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Poarch Band of Creek Indians

Keith S. Hébert , Auburn University
The Poarch Band of Creek Indians is the only federally recognized Native American tribe in Alabama. In 1983, after years of legal actions, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) extended government-to-government relations with the Poarch Band, a decision that gave the tribe the same privileges and immunities that other federally recognized tribes received. Unlike most Creeks in Alabama, the Poarch Band avoided removal in the 1830s because they were able to remain on lands granted to them by the federal government. They are descendants of Creek Indians who lived in Alabama and Georgia; their ancestors lived in the Upper Creek towns on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers near Wetumpka, Elmore County, before relocating in the 1790s to settlements northwest of Atmore, Escambia County. The Poarch Band's name derived from the Poarch community, one of group's settlements near Atmore. The small community remained intact despite intense economic hardships and racial prejudice that at times threatened the loss of their land and the dispersal of their communities.
Prior to the late 1700s, Poarch Band members lived near modern-day Wetumpka at the confluence of the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers that form the Alabama River. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, large numbers of Poarch Band ancestors intermarried with Scots-Irish traders creating many mixed ethnicity households headed by men with surnames such as Weatherford, McGillivray, McGhee, Moniac, and Colbert. By the late 1700s, mounting divisions between Upper Creek households caused by the growing cultural, economic, and political influence of these multiethnic families led several of them, most notably the McGhees and Moniacs, to petition the Creek National Council to be relocated to an area near modern-day Atmore. The move placed these Creek families closer to existing trade partners in Mobile and Pensacola, Florida. In the early 1800s, federal Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins noted that the Poarch Band consisted of approximately 60 families living in several communities in a broad area that stretched from just north and east of Mobile near the Alabama, Tombigbee, and Tensaw Rivers eastward toward Atmore. Poarch Band households developed a reputation for being the most sympathetic of the Creek Indian towns to non-Indian cultures. They are believed to be among the first to embrace the federal government's "plan of civilization," which encouraged Native Americans to adopt European-oriented governance, commerce, and agriculture.
During this period, Poarch Band communities thrived economically because of their close proximity to the Federal Road, which enabled them to secure federal and private contracts that supported several lucrative hotels, taverns, and mercantile stores. Many Poarch Band Indians served as guides, scouts, and interpreters for federal civilian and military agencies and private firms operating in the area. When the Creek War erupted in 1813, most Poarch Band members allied with the United States. During an 1813 trip to secure military supplies in Spanish-held Pensacola, Florida, Creek warriors of the anti-assimilation Red Stick faction attacked several Poarch Band households. In response, Poarch Band members Dixon Bailey and David Tate led a small contingent of men against Red Stick warriors at the Battle of Burnt Corn Creek. In retaliation, Red Stick Creeks, some of whom resented the influence that white traders and settlers had on Creek society, committed numerous acts of violence against Poarch Band communities.
At the conclusion of the Creek War, Creek Indians allied with Gen. Andrew Jackson signed the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which ceded approximately 21 million acres of Creek territory to the federal government. During negotiations, Poarch Band leader Lynn McGhee received a 640-acre parcel of land from Jackson as a reward for the group's loyalty to the U.S. government. This parcel included several existing Poarch Band communities. By 1826, most Creek Indians other than the Poarch Band had been removed from the ceded lands by the federal government to lands west of the Mississippi River.
Despite their legal claims to their land, the Poarch Band struggled to hold their property during the wave of white settlement, known as "Alabama Fever." As thousands of white settlers poured into the newly vacated Creek territory, Poarch Band members lost some of their land to bands of armed squatters. In 1815, Poarch Band leaders wrote Pres. James Madison requesting that the federal government empower local governments in the Mississippi Territory to protect Native Americans from illegal land seizures committed by white squatters. Two years later, the U.S. Congress financially compensated Poarch Band households that suffered at the hands of Red Stick Creeks for their allegiance to the U.S. government. That same year, David Moniac, a Poarch Band member, was admitted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, as part of a program to provide educational opportunities for loyal Creek Indians. He became the first Native American to graduate from the institution.
