“Regardless where you’re from, north, south, east, west coast, you’re still Muscogee.” – Principal Chief David Hill
Byline: Braden Harper/Reporter
FRESNO, California – When you are a citizen living far beyond your tribe’s reservation, it is natural to feel disconnected. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation headed to the West Coast to bridge that disconnect by hosting the 2022 Citizens Beyond the Reservation Conference Aug 6. This marked the first time the conference had been held in two years due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
The conference featured booths from various departments providing services and information. Many booths provided freebies, pamphlets and cultural crafts.
MCN Citizenship kept busy printing new citizenship cards. Dan Beaver’s booth featuring his hand-made war clubs was a hit of the conference. Muscogee Royalty taught citizens how to make corn husk dolls at a booth that consistently saw a long line.
According to Principal Chief David Hill, California holds one of the largest populations of Muscogee Citizens outside of Oklahoma.
“Regardless where you’re from, north, south, east, west coast, you’re still Muscogee. That blood runs through your veins.” Principal Chief Hill said.
The conference was estimated to attract somewhere between 175-200 citizens from beyond the reservation. The actual number lay somewhere upwards of 300 according to the MCN Tribal Liaison Anne Townsend Edwards. Some citizens drove as far as five to six hours just to attend.
The conference provided a way for Townsend Edwards and the tribe to gauge where they are at in terms of presence and outreach outside the reservation.
“It just has helped me to learn so much more about our citizens and what they long for as far as being a part and that disconnected feeling that they feel, ” Townsend Edwards said.
For citizens residing in far beyond areas like California, it can feel isolating as a member of the tribe. Muscogee Community Engagements and Celebrations are not as easily accessible compared to those living on the reservation.
According to MCN Citizen Akua Maat, seeing her tribe’s leaders in person was a special occasion. For a citizen living on the West Coast, it’s not everyday you get to see your tribal leaders and citizens.
“You’re in a whole other location, a whole other place,” Maat said. “It’s almost like a family reunion,”
The idea is if the citizens living beyond the reservation cannot come out to the tribe, bring the tribe to the people. The conference acts as a way to bridge a gap, establish presence in their backyard and connect them with tribal services.
“You always want to be connected to your native community and while they have a little bit of that going on out here and they’re trying to connect to each other, what they don’t have is that connection to their actual tribe, to the actual culture, to the actual activities that we do” Townsend Edwards said.
She has made it her goal to build connective tissue with citizens beyond through newer media like Facebook live. This allows citizens like Danielle Mendoza Madrigal to stay informed on issues and events in the nation.
“It just has really created connections that I know I didn’t really feel prior to her, kind of reaching out to all of the citizens that live beyond the reservation, so it’s really important to us” Mendoza Madrigal said.
She went on to say that although it’s important for leaders to make appearances beyond the reservation, it is also important for them to listen to the problems of citizens beyond the reservation experience.
Living outside of the state your tribe resides in can also provide a disconnect in the services citizens rely on like healthcare. For MCN Citizens like Joy Sweger who take pride in their tribal identity, living far away can be disconcerting.
“The State of California treats you as if you’re only native if you’re a native nation that is out here.” Sweger said.
Reuniting with her tribe helped Sweger dwindle those disconcerting feelings.
“It means everything to me and my brother and my family. It makes us feel connected that we’re not just a lost tribe out here,” Sweger said. “If we didn’t have our nation reaching out, we wouldn’t have anything”
Sweger is a historian and student of Native American Culture and History. She teaches Zoom classes on Native American topics including education, citizenship, folklore and depiction in media.
“I’m just trying to correct the history, to bring it alive, so people will be more interested in it. To eradicate what Hollywood and the history books said and people understand who we truly are. What is our culture? What do they mean? What did they get wrong?” Sweger said.
William Jones is a MCN Citizen born and raised in San Bernardino. He enjoys collecting autographed memorabilia. Like many others, he was excited to see his tribe after so long apart.
“We’re all Muscogee and its nice to see that they don’t forget that there are other people outside of the reservation that are just like them,” Jones said.
Raymond Harjo is a MCN Citizen and a 95 year-old military veteran. Orphaned at a young age, Harjo was raised by his aunts and would later serve in the army medical core. Although Harjo’s family regularly visits Oklahoma, for him it was a nice change for the tribe to visit him.
“We’ve been going back to Oklahoma, but we’re still here,” Harjo said. “I’m glad a lot of them came out here to visit”
MCN Citizen Butler Beker was thankful for the opportunity to meet with the tribe in his own state. The journey to the conference was much more sensible than traveling several states over.
“It’s a great blessing. We’ve driven back to Oklahoma on several occasions to get our initial cards and initial enrollment. It’s been a huge blessing for them to come out here where I have to travel 150 miles down here, versus 2,000 miles,” Beker said.
According to Beker, seeing his own people in an area with very few Muscogee People made him feel connected with his tribe and Oklahoma.
“It’s great to be among your people. In Northern California where I live there’s not many Muscogee that I know.” Beker said.
How did they get there?
Some MCN Citizens had previously lived in Oklahoma and moved to states like California and Oregan themself. Others were born off the reservation, descendants of citizens that moved west for different reasons.
“My family actually came out of Oklahoma and went into Arizona, probably if I remember correctly right after the time of World War II,” Maat said. “Been in California, born and raised all this time.”
“They moved back out here in the middle to late 1940s, my grandfather was in the air force,” Jones said.
“I was born in California,” Mendoza Madrigal said. “My grandpa is where the Creek Citizenship came down through and he moved here from Oklahoma with my great-grandma and great-grandpa probably in the 50s.”
Originally raised in Okmulgee, Harjo traveled overseas to serve in the military.
“I wound up on a hospital ship, we had to bring back the wounded from the Philippines,” Harjo said. “That was in 1950 when I came out to California”
From there, Harjo connected with his brother in Fresno, found work and eventually raised a family of his own.
Citizens like Sweger journeyed west in search of economic opportunity.
“In 1986, 87 when the recession hit at that time I was looking for a job. I was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma, my husband and I. I got a job in Los Angeles, and we ended up out in Culver City.” Sweger said.
Beker’s grandparents migrated to California to connect with family. According to him, his grandfather decided to move to California after losing his land due to financial problems.
“We had relatives that had lived here in California. He decided to pack up and move out here. That was twelve kids. My grandfather, grandmother and twelve children moved out here in one vehicle,” Beker said. “they moved out here to Fresno, from there we kind of spread out over California,”
Citizens Beyond Outreach Onward
Although the event provided easier access to services, it also provided the citizens beyond with something they had been lacking from their tribal community: fellowship. Whether it was sharing stories, catching up on life events or joking around, laughter and good conversation rang throughout the conference.
“That’s really what being Muscogee is all about. Sitting around the table and talking with each other.” Second Chief Del Beaver said.
The day wrapped with Members of the National Council singing traditional Mvskoke Hymns.
“What I want them to take away is that they may have felt that disconnection, but we do care about them and they feel it today, they know that we care about them. I’ve told them, I’ve hugged them, I’ve let them know I’m here for them” Townsend Edwards said.
The event was such a hit that MCN tribal leaders expressed interest in increasing the number of citizens beyond conferences to connect with more citizens in different areas of the country.