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Letter from Florida

People of the White Earth

In Florida’s Panhandle, tribal leaders and archaeologists reach into the past to help preserve a native community’s identity

By Mike Toner

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Letter From Florida Busk

 

On a crisp autumn morning in Florida’s Panhandle, the people of Ekvnv Hvtke, White Earth Tribal Town, gather across from the soccer field on the outskirts of Blountstown to affirm traditions that echo the time before Europeans came to America. People have parked their pickup trucks a respectful distance away from the clearing where, for the next few days, ancient traditions will rule. Surrounded by towering longleaf pines, a ring made up of sand and sun-bleached shells encircles four open-air shelters engraved with the icons of the bear, deer, otter, owl, and other clans of the Muscogee Creek people. Here, for now, the twenty-first century takes a back seat to one community’s reverence for the past. A mournful blast on a whelk shell signals the start of White Earth’s annual harvest ceremony.

 

Around the fire pit of the ceremonial grounds everyone has their assigned place at each of the cardinal points on the compass, much as their ancestors did in the days when earthen mounds dominated the landscape of the Southeast. The “old warriors” occupy benches under a willow-thatched arbor on the north side of the grounds. Younger men sit in a similar arbor to the south. The west arbor is reserved for tribal leaders, among them Dan Penton, a former Florida archaeologist who is the community’s traditional chief and heles-haya, the maker of medicine. The women remain outside the grounds until their time comes to enter.

 

The ceremony, or “busk”—an English derivation of the Creek puskita, meaning “to fast”—begins at midmorning with ritual sweeping of the grounds, the lighting of the fire, a traditional stomp dance, and a display of a bundle of relics the community holds sacred. Later, the women perform the traditional ribbon dance and offer the first food of the day—not to the men, but to the fire. Even a casual observer would have no trouble recognizing the ceremony as a gathering steeped in Native American traditions. To the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), however, this is not—at least not yet—a gathering of one of the more than 500 tribes that are recognized by the federal government. For nearly 70 years, the Muscogee Nation of Florida has petitioned for official government acknowledgment, which tribal leaders say will give them access to social and medical programs, protection for tribal lands and graves, and the right to govern themselves as a recognized sovereign people.

 

Despite the group’s appeals, the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment has insisted that without documentation of “continuous tribal existence” the Muscogee simply don’t meet the government’s definition of a tribe. Nonetheless, under new streamlined rules for tribal recognition, in late 2015 the BIA began a new review of the Muscogee petition that might resolve the matter. As the standoff goes on, unfortunately, the tribe’s elders, including some of its last speakers of the Hitchiti language, have been dying. Penton himself, whose grandfather was a maker of medicine, is pushing 70. And Penton is worried that, as the years winnow the ranks of elders, the traditions that bind his people to their past are slipping away. “Without more of our young people coming to these busks, I don’t know that this ground will survive much longer,” he says. “It’s hard to compete for their attention in this age of video games.” The threats to Muscogee identity come on a variety of fronts. But the responses to those threats arrive from many quarters, too.

 

 

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