REPORT OF MY RESEARCH ON THE POARCH BAND OF CREEK INDIANS
[Talk by John E. Enslen presented to the Wetumpka Rotary Club.]
The U. S. Department of Interior has under consideration the issue of whether or not the Poarch Band of Creek Indians can legally establish gambling in Wetumpka, Alabama. This forthcoming ruling will not be the first time that the U. S. Department of Interior has made a decision relating to the Poarch Band. A more important ruling was issued in 1975 when the Department of Interior granted independent nation status to the Poarch Band group. Hopefully, the forthcoming decision will not be as ill-supported as the Department’s prior decision granting independent nation status. Please allow me to explain.
In order to prevent any hodge-podge group of mix-blood descendants from declaring themselves to be a (quote) “Indian Nation,” certain legal hurdles were established by federal rules and regulations. There are certain laws which must be satisfied in order to receive federal recognition as a separate Indian Nation. In my opinion, based upon a reasonable application of this criteria, the Poarch Band should never have been approved as a separate tribal nation by The Department of Interior. Perhaps the lack of political opposition to their application contributed to the Poarch Band’s success in obtaining independent nation status in 1975.
Here are the standards that should have been met before independent Indian Nation status was granted.
Requirement Number One:
The members must be descendants of a single tribe that historically inhabited a specific area.
The current Poarch Band originates from a bare handful of half-bloods who lived in the Tensaw area about 50 miles north of Mobile. This group did not transplant itself from the Wetumpka area or anywhere else, but rather initially developed randomly from a variety of other locations and a variety of other tribes. All of the original half-bloods were descendants of non-Indian white men who married Indian women, or at least fathered children by them. The small handful of mix-blooded farmers living in the Tensaw area in the early 1800’s were as much non-Indian as they were Indian and there was never an organized Indian village with a specific name. They were sufficiently “white” to avoid the mass deportation that occurred in the 1830’s. By the way, the word Tensaw is Choctaw and not Creek or Muskogee.
Basically, the situation was an occasional landowner with some Indian ancestry. Their culture was no different from that of other poor, rural, non-educated white southerners in the area at the same time. There is no record that any of these descendants spoke Muskoghean or any other Indian language.
It was not until 1850 that a few descendant families moved eastward to the current location of the Poarch Band in Northwest Escambia County, Alabama. According to the 1870 census, all of Escambia County contained only 43 “Indians.” Brewer’s 1872 History of Alabama concurs to the exact number. By their own admission as set forth in their application, it was not until 1880 that a single distinct group evolved.
An Indian proponent named John Beck, a white man, petitioned The Department of Interior in 1893 to assist the Creeks of Alabama. Although the Indians of other Southwest Alabama counties are mentioned, Beck did not mention Escambia County, the home of the so-called Poarch Band.
In 1906, the mix-blood descendants living in what was to become the Poarch area, applied to the federal government for entitlements as Indians. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington sent a denial letter stating:
“I know of no band of Indians located in southern Alabama and any that might be found are descendants of Indians choosing to remain after Removal and therefore are not entitled to share in the lands and funds of The Creek Nation.”
Also in 1906, the U. S. Court of Claims made an award to the Eastern Cherokee Indians. Applications to share in the 1906 award were made by basically the same Poarch group that later received recognition as Muskogees or Creeks!
Unlike the Poarch Band, other Indian tribes receiving federal recognition have been tribes which were assigned to reservations.
Owens’ 1921 History of Alabama notes that near the town of Atmore there lived about 45 Indians. One of their three hamlets in the area, Poarch Switch, was not formed until the 1920’s. Thus, the name Poarch Band is a modern name—not of any Indian language derivation.
None of the group have traditional Indian names. The most frequent surnames in their genealogical charts are European names like Walker, Presley, Gibson, Daughtry, McGhee, Colbert, Sizemore, Jackson, Madison, Deas, Woods, Hathcock, Hollinger, Steadham, Hinson, Adams and Marlow.
None of the hamlets in the area have traditional Indian names, but rather English names like Hog Fork, Huxford, McCollough, Bell Creek, Red Hill, and Freemanville.
The earliest church records for the area show protestant churches with non-Indian leaders. There does not appear to have been any traditional Indian religious ceremonies. The first record of a separate Indian church in the area was not until 1910.
The 1910 census, the last one available to the public at the time of application for tribal status, shows nearly twice as many Indians living in Monroe County as in Escambia County where the sparsely separated clusters would eventually make a claim for tribal recognition.