In the decades prior to the American Civil War, several Poarch Band families acquired additional land in the Atmore area by filing successful homestead claims and established modest farms and grew cotton using enslaved African laborers. When Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861, dozens of Poarch Band men volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army. The post-Civil War era, however, was a time of severe economic hardship for the community, as it was for the rest of the state. Poverty among Poarch Band members increased due to the small fortunes lost through emancipation of their enslaved labor. Like other cotton growers in Alabama, rising post-war labor costs and declining cotton prices forced Poarch Band members to find new means to sustain themselves.
During the last decades of the nineteenth century, Poarch Band members experienced increased levels of racial prejudice and discrimination. In 1890, they were identified as "Indian" in federal census returns and church records and subject to some of the same forms of legal and cultural discriminations that Jim Crow segregation had imposed on the state's African Americans. Levels of discrimination varied among Poarch Band members, however, as some families were able to pass themselves off as white. Some Poarch Band children, for example, attended white schools, but others had to attend the local Indian school. Native Americans could serve on juries but were not welcomed at all-white churches. Interracial marriage was prohibited. These pressures strained the community's ethnic identity, as many members hid their Native American identity to avoid discrimination.
Despite these challenges, the Poarch Band community remained intact and continued to petition state and national officials as a collective group to restore some of the land tribal members had lost decades earlier to white settlers and to gain the right to harvest timber on federal lands in their region. Extensive kinship ties, reinforced over an extended period of intermarriage within the community, literally bound its members together as one large family. In 1889, Poarch Band members began reconnecting with the Muscogee Creek Nation in Oklahoma. Prior to that time, the Muskogee Creeks had rejected citizenship applications submitted by Poarch Band members because they had been born outside of the Oklahoma reservation.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the Poarch Band community had largely recovered from the financial setbacks that followed the Civil War. Their expanding community, centered around the 240-acre "McGhee Reserve" awarded during the Treaty of Fort Jackson, was the largest in terms of population and territory in the tribe's history. In the early twentieth century, Poarch Band Indians fought in court to protect these lands from what they considered to be illegal encroachments made by timber companies, farmers, and others. In 1920, when Escambia County demanded that Poarch Band Indian pay property tax on federal land they inhabited, the federal government intervened and ordered all taxation to cease. In 1929, Episcopal missionaries established two churches on Poarch Band lands, St. Anna's (still standing) and St. John's in the Wilderness. The missionaries provided the Indians with basic medical care and schooling. In 1949, the Escambia County School Board built a new segregated Indian school among the Poarch, but it only went to the sixth grade and tribal leaders considered it to be substandard compared to area schools for white children. In response, the Poarch Band organized a successful boycott to demand that their children be allowed to attend the county's junior and high school.
During the 1950s, Chief Calvin McGhee played a central role in advocating for the rights of Poarch Band Indians. Although McGhee family members had played major leadership roles throughout the tribe's history, Calvin was the first to organize the tribe into a government complete with laws and elections that empowered a sole executive officer to represent the Poarch Band. In 1950, McGhee established the Creek Nation East of the Mississippi at Poarch, a tribal government that lobbied the U.S. Department of the Interior to be recognized as an official tribal entity. By unifying Poarch Band Indians into a representative body capable of perpetually lobbying the BIA for recognition and tribal benefits, McGhee convinced national leaders that the Poarch Band Indians were legitimate descendants of recognized Creek Indians.
