The Future of the Apalachicola River Community (ARC) Indians of Florida: by Christopher Scott Sewell
As the generation of North Florida Indians who themselves or whose parents attended the Jim Crow era “Indian Schools” at Scott Town and Scott’s Ferry pass on, the need for these individuals, families, and community organizations to step forward in a greater capacity to secure a place at the table of Florida and Southeastern Indian affairs grows. Unlike the trend of the last few decades where being Indian is popular and tens of thousands of descendants of individual Creek Indians in the 1830’s have emerged to populate the powwows and roadside Indian exhibits in north Florida, the Eastern-Siouan (Catawba/Cheraw) people of the Scott Town and Scott’s Ferry settlements have remained in the social shadows. Though individuals from several families have become deeply involved in Creek politics over the last several decades, the larger community of ARC families has languished in a voluntary cultural and social amnesia.
The elders are, in some cases, unwilling to speak of their struggles and suffering, even to close family members. The poverty, disenfranchisement, and blatant racism experienced by the elder generation during the past have led to a very present psychological barrier to anything to do with the in-common community past. We have found in the 15 years of doing interviews and meetings with ARC tribal elders that at least half have significantly been affected by their childhood experiences in very negative ways that continue to affect them and their descendants. Many still feel great shame and can verbalize their feelings only with great effort, if at all. Deep and sometimes unexpected emotional responses have been very common as we have opened doors in their memories and hearts that they have kept shut for many decades.
As tragically, we have found in these interviews with several generations within a family group that many of the younger generation are sometimes unaware of many of the traumatic experiences had by their elders. The disconnect experienced between the younger generations and the elders who lived under segregation has led to many of the younger people attaching themselves to the Creek identities of Indians around them, often times at the expense of the oral history of elders and certainly at the expense of the larger Eastern-Siouan (Catawba/Cheraw) community and its ability to organize and act as a group.
As a student of psychology as well as sociology, I have personally witnessed the presence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among some elders and families, and the generational spreading of dysfunctional culture ensuing from it affects non-federally recognized Indian people just as it does the populations of Indian reservations with high rates of alcoholism, domestic abuse and the entire range found in many Indian reservation communities. For many outsiders, academics and lay people alike, the very existence of the several still socially-active Indian enclaves and families is unknown. Not all faded into the fabric of the post segregation rural white population, as some have put forward in academic circles, some did hold on to their Native identity. In conversations with a few members of the local Jackson County area descendants of the Scott Town settlement, they stated that they are happy to be considered “white’ by their neighbors and “the guv’ment”.
There are many who have no expressed interest in their families’ American Indian roots or in the social experiences of their parents and grandparents. “Why do ya’ll care about that ole stuff?” said one resident of Scott Town Road, who appeared to be phenotypically full-blood Indian. The general body language when these statements were said indicated uncertainty of neighbors’ opinions if certain subjects such as race were discussed. This is a common courtesy in southern culture today, to avoid the topic of race with those one isn’t certain of socially. It seemed in the process of dozens of interviews with individuals and families that the closer we were to the physical location of the old Scott Town settlement, with its weed-strewn cemetery and the rotting and derelict carcass of the Indian school house, the more our interviewees were uncomfortable and reticent to discuss the past. This is understandable with the racial climate of Jackson County still hostile to many.
For the dozen or so families who still live in the vicinity of the now nearly-empty Scott Town settlement located down an at times dusty Scott’s Church Road, the past is very present, and so is the fear, pain, and uncertainty connected to it. For other families, especially those who have intermarried since the end of Jim Crow with other Indian, Hispanic, and Creole families in the panhandle, and have established family based settlements in other places, the need for a sense of community and honoring of the struggles of the elders is a compulsion that has increased with each generation. In years past, under the leadership of S. Pony Hill of the Apalachicola River Community Indian Tribal Organization (ARCITO), several professors from Universities have taken some interest in the ARC (Catawba/Cheraw) community and have participated in efforts to document the historical experience of Eastern Siouan descended Indian people in north Florida, most especially Professor Moore.
Despite the difficulties in holding onto an obscure tribal identity in a sea of “Creek” political, cultural, and social affairs, the Florida ARC Indians continue to persevere. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to the ARC people in Florida has been the lack of a commonly held name for the tribal ancestry, even among the closely intermarried and related families. As with other issues, a similar challenge is found among Indians in the Carolinas. Especially for the Lumbee Tribe of Cheraw Indians in North Carolina, who are genealogically Florida ARC (hence the Cheraw in the Catawba/Cheraw description of our peoples ancestry) kinsman, this question has loomed large, and has only become “somewhat” settled in the last generation or two, though there are still many groups who are outside the Lumbee Tribe political orbit but who descend from the same early families.
Much like the Lumbee, who were originally labeled as “Croatans”, later as “Cherokee Indians of Robeson County”, and eventually came to be called Lumbee, the Florida ARC people have struggled with each other and with other Florida and Alabama Indian people over their actual tribal origins and name. I have personally heard many Creek leaders over the last 20 years refer to families of Catawba/Cheraw people as “those Lumbees in (such and such county) are really just mulattos”, and other similar statements. In the last two decades several attempts at Cheraw tribal organizations have come and gone.