The family groups in the Poarch area were not identified in the census records as “Creeks” until after 1920, and the 1920 census for the area listed several of the Poarch group as Choctaw, an entirely different Indian group from the Creeks.
One can only reasonably conclude that the descendants from four or five disconnected half-bloods who had sided with the white men in the Indian Wars and who had remained after the 1836 removal became numerous enough over time, almost 400 by 1974, to claim to have been a single Indian tribal group because such a claim became financially profitable under the federal government’s Indian welfare and grant programs.
The Poarch Band should never have been granted tribal status simply because they did not meet Requirement Number One. They are not descendants of a specific tribal group that historically inhabited a specific area.
Requirement Number Two:
There must have been a tribal government acting with authority over the tribal members throughout history to the present.
In truth, there were no formally appointed tribal leaders of this community until 1950. In 1950, the first leader to hold any title was chosen. The first name given to an organization of the Poarch Band, which was also in 1950, was “Perdido Band of Friendly Creek Indians of Alabama and Northwest Florida.” “Perdido” is the Spanish word for “lost.” The next year, the name was changed to Creek Nation East of the Mississippi. This body eventually evolved into the governing body politic of the Poarch Band. In 1971, the Poarch Band incorporated as a non-profit organization.
The Poarch Band should never have been granted tribal status because there was simply no tribal government throughout history. Such government never existed prior to the middle of the 20th century, and even then it was not a traditional Indian type of government.
Requirement Number Three:
On a continuous basis, the tribe must have been identified from historical times to the present as “American Indian.”
In order to meet this criterion, the tribe relied upon an identification with the Creek Confederacy, although there was no evidence to support the claim that a Poarch Band of Creeks were ever a part of such a confederacy. The Creek Confederacy was basically destroyed by Andrew Jackson’s army in 1814. At that point in time and prior thereto, there was no such thing as a Poarch Band of Creek Indians. The dominant tribe within the confederacy had been the Muskogee tribe. Even when the Creek Confederacy existed, it was not composed of a homogeneous people, but was a confederation of different groups—some with radically different linguistics and cultures. The confederacy continuously lost and added other Native American groups to the Confederacy.
The 1860 census is the very first federal census that lists any of the inhabitants of the Atmore area as being “Indians.” During the civil war and reconstruction, both military and county records list the residents of the Poarch area as “white.”
Records of The Alabama Department of Education through 1911 show only white schools and no Indian schools in the area.
It appears that the first visit to the area by an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs was not until 1934.
The application for tribal status should have been denied simply because there was no identification of them as an American Indian tribe from historical time and continuing on an uninterrupted basis to the present.
Some miscellaneous points merit mention:
The tribal charter sets forth the blood quantum requirement for membership as 1/8th for the current generation. The following charter provision propels the Poarch people into easy qualification:
“For purposes of computing blood quantum of their descendants, all Indians listed as such in the 1900 U. S. Census are hereby declared to be full-blooded Creek Indians.”
In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of Indian, as long as the 1900 census says “Indian.” It’s absolutely amazing that a 1900 Poarch ancestor can be declared as a full-blooded Indian because they began as half-bloods in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s, and the dilution would continue over time as more whites enter their pedigree charts. A so-called Poarch Indian in 1900 would probably have been no more than 1/8th at best. Like much of federal bureaucracy, it’s just another political game people play with tax monies.
One last point. After achieving tribal status, the Poarch Band purchased in 1980 from a private owner 35.8 acres of land in Wetumpka which was once a part of the Muskogee Indian Village of Ocheapaufau or “Hickory Ground,” a village with which the Poarch Band has virtually no connection. The land was purchased with a federal grant from The Department of Interior’s “Historic Preservation Fund.” The question of possible future gambling at the site does not seem to have been considered at the time. According to newspaper accounts at the time, local government leaders unknowingly welcomed and celebrated the land purchase.
Each of us in the room probably has some Indian blood in us. One of my 64 fourth great-grandfathers was a full-blooded Indian from a northern tribe. Just in case you’re wondering, that mathematically makes me 1/128th Indian. The point is this: If the so-called Poarch Band in Atmore can satisfy the regulations of The Department of Interior with their application for tribal status, then we might want to consider forming the “Rotary Band of Creeks East of the Coosa.” It seems to be difficult for The Department of The Interior to distinguish between Indians dressed up as white men, and white men dressed up as Indians.
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