The Tampa Times
Tuesday, October 19, 1976
Photo on front page: Gary Rings/Tampa Times
Preparing for the powwow
A youngster is garbed by his parents in a colorful Indian feather outfit in preparation for a Creek powwow. The powwow is one of many that Creek descendants have been celebrating on weekends. The festivities are usually held to honor Creek customs, have a little fun, and, some critics charge, make a fast buck. The lush feathers would not be recognized by their Creek ancestors, most of whom wore simple loincloths before meeting white men. (See stories and pictures in today’s Local Focus section).
Creek tribes split in fight for funds
Photo: Gary Rings/Tampa Times
In full headdress
One of the chiefs of Pensacola’s Creek Indian clans, a 45-year-old gravestone chisler named Joe McGhee, presides in full headdress over a recent Creek powwow outside Pensacola.
Photo: Gary Rings/Tampa Times
The modern way
This Pensacola youth begins a frenzied whirling in the style of western Indian dances. But all the dyed feathers are part of a modern Creek Indian powwow, even though Creeks never wore such photogenic garb until the 20th century.
The Creek Indians were a mighty empire in the southeastern U.S. until the white man came and the federal government moved them across the Mississippi River in the 1830’s. A few Creeks hid and escaped exile, and their descendants are now re-forming into tribes and pursuing their ancestral culture after generations of “white” living. In this second of a three-part series, the factionalism among modern day Creeks is explored.
By Jim Seale
Times Staff Writer
There’s a new Creek war raging. This time it’s not the Creeks vs. Andrew Jackson, but Creeks on the bureaucratic warpath fighting other Creeks.
“These days, the Creek’s greatest problem is not the whites but other Creeks,” said one Tallahassee Creek descendant.
Creek descendants by the hundreds have been proclaiming their Indian blood in the Southeast in recent years. They are forming tribes, gathering for weekend powwows and applying for federal aid.
But the intertribal warfare has state and local officials in a quandary over which group is entitled to administer Indian programs.
“I’m not looking forward to making the decision on which Creek group in Florida will administer part of a $255,000 federal grant,” said the director of Gov. Reubin Askew’s council on Indian affairs.
“I can’t handle their internal petty problems. They (each Creek faction) try to get you on their side,” she said.
Five warring Creek “clans” in Pensacola—a center of the new Creek movement—jockey for preeminence and federal dollars. Three of them are competing for the same federal grants.
The five clans, none of which will have much to do with the others, were originally unified before a bitter splintering process began in 1973.
It began with the Lower Muskogees of Wesley Thomley, a 51-year-old paper mill worker who claims to be chief over all Florida Creeks. Thornley’s loosely knit Lower Muskogees, composed of the many Pensacola-area Creek descendants newly fired up about their heritage, began attracting attention by dancing at public events.
But a faction within the growing Lower Muskogees split away in 1973 over dissatisfaction with the scheduling of dance practices, and formed the Coweta clan, dominated by its evangelical Baptist leaders.
The next year, the Cowetas suffered a bitter schism of their own that involved the management of the dance group, plus charges of favoritism in assigning dance roles and racial discrimination.
The Tuckabatchees, whose leaders are more nearly full-blooded Creek than those of other Pensacola clans, emerged from the Cowetas as the most traditionally Creek of Pensacola clans. Several Tuckabatchees said they left the Cowetas after being called “nigger” at a tension-filled Coweta meeting in 1973, a charge denied by Coweta chief W. V. Williams.
A domestic Tuckabatchee quarrel between a member, Tom Crook, and his wife led to Crook’s leaving the group to form the Coosawattie Creek clan, said Crook and other Tuckabatchees. Crook, a 49-year-old factory mechanic, said his group is composed of many local Eagle Scouts and other non-Creeks, as well as Creek descendants.
A young construction company office manager named Buford Rolin, one of Pensacola’s few “Indian-looking” Creek descendants, sought to bridge the divisions by creating a three-county Creek Indian council, which was formed in 1975 by the Florida Legislature.
“These little groups were springing up here and there and calling themselves the chief,” said the silver-haired Rolin in his soft Alabama accent, more than one year after becoming council chairman. “I thought the council could organize things.”
But the recently expanded 11-member council became a new source of controversy from the minute Gov. Reubin Askew announced his appointments to the body.
Those included fire Cowetas, two Lower Muskogees, Rolin and another Creek descendant who, like Rolin, deliberately stayed away from the clans to maintain neutrality.
Though council members claim the next vacancy will be filled by a Tuckabatchee, members of the clan cried foul over their exclusion. Thomley, who lobbied heavily in Tallahassee against the council’s creation but keeps his seat, bad-mouths it between meetings and complains his group is outnumbered on the council by his archrivals, the Cowetas.
Thomley joined “that fake council” only “to see how crooked it would get, and it turned out the way I thought it would.”
The tribal war entered a new phase last spring. Pensacola’s fifth clan was born when Perloca Linton, who had been active with Creek movement founder Calvin McGhee and was once a Thomley ally, announced she was forming a group that would elect its chief.
Though council members said seats will be elective as soon as a Creek roll is drawn up, Mrs. Linton and her followers decry the Askew-appointed council for being beholden to whites.
