Six Towns Held by River Spirit

Dear Readers,
The last time we were on the Road to Oklahoma together was  November.  I’d been struggling to make the gorgets come out right and had decided to focus on another part of the journey. I set about finding the probable town(s) that my Great Great Great Grandfather Pahos Harjo had lived in prior to Removal to Indian Territory.

I ordered a print copy of the Creek census of 1832/1833, which has come to be called the Parsons and Abbott Roll, from Mountain Press.  It is the most comprehensive pre-Removal document, as it was the result of a village-to-village trek on the part of the census-takers, and contains the names of all the heads of households arranged by Creek towns.

By a treaty of March 24, 1832, the Creek Indians ceded to the United States all of their land east of the Mississippi River. Heads of families were entitled to tracts of land, which, if possible, were to include their improvements. In 1833 Benjamin S. Parsons and Thomas J. Abbott prepared a census of Creek Indian heads of families, which gave their names and the number of males, females, and slaves in each family. The entries were arranged by town and numbered; these numbers were used for identification in later records.

A big issue here is that Creek men were not the ‘heads of the family’, the women were.  But this is part of yet another story of patriarchal values being thrust upon Indigenous people.

All of this information is online, but I get fuddled when switching between multiple tabs, and it’s difficult to search through long lists on a screen.  I had a go about four years ago, but it is so much easier to look through sheets of paper.  Information on the internet, great resource that it is, has an ephemeral quality.

My print copy has been transcribed and typed, but here is a glimpse of the original handwritten document.

creek census image

I went through the lists of all of the Upper and Lower Creek towns to identify my Great Great Great Grandfather’s name – Pahos (Pow Hose or Par Hose) Harjo.   Another problem is that the Mvskoke language was not a written language, so there were approximations made when recording people’s names and place names.

I identified about a dozen towns with something close to his name.  Six were in Upper Creek territory and about five were in Lower Creek territory.   The Upper Creeks, unlike the Lower Creeks, resisted colonization in every manner that they could and held as fast as they could to their traditional ways.  They supported traditional Muscogee leadership and culture, including the preservation of communal land for cultivation and hunting and opposed assimilation to the United States culture.   I have several good reasons for knowing that my ancestors are Upper Creeks.

First of all, I know that my ancestors settled first in Tuskegee Town soon after they arrived in Indian territory after they were Removed.  The emigrants tended to settle together and named the new towns in the West after the towns they left behind.   In our homelands, Taskigi was  located in the triangle formed by the convergence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers.  I found this information on the Dawes Roll (more on this another time).

Second, my Great Great Grandfather was named Tecumseh, after the great Shawnee leader who had encouraged the Upper Creeks to fight against the encroaching United States government into their territory.  In 1811, Tecumseh had begun a pan-Indian movement to throw the Americans out of Native American territories. This led to the Red Stick War in 1813 in which the Upper Creek Muscogee went to war against the Lower Creek Muscogee (who were allied with the white Americans).

Third, my Great Grandmother Malindy Phillips who  was born in Indian Territory in 1878 never learned to speak English, keeping fast to the old ways and retaining her Native language.

So I felt very confident when I identified six possible Upper Creek towns that my ancestors came from.  Still, sometimes I’m often afraid that it is all a mistake.  That I don’t have any connection to the Muscogee.  I think that this comes from the years of shame, secrecy, ambivalence and feeling ‘other and outcast’ about being ‘part-Indian’.  All of those feeling passed to me from my Dad, along with the fact of my Muscogee ancestry.

When I got the font, the font size, the color of ink and the paper just right, I printed off the six towns:  Clewalla,  Fish Pond, Hatchet Creek, Kialege, Oelarneby, Ottise.

Then I broke half in two.  The tears came.  It is true.  We were there and we had to leave it all behind.

I made an altar to hold all of this.

I placed the town names along with some shell squares onto a reproduction of a map from 1816 that the Mvskoke had taken to a treaty meeting.   I encircled them with the red thread of my River Spirit necklace.  I placed a black and a white feather, a paper clay mask and my Dad’s cremation disc on all four sides.  Then l lit a candle.

It hurts, I hurt.    I want to be mistaken so I don’t have to feel the loss.  Loss is too inadequate a word.  It is a tear, we have been torn.  Ripped open and ripped apart.  It hurts to rip it back open and it feels clean.  It feels quiet and still.  It can heal now.

It can heal now.

River Spirit holds the towns and the ancestors left behind and our journey.
River Spirit washes away the pain.
River Spirit cleanses the wound.

For my exhibition, I made a mixed media piece comprising all of these elements.

Six Towns Held by River Spirit, mixed media, 30 x 40cm

By the way, I did not use my River Spirit necklace in this piece.  We went for a walk in early February, along the river which flows just outside of Moretonhampstead.

