By JAY REEVES
OXFORD, Ala. (AP) – Native Americans whose ancestors were driven from the Southeast nearly 200 years ago in a purge that paved the way for white settlers returned Friday for a two-day festival with a name that sums up his goal: “We came back.
A busload of Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizens and others in vans and cars traveled from their homes in Oklahoma and elsewhere for a celebration in the eastern city of Oxford. ‘Alabama, located on what was once part of Arbeka, a Muscogee community dating back 12,000 years. . The people who lived there were forced to move west in 1836 on the “Trail of Tears”, a brutal journey of around 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) during which many died.
The land that was once a village inhabited by about 3,000 people is now the site of a city park with sports fields and a walking path, said RaeLynn Butler, who runs the country’s historic and preservation department. Tribal citizens gathered there at the start of a two-day event to tell Muscogee stories, sing hymns, explain tribal history and give locals a chance to meet their leaders.
“We’re trying to re-establish our presence in our homeland,” Butler said.
The Muscogee name for the event is “Reyicepes” or “We Came Back”. As the United States currently ponders how best to interpret a history that includes the enslavement of black people and the mistreatment of other minorities, women and Native Americans, the tribe hopes to tell its own story, said the principal chef David Hill.
“If you read the history books now, it doesn’t really tell you why and how we were taken with the Trail of Tears,” he said. “We didn’t want to leave. We were forced to leave.
Once among the largest groups in the Southeast, Muscogee territory included parts of the present-day states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The tribe’s last major fighting force was defeated by American troops at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend about 88 miles south of Oxford in 1814, which ultimately led to their expulsion from the area.
About 23,000 Muscogee were driven from the southeast in total, Butler said, and up to 4,000 died during a journey that included long marches and rides on barges and riverboats. Deaths continued once people arrived in Oklahoma, as many were seriously ill after the trip.
With approximately 96,000 registered citizens and headquartered in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the tribe is now one of the largest in the United States. Muscogee groups have taken trips to the southeast to reconnect with the area in recent years, including visits to Horseshoe Bend Battlefield, now a historic site, and Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park in Macon , Georgia, Butler said.
The weekend festival is different, she said, because the tribal leaders developed the idea on their own and the city welcomed the plan. A partnership between the two began years ago when city officials began developing the park on the former village site, uncovered artifacts and briefed Muscogee leaders, she said.
While a group from the Muscogee Nation visited the park in 2016 after it opened, most citizens did not.
“This is the first time many people have been here,” Butler said. “We know these places but we have never seen them with our own eyes.”
The nation wants to do more to connect with the local community and Muscogee still living in the south, the senior chief said. The nation is already working on educational programs with area schools, Hill said, and there have been discussions about using city-owned land in the park, which includes a reconstructed mound and signage. interpretation, for a cultural centre.
“We look at it as, ‘If they can’t come to us, we’ll come to them,'” he said.
Reeves is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.