Professors, MCN Cultural Preservation discuss issues with accounts, interpretations
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — “I think you may always get heat no matter what story you have related to Creek history because we encounter a lot of people too that I think feel like they read the other kind of book.”
Muscogee (Creek) Nation Historic and Cultural Preservation Manager RaeLynn Butler reinforced what made me decide to do this story in the first place.
Upon demand and based on my own interest, I’ve decided to spend my spare time as manager pursuing stories on tribal history.
Shortly after this decision however, I remembered the same problem we usually have after publishing these, the comments on Facebook and emails telling us what we got wrong.
After thinking about it, I decided to meet the problem head on by covering the issue itself.
Through a colonial lens
Many who are interested in tribal history know that settlers wrote most accounts, which leads to concerns about misinterpretation due to cultural bias.
“People from soldiers, government officials to traders and things that didn’t really didn’t have concepts of culture, people and the way they think, the way Creeks think,” HCP Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Officer Emman Spain said.
Anthropology means the study of people. Teaching under this department at the University of Georgia, Dr. Victor Thompson said a source’s bias can be a reflection of their historical period.
“It’s not that I think of them of wholesale being wrong, or wholesale being correct, but they’re written from a particular perspective that provides a level of detail and a type of insight into the past that I don’t have,” the professor of archaeology said.
Spain said intentional slant also exists.
“When they quote somebody from that time period talking about reporting on observations of the Creeks, still referring to them as savages and things like that,” he said.
Thompson said cultures can be nationalistic when interpreting history.
“All history is also political,” he said. “In fact all information has political dimension to it. So I think that it’s not something you can escape and you have to have some awareness of it and I think the key is context.”
Thompson shared a story from one of his colleagues who got into a debate with another formally trained archaeologist that was local to the area they were both studying.
The local disagreed about where a river used to flow even though the evidence was clear and this person was trained to see it.
“After an extended conversation, it sort of came out that the official state history of this river has always said it flows right over there,” Thompson said. “And the realization was that this particular person did not have the authority to go against and challenge those official state histories.”
Available material challenges
UGA History Department Professor Claudio Saunt echoed Spain’s opinion about the challenge of learning what Creeks were thinking and said written accounts or translations of speeches from them are valuable.
“But again those are, one those are translated from Muskogean to English and then two, it’s not word for word; it’s just a kind of summary from somebody who was taking notes,” he said.
Saunt and Thompson both said oral traditions are a common historical source for indigenous cultures.
“I think one of the things researchers, scholars and things, I don’t think they’ve taken full advantage of partnering with Native people’s understanding and really delving into those oral histories,” Thompson said.
HCP Archives and Records Technician Melissa Harjo-Moffer said she has and is planning to do more interviews with elders to collect their stories.
“They talk about culture and they talk about the past and present,” she said.
Ceremonial leader and HCP Cultural Advisor David Proctor said oral traditions have become a challenge over time.
“We have a saying at the ceremonial grounds,” he said. “We talk about how things are and how things were and we say that we used to be able to look over our shoulder and ask the old people, ‘are we doing things right?’ And now we don’t have that.”
Butler said she has considered generating pieces on gravehouses after hearing some outside misconceptions, along with more information about old churches but that certain ceremonial ground traditions should not be documented.
“I feel like some elders believe you shouldn’t go and write everything down because it was meant to be lived and you have to learn through living it and not reading it,” she said.
HCP Tribal Historic Cultural Preservation Officer Corain Lowe-Zepeda and Thompson both said these accounts are fragmented.
Lowe-Zepeda also acknowledged the limits of written documentation.
“You’re never going to get a true account as to how our ancestors lived and our grandfather…didn’t believe in writing things down because he used to say, ‘if you write things down, it’s going to eventually drive you crazy,’ ” she said.
Lowe-Zepeda said she was told in the 50s and 60s to sit and listen to her elders, “because one day we’re not going to be here they said.”
“But you try to tell your children, your grandchildren, this is the way it was,” she said. “They’re too busy texting. They’re too busy with all that technology and stuff.”
Getting it right
Proctor said some people in the original Muscogee territory of the Southeast are teaching false information about tribal traditions but he believes proper social stompdances are fine as long as too much is not disclosed.
“But like the medicine, that kind of stuff, and the songs those are sacred songs and that’s where that line would stop,” he said.
Butler said the Fort Benning Military installation in Georgia asked her department to review their curriculum and help with Creek history.
“They sent us the lesson plans and they were teaching the kids about Sitting Bull and about these different Native Americans that weren’t even in the Southeast,” she said.
Butler said her department likes to read books by non-Native authors like the late anthropologist John Swanton.
But she said these works have inaccuracies, pointing out a questionable list of clans he did.