Attempts to establish a unified identity and tribal government for the several groups born from the historic settlements at Scott Town and Scotts Ferry (post-Jim Crow) diaspora have to date have been unsuccessful. Whether among Blountstown Indian Community people, the Lakeland settlement, Scott Town descendant families living in Escambia County, or the Holmes County area Cheraw people who descend from the Mount Zion Community called by some “Dominickers”, all have been unable to permanently establish a viable framework for directed political action. For some the alternative has been political or social alliances with the Creek power structures whether at Poarch or Bruce, for others it has meant a retreat into the traditional culture of the Southeastern Stomp Dance traditions, and for a few the alternatives of genealogical connections and enrollment with Carolina based groups seems best.
Some members of the Jacobs family from Woods are enrolled with the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina, while other families from the same settlement participate with the Sumter Band of Cheraws in South Carolina, while a third family are members of a Creek Nation (Oklahoma) tribal town
Part of the reason for of this narrative is to help these Indian to look long and hard at themselves, their families, and their ideas of community. There is a greater need than ever for the Eastern-Siouan diaspora ARC people in the panhandle of Florida (not mention the several families and hundreds of individuals living on or near the Poarch Creek Indian reservation in Atmore Alabama) to exert great effort in accepting the social realities they and their families live in daily.
For many the old social isolation of past generations has been replaced by another type of social isolation, a self-induced Amnesia relating to their own history. On the one hand, so many speak of their pride in Indian blood yet are bested by the shame of the treatment of and identification as colored of family members. A reckoning on the community level must occur that will not let the generational cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and dysfunction that is present in the lives of many of the Cheraw families continue.
The surge of political activity in recent years by the many Cheraw communities throughout the Carolinas has led to interest, talk, and hope around the kitchen tables, church pews, and stomp dance fires of the Florida people. The Catawba Nation’s success of securing restoration of their federal recognition in the 1990’s and the renewal of their institutions and tribal cultural heritage has not gone unnoticed by Florida Cheraw leaders. Efforts by the Branham family and others at the Rock Hill Catawba reservation to restore the Green Corn Dance and traditional culture to the Catawba people are applauded by Florida Cheraw, most of which have blood ties in South Carolina.
Efforts in this movement have been difficult and are ongoing, despite continual upheaval politically due to the Catawba tribal reorganization. Recent activities by some South Carolina Cheraw people to go to the Creek Nation in Oklahoma and learn the ways of the old southeastern culture have led to the return after many generations of absence of the Stomp dance, Green Corn ceremonials and many cultural practices that are aspects of tradition that make southeastern Indian people unique among American Indians.
Catawba, Edisto, and Santee tribal members have all been working at this the last few years especially. Well documented by academic circles was the Poarch Creek efforts to restore this ceremonialism to their tribe during the 1990’s and its eventual success with the re- establishment of a sacred fire at the Hassossa Tallahassee Ceremonial Grounds in 2001 by Dave Lewis, one of the principal medicine persons in Creek Nation in Oklahoma. Less well investigated by interested academicians have been the stomp dances and stickball games held in Blountstown among ARC Indian families since the late 1960’s. Without federal recognition there is no money and without money there is often little interest or care by government, academicians, or outsiders in the welfare of Indians.
The many trips to the west taken by several ceremonial leaders in the process of restoring a knowledgeable group of practitioners of Southeastern ceremonial traditions during the last 30 years have borne fruit for this small group of traditionalist. Most of all, in conversations with several “Old Heads” as the elderly family leaders who are ultimately the final authorities in the Indian community in Florida and Alabama are called, is a watchfulness of the political fortunes of Carolina Cheraws like the Lumbee, and more recently, the state-recognized South Carolina tribes of Cheraw origins. For all Indian communities in the south who originate in that long ago social milieu that was the Carolina frontier of the 1700’s, the common assault on their identities as Indians has been unrelenting. Where many Florida ARC grandparents living now once faced accusations of “really being mulatto”, and having to attend schools designated as “colored”, their own grandchildren are now accused of “really being white”, or “wannabe” Indians. Where was this long line of critics during the Jim Crow years?
The criticism has been often and steady, despite each generation’s common insistence to any who took the time to listen to their quiet but firm statement “We are Indian”, in the words of Tom Scott. The paranoia of the “wannabe” accusation from the Florida Governors Council of Indian Affairs , federally recognized Indians such as the Seminole and Miccosukee, and the general Academic community, have led some of the Florida Indians we have interviewed for the recently released “Indians of North Florida” book to state their discomfort with ANY public presence as an “organized” Indian group.
It seems that among some of those now coming into their own as leaders of ARC families, they don’t question their community-based tribal identity or its meaning to them, but do question what it appears to them many “outsiders” consider being Indian. The time has come for the ARC people to unite and as our Lumbee cousins in Robison County NC have done recently, set up one tribal government to represent all who descend from Scott Town, Scotts Ferry, Woods, and Mount Zion. All are invited to come and present your ideas and concerns at the 15th Annual Apalachicola River Community Indian Community Conference in Blountstown on March 17th 2012!