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.

 

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How I learned to be Indian

The first time I exhibited my art work about my Muscogee (Creek) heritage, I was shocked when someone said to me ‘You are so lucky to be part-Indian’.  I wish that I had the wherewithal to ask just what she meant.  The history of all indigenous people in the United States is marked by physical and cultural genocide, and land theft and we have all inherited a legacy of Historical Trauma and Unresolved Grief.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s with a father who felt very ashamed about his Muscogee ancestry.  My dad Frank was born in 1919 to my Muscogee grandmother Mattie Davis.  His father Ted Schwakhofer was of Austrian-American heritage.  Both of my grandparents were 16 years old.  My grandfather had nothing to do with his son or the mother of his child.  All that my dad received from him was his surname.

My dad said that he could understand the Muskogee language, but never learned to speak it.  The White kids called him a ‘Half Breed’ and the Muscogee kids didn’t like him because he was part White.  From 1920 onward, Native American children in Oklahoma were educated in the mainstream school system, where they and all of the other pupils learned that Indians were ‘savages’, although my dad used to argue with his teachers about this.  My grandmother Mattie would have gone to a residential school where students were actively discouraged from speaking their native tongue by having their mouths washed out with soap, or worse.

My brother, sister and I grew up knowing we’re part-Indian, but not much more than that.  My dad used to get The Muscogee Nation News delivered to our house and letters from distant relatives in Oklahoma, but by and large, he’d cut himself off from his ancestry.  I grew up wearing my Muscogee heritage like a cloak of shame.

I’ve come back to working with fibre and textiles in the past several months.   I’ve been studying an inspiring book by textile artist Rosie James.   I took the plunge into a machine sewn portrait of my dad onto paper printed with the front page of The Muscogee Nation news from 1978.

I made a line drawing from a photograph and printed off some text to make a layout of the piece.

Then I put the front page into Photoshop and added some text directly onto the page.  It is too fine to embroider onto the paper.  I used a glue stick to attach a piece of cotton organdie to the back of the paper to stabilize it and keep it from ripping when I stitched the portrait.  Then I machine stitched directly onto the front of the paper.

This is how it looks from the back.  I had originally thought about stitching through the fabric onto the front of the paper so had traced the picture onto the cloth.  It gives an interesting effect which I may explore in later work.

Back

My Dad used to have The Muscogee Nation News delivered to our house in West Covina, California and kept them in a drawer.   He’d read them at the dining table, drinking a beer,  He’d say: “We’re part-Indian.  We’re Creek.  We’re one of the Five Civilized Tribes.”

Gorgeous gorgets

I’d made some paper clay gorgets for my Road to Oklahoma a few months ago and have decided that I’d rather they be made from fibre.

So far I’ve tried needle-felted fleece, collaged ultrasuede and either back-stitch or trapunto onto cotton, satin or felt.

None of them are quite right and I am so frustrated.   My husband reminds me that I will work it out.  He has seen me in this place many times before!

I love drawing and meditating on these images.  I find the symmetry of the designs within the circles very balanced and harmonious.

Harmony, graphite, 2017

An amusing thing happened when I had drawn a design onto the back of a piece of felt forgetting to reverse it, so that when I finished stitching it, it was a mirror image.  Steve queried if it matters and I said. ‘Yes, it will disturb the harmony of the Universe’.

The movement in many of the designs is counterclockwise.  The Muscogee stomp dance is counterclockwise.  This is because our ancestors knew that the earth and the sun spin on their axes counterclockwise and the planets rotate around the sun counterclockwise.  The Muscogee Way is about finding balance and restoring harmony to the world.

Yesterday I watched a series of short videos about textile artist Sue Stone.
Her mantra is:   ‘Be brave, push boundaries, make mistakes’.  She advocates going deep into just a very few techniques, making way for exploration and discovery.  This makes sense, but I am still figuring out which materials to use.  I think that this is the time to step back and focus on another part of the piece where I know exactly what I need to be doing.

 

On the road again

Well now, I thought I’d written about this next piece two years ago when I started making it.

Working title for a work in progress: The Road to Oklahoma
It is about being torn apart, partings from, partings through, bloodline, arrival, departure, the long straight road that cuts through the land.