I gathered several piece of river drifted wood and used one of them for Six Towns.



The Wounded Warrior

I’ve just finished a painting I’ve been with since early January.

In the first session of my Monday drawing class, Andrea read ‘Sometimes a Wild God‘ by Tom Hirons.  I encourage you to have a look here.

I met the wounded warrior, who is a frightening figure, at once powerful and vulnerable.  He frightens me, but I make a space for him and I listen.

I made a charcoal drawing, then made a painting in acrylic over the next several weeks.  This painting has working on me. I have been working on this painting.

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Initial charcoal drawing on sugar paper

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Sketch on heavier weight textured paper

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Beginning with water soluble pastels & neocolor crayons

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Starting to add acrylic paint

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It all begins to take shape

Here they are side by side on the last day of term, nearly finished.

wounded warrior4

On my final day of painting, I painted from the center of my medicine wheel.  I put his war club at his feet and gave the final detail to the vessel.

wounded warrior1

I really like the design which is taken from a Mississippian period pot with motifs made by a Southeastern tribe, probably Caddo.

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wounded warrior2

I have invited the wounded warrior in.
To sit, to rest, to be attended by the Clan animals, to partake of the Sacred Fire,
to find nourishment.

When I’m out in the world, the wounded warrior walks with me.
I listen deeply to his stories.
They took away the Black Drink and gave him whiskey.
They broke his war club and ball sticks.
They destroyed our ceremonial grounds and doused the Sacred Fire.
They burned the talwas and plowed our fields.
They made the people leave their land, the land we belonged to,
the land we long for still.
They put the moon in a cage.

They cut to the heart of us and made us bleed.
They cut the Mvskoke tongues out of our mouths.

When we listen deeply to the wound, we can hear the old voices speaking.
We can hear the land.
The land still calls to us.
The blood of warriors still runs in our veins.

Painting and words,  Melinda Schwakhofer, 2016.

My grandmother’s prayers

 Mvto to my Great Grandmother Melindy Phillips, Full-blood Mvskoke, born in Indian Territory, daughter of Tecumseh Philips. She died a couple of years after I was born, in Tennessee. I wonder if she knew about me, her namesake.

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Melindy Phillips, circa 1900, in her mid 20’s

And mvto to my Grandmother Mattie Davis, daughter of Melindy Davis née Crabtree née Philips. I know next to nothing about her, but think she had a short, hard life. Probably residential school, pregnant with my Dad at age 16, she died of TB when she was 24.

She must have had some powerful prayer in her though. All that I am doing with my reading and learning about our Muscogee heritage, history and culture; each piece of artwork or writing that I create; all of the stories I tell about the truth of our lives; each word in the Mvskoke language that I learn to speak; and, most of all, all of the healing I am doing is for Mattie Davis and all of my Grand Mothers.

grandmothers prayers

Image Source :: Nihígaal bee Iiná Facebook Page


Choosing to witness

“My ancestry and the history of colonization in North America,
place me as a witness to the untold stories of this continent.
I can either take up that role of witness or ignore it.
I choose to witness . . . . “

The first room that people enter when they come to my Open Studio is filled with my artwork inspired by the Muscogee (Creek), the tribe that I belong to.  The work honours my people, our traditions and tells many stories.  Most of the work is done by hand.


I begin with the first piece I made “Winter Trees Wept” which is about The Removal in the 1830’s of the Muscogee and four other tribes, the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee and Seminole from the Southeastern United States to Indian Territory, 1500 miles to the West.  This was the most difficult piece for me as it contains the unbearable grief suffered by my people and by the land.

Winter Trees Wept

Winter Trees Wept

“‘Winter Trees Wept’ was the knife-edge that opened up the way into the richness of my Muscogee heritage.  I began drawing in October 2012 and real and imagined worlds have been flooding onto blank paper; marks made and stories told in charcoal, mushroom compost, paint and pastels.


I have been taking up wire, clay, wool, twigs, bark,  fabric, bird wings and claws and shaping some of the inhabitants of the Muscogee world.


Chufi (trickster rabbit), poyvfekcv fuswv (spirit bird), perro (boat), hvcce (river), enliketv poyvfekcv (soul shelter) and Birdman, a supernatural deity who resided in the Upperworld with the spirits of the Sun, Moon and Stars.



Birdman – twigs, thread, blackbird wings, tail & claws. 50 x 19 cm


Everywhere, there are maps.  I have printed off a map showing the location of the five tribes and the Removal routes to the West.  This helps me to explain so much.


 This map shows the Upper Creek Nation with our villages and towns along the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers.