“I remember when I first read it I thought, ‘wow, there was a daddy longlegs clan,’ ” she said.
She mentioned another somewhat vulgar listing by Swanton that her department concluded was probably elders playing a joke on him while they also added their own.
“You know, but to see that there I was like, ‘what?’ So we tease each other and say the history clan,” Butler said.
Proctor said he is now an elder without his own to lean on and that he does his best to be accurate while also stating it is hard to discern even Swanton’s questionable findings.
“There’re things that still go on that are pure and you know we do it to the best we can because a lot of things, we don’t know the reason,” he said. “We do things that we don’t know why. But it’s supposed to be done this way.”
Limits of disciplines
Saunt has published several works on Southeastern tribes and said it is hard to balance source attribution with a digestible narrative.
“You don’t want to lard it with lots of qualifications, you want to be able to tell your story,” he said. “But I think there are key moments and key questions that we don’t know, or can’t answer or are controversial enough that I think the narrative text itself needs to draw attention to it so the readers are aware.”
Saunt said he is sometimes jealous of those who write about European history because his sources, especially Native ones get more fragmented the farther back he goes.
“There are so many gaps in the historical record that I think archeology is essential,” he said. “It can’t answer some questions, but on the other hand I mentioned how fragmentary the historical record is, but the archeological record is even more fragmentary.”
Thompson acknowledged the limitations of his discipline but said this realization is making it better.
“Our models, these ideas that we had in our head, were way too simplistic,” he said. “That in fact the behaviors and the lives that people led at these individual sites were far more complicated than we had ever thought.”
Thompson said subjecting work to the scrutiny of other professionals is key, citing a friend who works at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
“Part of all this is keeping your ego in check,” he said. “Have a good colleague that, you know ‘science gives you the right to be wrong is a dangerous promise,’ is the one I heard him say.”
He said a significant advancement in the field is the ability to gauge deep time and how the same landscape changed as generations of a culture passed over it.
Thompson said this led to a discovery that an earlier version of Stonehenge was made of wood.
Spain said understandings about some of the early Spanish expeditions by Hernado de Soto have been updated through archaeology.
“That’s changed quite a bit from what was the normal theory of where he went,” he said.
Thompson said there has also been significant ethical advancement.
“I can say that the history of anthropology has not been good,” he said. “It has been at times, if you take it all the way back, it has racist origins. It can be colonialist, patronizing. It has come a long way in being more inclusive.”
Thompson said his university has had Muscogee (Creek) advisors out to their archaeology field school at least twice and that his professors were not as inclusive.
“They didn’t talk about the importance of collaboration and thinking about these issues, particularly for issues like NAGPRA,” he said. “One, I think it just scared them. I think they just had this knee-jerk reaction to it and that was detrimental to moving forward.”
According to the U.S. National Parks Service website, NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 to address the rights of tribes over their cultural objects, which Butler’s department plays a role in for MCN.
“We are definitely, constantly trying to find the best ways to communicate but also to protect our interests as a tribe so that people don’t exploit,” she said.
Thompson gave specific examples of how detrimental early approaches were, leading to a need for trust building today.
“Well if you go all the way back to anthropology’s beginnings, people were just, and I’m speaking specifically of archaeologists, they were just digging up cemeteries and there was no thought to the cultural, social, emotional impact to those actions and that’s a real problem,” he said.
Lowe-Zepeda said she still questions work with remains.
“Then you have people wanting to do DNA on our ancestors’ bones,” she said. “What are those bones going to tell them?”
Proper consultation, collaboration
NAGPRA covers some concerns related to tribal oversight of their own cultural assets but Butler said there are professionals who made their careers studying Creeks who have never talked to a citizen.
“It’s hard to believe but I think that’s a big role that our department has is to try to, especially in the Southeast, anytime we’re given an invitation, we’re going because we want people to know we’re still here,” she said.
She said those who do consult the tribes sometimes end up taking advantage of them.
“It is very common that tribes get visited by people wanting to do research or wanting to talk with them and get their opinions and things like that but then they never come back to the tribe or end up exploiting like, ‘hey we found this new Creek Echinacea that we’re going to sell online,’ ” Butler said.
Butler said her department has had worthwhile collaborations with non-Native professionals through events like the Muskogean Symposium held at the MCN complex that featured their staff and professors who have studied the tribe.
“Bringing out these scholars that have done work so that they could meet the people and present to the tribal citizens and get more interest,” she said.
Butler said she believes there needs to be more input from MCN about its history.
“We are always open and willing to talk because I feel like the tribal voice and thoughts have really not been utilized in a lot of information and it could be that, it’s not that they’re not accurate, but putting a tribal perspective will make it whole,” she said.