The internecine battles spilled over onto the pages of the Panhandle’s leading newspaper, the Pensacola News-Journal, which reserved editorial space for Creek leaders regarding Mrs. Linton’s controversial election.
Just before the June 19 balloting, the News-Journal, along with much of non-Indian Pensacola, entered the fray. The newspaper supported the legislature’s council over Mrs. Linton’s group.
Fewer than 400 voted, which even election sponsors said was disappointing but blamed on the News-Journal’s opposition.
Leroy Morris, an obese, 51-year-old TV wrestling program narrator who lives in Pensacola’s fashionable North Hill section, won the election and became the area’s fifth clan chief.
Morris said he will head a council of representatives from seven panhandle counties—over which he will be chief. Subcouncils in each county will also be formed, he said.
His election opponent, Crook, now says he was “used” by Mrs. Linton in the affair to get an opponent for Morris, who he said Mrs. Linton campaigned for. Crook and his supporters also charged Mrs. Linton with not telling them the location of two polling places.
The contention leaves four Creek groups in Pensacola seeking to administer Indian programs—and not one of them will work with another.
Mrs. Linton’s seven-county council plans a census of Creek descendants in Florida and will apply for federal Indian grants. The legislature’s council also intends to make up a census and to seek grants.
Tomley said he will keep his council seat but said his clan will join an “Amalgamated consortium” run by a Creek group in Georgia which will compete with both councils for the same grants.
Meanwhile, a private, nonprofit agency with a Pensacola office, the Community Action Program Committee, Inc., will not turn its Indian manpower program over to the councils but will continue applying for federal grants, agency staffer Ann Pate, a Creek clan member, said.
Alliances are sometimes attempted, but currently the Cowetas won’t talk to the Lower Muskogees. The Tuckabatchees spurn Thomley’s attempts at union with his clan, and they won’t stay in the same room with the Cowetas. The Cooswatties remain enemies of the Tuckabatchees.
All clan leaders oppose Mrs. Linton, whom they see as the real power behind Morris, and who is accused of opposing the other organizations merely because she is not running things any more.
Mrs. Linton who calls herself “the mother” of the modern Creek nation east of the Mississippi, proudly remembers the days when she was a girl Friday to the late Calvin McGhee, founder of the modern Creek nation.
“My only concern is for the Creek people. But I’m afraid I see more and more clans and more and more disunity,” she told The Times in her comfortable Pensacola home, which contained few traces of Indian culture.
Other Pensacola Creeks are skeptical. Ed Tullis and other Creek descendants see her as a long-time sponge on their kind, recalling the days when she was a one-woman genealogy agency and charged many a fee for tracing their lineage.
“For 20 years she’s made her living off Indians and she doesn’t want it to end,” Tullis said. Of her claim to a formative role in the Creek movement, Hugh Rozzelle, a lawyer in many of McGhee’s legal struggles, said, “This effort went on 16 years, and she got in on the tail end as far as I’m concerned.”
They also snicker at Morris’ claim of Creek blood. They claim he announced at a Creek powwow he emceed in the fall of 1975 that he wasn’t an Indian and became an honorary tribe member at the weekend affair.
“Leroy’s father would turn over in his grave if he knew Leroy was running around in feathers,” said Carolyn McDaniel, a Coweta Creek who has known Morris “all my life.”
Morris acknowledged he hasn’t proven his Creek ancestry to the federal government’s satisfaction, but denies ever denying Indian lineage.
Rival clan leaders accuse Thomley of the same grasping motives they attribute to Mrs. Linton. Thomley feels his title of chief over all Florida Creeks is undercut by the other councils, which don’t recognize his authority, they say.
Thomley retorts: “They hate me with a passion because they all want to be chief.”
Numerous Creeks across Florida have been asked by Thomley and Mrs. Linton’s group to join their organizations. The recruiting campaign has become so intense that Creek leaders have even sought to “sign up” children during class hours, complained Jack Bridges, a spokesman for the Escambia County school board.
“The more people we represent the more federal funds we can qualify for,” Morris explained.
Besides the “pure hatred” which Morris said some eastern Creeks feel for each other, there’s the suspicion that the Oklahoma Creeks and Florida’s two Seminole and Miccosukee reservation tribes are out to undercut their federal funding.
Soon after a Times reporter began inquiring into the Creek movement, the rumor spread among Pensacola and Tallahassee Creeks that the Times staffer was a Seminole agent trying to find Creek skeletons for future use.
“You are probably getting paid by the people in south Florida or those Creeks in Oklahoma,” Thomley said.
“It’s a question just where you did come from. We really do wonder,” said Ann Pate, a Thomley clan member who runs an Indian manpower program investigated by the Times.
The intertribal warfare boils down to a battle of grantmanship, Creek leaders know. Whichever one gets the federal grants will win the Creek civil war.
Amidst the backbiting by prosperous clan chiefs itching to administer federal grants for other economically-deprived Creeks, the genuinely needy Creek is being ignored, said Joe Mooney, the non-Indian director of a county agency that used to serve as staff to the legislature’s council.
The sharecropping of north Florida Creek descendants isn’t the livelihood it used to be, Creek leaders claim, and the condition of rural Creeks is getting worse.
Mooney said, “I’ve seen young women from rural areas around here come into these council meetings with no teeth, and their physical condition is terrible. These people are still suffering the effects of past discrimination against Indians.”