Muscogee Red Stick

ecatecvlke enfvyvtetv pome enliketv, red stick leads us home – twig, oil pastel, watercolour pencil, acrylic paint 30 x 30 cm

This work feels so important and deeply healing to me and my ancestors.  It continues to be a privilege to share it with visitors to my studio and to my blog.

The quote which begins this post was recycled from this interview of Cree/Metis poet Marilyn Dumont



Soul Shelter

Sometimes even the smallest piece of art can take a while to complete.

I read an article five years ago about ancestral altars and Hungry Ghosts.  That which has been uncared for, unresolved and ungrieved within our ancestry, is hungry and if not given proper attention to can emerge and affect the next generation.   From some work I’ve done with Bert Hellinger’s Family Constellations, I know how powerful healing work on my ancestral line is and how it benefits not only my self, today, but how it heals my ancestors.

Around that time, I read Anam Cara by John O’Donohue.  He suggests that rather than go out on a journey to find one’s soul or even to find it somewhere hidden within the body’s recesses, that we live and rest inside the shelter of our Soul, which envelops, protects and minds us.

“Imagine a light all around you, the light of your soul. Then with your breath draw that light into your body and bring it with your breath into every area of your body. One of the oldest meditations is to imagine the light coming into you, and then on your outward breath to imagine that you are exhaling the darkness. When you bring cleansing, healing soul light into your body, you heal the neglected, tormented places.”

In his book Anam Cara, he writes “The soul is the natural shelter around your life and will gather around you to mind you”

In 2008, I drew a sketch of a Soul Shelter, to keep the Souls of my Muscogee ancestors.

Soul Shelter, 2008

I honour and remember my ancestors  who were murdered by the European invaders and the United States government in their original homelands in the American Southeast.  The ones who perished on the Trail of Tears during their forced Removal to ‘Indian Territory’.  The successive generations who have never found their place in this world due to the intergenerational aftereffects of the trauma of Removal – alcoholism, addiction, mental health issues, under achievement.  I am so very grateful to the ones who came before me and survived.

We are in the thin time of the year.  Samhain.  The time when our ancestors, the ones who came before, are near to us. I had a powerful art-making experience a couple of weeks ago.  I was with a dear, familiar friend who knows me and some of my story and a dear, new friend who invited us on a healing art-making journey.  None of us really knew what we were going to make.  We started with a guided meditation which led to a house.  Mine was the house of my Muscogee ancestors.  I came to it through a winter woods and after going through the interior, I left with a warm fur cloak to continue my journey.

This is what I made.

Soul Shelter, 6″ x 3″ diameter

I made an armature from pipe cleaners and covered it with some sheer fabric I’d machine embroidered with bare winter trees.  I lined it with light blue dyed fleece and wound some wire and beads around the top to hold it together.

I love how it looks like a wise shaman.

It is meant to be worn.

My ancestor work feels like a journey inward and an outward journey.  The Soul Shelter can accommodate both at the same time.

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

This is today, the 9th of August.  International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

My Native American ancestors are the Muscogee, an indigenous people who were ‘re-located’ from their ancestral lands to another part of the country to make room for White Europeans.  Here’s my version of it.  The U.S. Government fully supported this policy through the Indian Removal Act, 1830.

I honour my ancestors and feel so deeply for their loss of land and family and friends and way of life.  I am also mindful of how that loss has trickled down in to my family and my life.  I hope, and actually believe, that my awareness of the influence and healing that I can do on the broken places of my life also heals my Ancestors.  I am grateful to my ancestors who survived the journey west on the Trail of Tears.  I come from strong and sturdy stock and have strong legs that walk me far.   Big Muscogee hamstrings!

My Great Grandmother Melindy and I, Melinda

I’ve been making a series of mixed media butterflies for the Butterfly Project based in the Holocaust Museum of Houston.  I’ve chosen to use images of Native American children to honour some of the tribes and people who were murdered and displaced throughout the expansion of the United States.

Here are two that I’ve made with photographs of Comanche children and text from the treaty between the Comanche and the U.S. Government.  These were printed onto handmade paper.

I’ve put this project on the back burner, but have resolved to make some more of them.  I downloaded the entry form tonight and will file it into my new right-brained organisational system.

It’s hard to be jolly about this topic.  Still casts a long shadow.

I’m starting to read the latest book by Muscogee writer and performer of music and poetry, Joy Harjo.  Her memoir.  It’s the latest addition to my collection of books about the Muscogee.

Books, not Kindle.  I want to hold them, take them into the bathtub (who cares too much if a corner dips into the Bloomsbury scented water), prop them open beneath the rim of my dinner plate, dog ear them and sleep with them under my pillow.

I’ve also been listening to this live webcast from the UN which features speakers and videos of indigenous media organizations.  Pretty interesting.  Lots of food for thought about the fact of and the use of social networking in a positive manner.