I have Muscogee ancestry on my Dad’s side. He grew up in poverty in Muscogee, Oklahoma in the 1920’s and 30’s, feeling very ashamed and marginalized, called a ‘half-breed’ by the white kids and the other Indian kids. He inherited and passed on to our family the violence and rage and addiction that had been passed to him through the generations. I grew up knowing that I am part Indian, but feeling shame-filled and secretive about it. My Dad never learned our language or any of our traditional ways.
When I got into my 20’s, I read everything I could find on the European Holocaust. There simply wasn’t anything being written about the Native American Holocaust and the genocide inflicted on the indigenous people in America. I later started learning about Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief in Native American communities. I identified the source of my family’s dysfunctional inheritance and did a lot of work acknowledging the damage and healing the scars.
I’ve made some important pieces of artwork to mark this journey and in the past couple of years, when I’ve shared them with people and told them about my family history, they would say how lucky I am to have that background. At first I thought they were crazy, because there was so much pain and grief, so many generations of unfulfilled lives in response to our history. I’ve also been learning a lot about the Muscogee. About our pre-Contact (1492) life and traditions, the Indian Removal Act, Trail of Tears and Relocation to Oklahoma, where my Dad grew up. I’ve come to understand my Dad and feel compassion for him. I’m certainly the first person in my family line who has faced and felt this stuff. It has felt like a huge burden at times and has lain heavy on my heart.
Last night, I spent a couple of hours going through the Muscogee (Creek) census from 1832 town by town. My GGG Grandfather, Pahos (Pow Hose or Par Hose) Harjo Philips came from one of 12 Upper Creek towns in what is now known as central Alabama. That’s Red Stick country. The Red Stick Muscogee were the ones who supported traditional Muscogee leadership and culture, including the preservation of communal land for cultivation and hunting and opposed assimilation to the United States culture. They went to war in 1813 with the Lower Creek Muscogee (who were allied with the white Americans), influenced by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who had begun a pan-Indian movement to throw the Americans out of Native American territories. We lost, but we went down fighting.
In a radical act, my GG Grandfather (B. 1826) was named Tecumseh Philips after the great leader. By 1836, the last of the Muscogee were ‘removed’ to Indian Territory, 1500 miles to the West. I am named after Tecumseh’s daughter, Malindy Philips, who is my great grandmother.
When I found last night, that I am descended from the ones who fought back, I felt like an eagle was flying in my heart, like the sun was beaming from my soul, like the sacred hoop had been mended. I felt whole again and I felt the strength of my people. I feel proud to belong to the Muscogee.
Artwork by Brian Larney