Two modern Native American women from the Muscogee Nation struggle to document their tribal membership and heritage
The Muscogee Nation is a Native American tribe, also known as the Creeks. Originally from the Southeastern United States, in the 19th Century the federal government forcibly relocated them to Oklahoma. Their tribal territories were eventually dissolved, along with their legal status as a tribe (which was fully restored in the 1980’s). Ever since, many of their descendents struggle to supply the necessary birth records to prove to both tribal and federal bureaucracies that they are, indeed, Muscogee. Following are the testimonies of two modern-day Muscogee women, provided to the editor of this blog in the form of letters, in the years 1999 and 2000, and republished here.
I am a proud, but invisible Muscogee.
Currently, I am a professor of intercultural communication and multicultural education at a college on the US/Mexico border. I teach courses that relate to the study of ethnic groups, cross-cultural communication, prejudice reduction, etc. I am passionate about my work. My invisibility has had a tremendous influence on who I am and my choice of career.
Two years before my father passed away in Birmingham, Alabama, he told me about the long-held family secret concerning my Great-grandmother. He informed me that I had the right to know that she was full Creek. I was thrilled. That was twelve years ago, and my search has been spotty with years of raising children, obtaining my education, and teaching.
My family hid my grandmother. Martha Ann was not allowed to go grocery shopping and be seen in public. She stayed home and my grandfather had all the public contact. She grew up in Sylacauga, Al. The family was forbidden to discuss her “Indianess.” My research has been an obstacle course with family living in the South who do not want to discuss, or even admit, that Annie was Muscogee.
I regret to say that all the documentation I have found so far states that she was W. She was married to a Scotsman, she was not Black, so she must be White, right? My family did not go to the reservation which is a problem for me because there are no numbers, no recognition of Native heritage.
I have moments of discouragement, and then, I meet another Native who asks if I am Lakota, or Seminole because of appearances. My nativeness is acknowledged by others I meet face-to-face. Most of the time, I am now content to know that I am Muscogee. I tell my students of my heritage and pride. But, when an affirmative action form comes with job applications and I am allowed to only check one box, and if I mark Native American and include a number, I end up tossing it in the trash. I am White and Muscogee. I will wait for the Census 2000.
I would like to be counted, just to be counted with the other Muscogees. The dental/medical program and other so-called benefits are not offerings that I strive for. Acknowledgement of my heritage and my grandmother’s struggle would be award enough.
– Thank you, and best wishes, Carmen Chambers
Mary Kay’s Story
I always talk about the government taking many things from the Indian people including the Indian names and giving our ancestors English names. I married a Muskogee Creek who was taken from his mother when he was in kindergarten and placed him in a BIA boarding school. He stayed there until he graduated in 1964 and his sister was also placed in a BIA school.
He remembers speaking Creek but he got into trouble because he was speaking his language. Then they made him stop speaking his language and he never did go home even during the summer. I met his mother before she died and she only spoke the Creek langauage. Then in 1996, he finally met a brother that he never knew about and he only speaks Creek. We helped him get his birth certificate by getting petitions by the elders.
Now Imogene Leitka tried to enroll into the Muskogee Creek Nation and she was told to get her birth certificate only to find out that there is no birth certificate for Imogene Leitka. The spelling of the Letka family according to his father and the court is Letka but sometime during the school years it was changed to Leitka.
When we was at Oklahoma City we went to the Department of Vital Statistics for Johnny Leitka birth certificate and found out that on the birth certicate it is spelled Leitka which was wrong. The only birth certificate that they have is for Mary John and on a different birth date than Imogene Leitka. So they told her that she is Mary John and that was her mothers name.
She tried to change her name to Imogene Leitka but the Bureau of Vital Statistics would not accept it. On that birth certificate it has baby girl infant and hand written is Mary. Johnny found out that the Social worker Galela Walkingstick is still living. The application of the Admission to Boarding school papers that Imogene Leitka has is signed by Mr. WD Roberts, Agency Superintendent, A.B. Caldwell, Area Education Officer, and Charles S. Wallace, M.D.
But still they people are insisting that she is Mary John and there is no Imogene Leitka. She does need all the help that she can get.
It really makes me angry about the way that the Indian people became institutionalized in the boarding schools, not only losing their identity, culture, heritage, and self-esteem. Our people is still paying for this today, we are no different from the Nazi camps and I was reading a book that Hitler said he used the methods that the Government used on the Indian people. I think that I could go into alot of different areas about our Indian people. If we are invisible today we will be forgotten in the future. I am a cultural teacher and I learn from the elders.
I would like to ask anyone that knows of Imogene Letka and Johnny Letka to please write because we need to provide documentation for Imogene’s birth certificate and her father’s parental status.
– MaLaHo, Mary Kay Leitka
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)
Would you like to learn more about issues related tribal documentation and the heritage of contemporary diaspora Native Americans of mixed descent? Read the groundbreaking book Invisible Indians: Mixed-Blood Native Americans Who Are Not Enrolled in Federally Recognized Tribes, by David Arv Bragi.
“Carmen’s Story” Copyright © 1999 by Carmen Chambers. All rights reserved.
“Mary Kay’s Story” Copyright © 2000 by Mary Kay Leitka. All rights reserved.