September 2015

The base is made from undyed fleece from a Whiteface Dartmoor sheep needle felted onto black acrylic felt. Torn red silk dupioni stitched down with white bugle beads bisects the road.  I machine stitched a sinuous Mississippian riverine motif along the left hand side.

The back side tells a story too.

It has been hanging on my design wall since 2015.  A couple of weeks ago, I have come back to work on it.

I made some gorgets from paper clay.  The original ones would have been carved from whelk shells by the Mississippian ancestors of the Mvskoke.

I stitched them to the top right hand side of the piece with red thread,

but then decided to change to cream thread.  The metal disc is the cremation remains disc from my father’s ashes.

On the lower left side is another Mississippian gorget, printed onto organza of a Red Stick warrior.  This represents and honours my Mvskoke ancestors who lived in what is now the state of Alabama until we were ‘removed’ to Indian Territory in the 1830’s.  We were called Upper Creeks by the European invaders to differentiate us from the Lower Creeks who had settled in what is now Georgia.

This is also about my dad Frank Charles Schwakhofer, who was born in Muscogee, Oklahoma in 1919.  Because he was half Muscogee (Creek) and half white, he never felt like he fit in anywhere.  Both the white and the Indian kids called him a ‘half breed’. He never learned to speak Creek, but he could understand it.  He left home as soon as he could.  First, riding the freight trains out to California in the mid 1930’s when he was 16.  Then when he got older, he always had a car.  He drove off and never looked back.

I printed a map with the city of Muscogee in the middle onto cotton organza.  This map is from 1905, when it was still Indian Territory, soon to become the state of Oklahoma.  I hand embroidered the roads in red thread and sewed a gold bead right smack on top of Muscogee.  The photo of my dad, also printed onto organza, is from June 1955. On the road somewhere.

an Indian and his car

 

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.

wounded warrior6

Initial charcoal drawing on sugar paper

wounded warrior7

Sketch on heavier weight textured paper

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Beginning with water soluble pastels & neocolor crayons

wounded warrior9

Starting to add acrylic paint

wounded warrior5

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.

wounded warrior10

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.

Mvskoke Woman

Yesterday I set up the still life for my Monday morning drawing class. I invited Mvskoke Woman into the space.  She’s a dark guardian angel, she is everywoman who carries the story of many indigenous woman, and specifically the stories of the Muscogee people and of the women in my bloodline.  It was good to give her form and to meet her.

I raised the chandelier in our living room and began bringing her in on Friday evening.  I gathered together my wings, feathers, reclaimed NDN paraphernalia, pieces of artwork that are in progress or complete, maps, my boots .  .  .  .  .  all of the objects that carry part of the story.

mvskoke woman9

The number four is very important and sacred to the Mvskoke.  I used a cruciform shape made from two perspex rods to attach her to.  I made a couple of  rough drafts and by Sunday morning, she had taken shape.
I hung Spirit Bird inside of her and my Bird Dance Stick beside her.

mvskoke woman10

She is very ethereal at the top and I wanted to ground her solidly on the earth.  I got a piece of fabric from my stash and made a medicine shield for her to stand on.  I wasn’t sure how to draw a big, accurate circle.  Then I decided to start from the center.   I made a dot in the middle and got a stick and measured from the center point outward all the way around.  Then I cut it out and painted it with acrylic paints.

I sat in each direction while I painted it.
Red – South,  Yellow – East, White – North, Black – West.
I just realized that I went in an anti-clockwise direction.  This is the direction that Muscogee women travel during the Stomp Dance.

mvskoke woman8

This is me setting her up on Monday morning.  I’m also working on a mask of Cufe, the Trickster Rabbit.  I temporarily added some hair to it for my still life.  It was a bit tricky hanging the piece on site.  I would have liked to have placed the head more carefully, but in the end I dangled it from the ceiling hook.

mvskoke woman6

At her feet, I arranged some of my maps, my artwork and my reclaimed NDN paraphernalia.

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mvskoke woman5

mvskoke woman4

Spirit Bird inside and Dancing Bird Stick

These are a few of my drawings.  I used charcoal, graphite, ink, pastel and acrylic paint.

mvskoke woman1

mvskoke woman2

mvskoke woman3

Standing in the center of the world

Standing in the center of the world