Indians Push for Federal Recognition

By Alvin Benn, Montgomery Advertiser
September 24, 200

NEW BROCKTON — Many have sky blue eyes and blonde hair, but they consider themselves as complete an Indian as Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull.

Members of the MaChis Lower Creek Indian Tribe have been trying to convince the federal government that they deserve recognition.

The state government gave Alabama’s Indian tribes official recognition in 1984 and MaChis Chief Pennie Wright feels that’s a good step in the right direction, “but we still have a long way to go.”

“We’re trying to improve our relationship with the federal government right now,” Wright said. “Unfortunately, we have been told we need more proof as to our heritage and I don’t think that’s right.”

One way to provide that proof, she said, is being taken care of right now. She announced in late August that the tribe is changing its roll cards, adding photographs to make sure that only legitimate members of the MaChis tribe have them.

Wright said local employers “and other interested parties” are being notified of the changes.

Today is the effective date of the new cards and Wright said members of her tribe must have them to be eligible for benefits, ranging from small business loans to potential employment.

“A recent development of falsifying tribal roll cards has caused our tribe to go to picture cards,” Wright said, adding that “the new cards will contain information that previous roll cards just did not have.”

Wright’s daughter, Nancy Carnley, said identity proof is important “because we cannot be eligible for educational benefits or other programs unless we have ID cards.”

Of Alabama’s nine Indian tribes, only the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore has official federal recognition.

Wright said there are about 6,000 members of the MaChis Tribe in the South with 5,000 of them living in Alabama, most in the central and southern portions.

Coffee County has the most members — about 800 — while Escambia County has the fewest — 2, Wright said.

Wright and Carnley, who is the tribal secretary, have devoted much of their days to helping strengthen the tribe’s standing in Alabama. But their eyes are clearly fixed on future recognition from Washington, D.C., and possible funding to help with educational and employment programs.

A nurse who is divorced with two children, Carnley said most members of her tribe have an Indian blood line of “about 25 percent.”

David Johnson, who owns and operates a lumber company in Coffee County, said his light hair and blue eyes should not be misconstrued. He said he is as proud of his Indian heritage as any with more “accepted” features.

“The image most Americans have of Indians is that of the Lakota Sioux because Hollywood decided that’s who we were going to say was an Indian,” Johnson said. “In Hollywood’s eyes, anyone who doesn’t have those features isn’t an Indian.”

Johnson said his great-grandmother was a full-blooded Creek Indian. He said he is a product of an assimilated society featuring numerous marriages between Indians and white citizens.

“I am who I am and that is as an individual,” said Johnson, who has been named the MaChis Tribe judge — a position that doesn’t have much legal clout behind the title.

He said he can impose financial penalties against members of the tribe, but can’t attach any jail time because the tribe doesn’t have a jail. He said Alabama’s judicial system has control over all citizens regardless of ethnic or racial backgrounds.

“Right now,” he said, “I can impose a fine for those who are willing to pay it,” he said. “They can volunteer to pay, but that doesn’t happen very often.”

One of the MaChis tribe’s proudest members is Lamar Holland, a long-distance truck driver who spends many weekends in native dress at festivals and other events.

“I’ve never been ashamed of my Indian heritage,” said Holland, whose large family shares his love of all things Indian. “When I’m on the road, I’m happy to tell people about my background.”

Michael Gilbert, executive director of the Indian Affairs Commission, said Alabama’s Indians often find themselves celebrating their ancestry at special tribal functions.

He said they differ from Indians in states such as Oklahoma, where 100 percent bloodlines have been passed down from one generation to another. Assimilation is not as evident as it is in Alabama.

“Most Indians in Alabama are hard-working, taxpaying Americans,” Gilbert said. “A lot of what they do on tribal matters is on weekends. According to the 2000 Census, there are about 26,000 Indians in Alabama.”

Gilbert said the only Indian reservation is in the Atmore area where the Poarch tribe is located. He said Alabama citizens with Indian backgrounds have done much in recent years to raise money for scholarships and other worthwhile causes.

The infamous Trail of Tears, ordered by the federal government under the Indian Removal Act in the 1830s, substantially reduced Alabama’s Indian population. An estimated 3,500 Creeks died during the long march to Oklahoma and other midwest states.

Those who remained behind began to assimilate into the white man’s world and by the dawn of the 20th century, a majority of Indians were of mixed heritage.

“Many Native Americans did what they had to do to survive and that meant assimilation,” said Gilbert, a former Marine who does not have Indian ancestry. “Since the 1970s, there has been a reawakening of interest in Native American heritage and culture.”

Gilbert, who has studied Alabama’s Indian heritage, said the state has a much richer history than any in New England and Virginia where English settlements were established.

“(Spanish explorer Hernando) DeSoto’s expedition arrived in Alabama 80 years before Plymouth Rock,” said Gilbert. “Alabama’s Native American influence predates the pilgrims by several generations.”