journeys of local tribal members to empower their communities and familiarize others with their points of view. Click here to help fund more stories in this space.
This story is also part of the Oklahoma Media Center’s Promised Land collaborative effort, which shows how the landmark McGirt v. Oklahoma decision will affect both tribal and non-Indigenous residents in the state. It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Inasmuch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Democracy Fund.
Special thanks to Louisa Harjo with Ember HaCo. for use of images.