With the help of two Escambia County lawyers and support from the Indian Claims Commission, McGhee filed numerous lawsuits against the federal government seeking compensation for the millions of acres of land that Creek Indians lost in the Treaty of Fort Jackson. The Muskogee Creek Nation objected to Poarch Band efforts to receive federal compensation for lost historic Creek lands and believed that only those Creek descendants who lived on the Oklahoma reservation should have the right to sue the federal government to recover past land cessions. Despite Muskogee Creek Nation objections, the federal government sided with the Poarch Band Indians that Creek Indian descendants, regardless of where they lived, had a right to seek compensation from the federal government. McGhee also led a number of initiatives intended to raise awareness in Alabama and nationwide of the Poarch Band's existence and educate them about Creek Indian heritage. Likewise, McGhee led a similar effort within his community and among other Creek Indians, especially those who did not live in Oklahoma, to document and teach past cultural practices that had largely been forgotten. McGhee, a savvy promoter who understood that most Americans associated Native Americans with the characters portrayed in popular Western-genre motion pictures, purposely adopted the dress and some of the cultural practices of western Plains Indians in the hopes of convincing state and national leaders that the Poarch Band were "real" Indians. Even when many Native American tribes, especially those living on reservations, disputed the Poarch Band tribe's legitimacy as descendants of the historic Creek Indians, McGhee and the Poarch Band managed to maintain a highly visible presence in Washington, D.C., that often overshadowed their Muskogee Creek Nation counterparts.
Following McGhee's death in 1970, Poarch Band leader Eddie L. Tullis led the successful effort to gain federal recognition. Unlike McGhee, Tullis refused to "play Indian" for national officials and adopted contemporary business attire when negotiating on behalf of the Poarch Band members. Tullis successfully courted the support of Alabama governor George Wallace, who helped the Poarch Band lobby the BIA for recognition and in the development of a Poarch Band reservation in Alabama. On August 11, 1984, the BIA officially recognized the Poarch Band of Creeks Indians as a tribe with all of the same privileges and protections as other federally recognized Native American tribes. The following year, the U.S. government established the 230-acre Poarch Band reservation in Poarch, eight miles from Atmore. The Poarch Band also received 33 acres at Hickory Ground (Otciapofa, in Muskogean) in Wetumpka, Elmore County. Hickory Ground was a well-documented and important Creek Indian burial site placed under Poarch Creek stewardship because they were Alabama's sole federally recognized tribe.
Immediately after receiving recognition, the Poarch Band opened a bingo-hall in Escambia County. In the late 1980s, the Poarch Band founded Wind Creek Hospitality, a gaming and hospitality company that owns and operates casinos in Montgomery, Atmore, and Wetumpka. In addition, it owns several businesses on the Poarch reservation, including a hotel, gas station, and restaurant. The company also runs gaming operations in Florida and Mississippi. The rise of Poarch Creek-owned gambling operations sparked fierce opposition from Choctaws in Mississippi, who worried that the latter's new facilities would damage their profitable casinos. In an effort to stop further expansions in Poarch Creek gaming in Alabama, Choctaw leaders hired professional lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who funneled large secretive donations to the Christian Coalition of Alabama, led by Ralph Reed, to orchestrate a statewide anti-gambling campaign. Abramoff's actions sparked controversy and led to subsequent federal convictions and prison time.
In 2001, the Poarch Band built a bingo hall atop a well-documented Muscogee Creek burial ground at Hickory Point in Wetumpka. Despite staunch opposition from the Muscogee Creek Nation, several tribal governments, the Alabama Historical Commission, the state of Alabama, and a few dozen Poarch Band members, construction on the site continued. In 2012, the Poarch Band built a new 20-story hotel and casino at Hickory Point that resulted in a heated federal lawsuit filed by the Muscogee Creek Nation. Despite opposition from the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, the facility opened in 2013.
As of 2016, the tribe has more than 3,000 members, approximately 1,000 of whom live on or near the Poarch reservation. The reservation has a museum that documents the tribe's history. The Poarch Band has a constitutional government that consists of three branches: legislative, executive, and judicial. In 2014, the Poarch Band elected Stephanie Bryant to serve as the tribe's first female chair and chief executive officer.
Additional Resources
U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs. "Recommendation and summary of Evidence for Proposed Finding for Federal Acknowledgement of the Poarch Band of Creeks of Alabama." Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1983.
Bates, Denise E. The Other Movement: Indian Rights and Civil Rights in the Deep South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.
Miller, Mark Edwin. Claiming Tribal Identity: The Five Tribes and the Politics of Federal Acknowledgement. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.
Published:  January 18, 2017   |   Last updated:  January 18, 2017