I was Searching for Home and Identity

I found it at a Margaritaville in “Indian Territory”

Shanti Bright Brien
Real

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The River Spirit Resort is owned by our tribe, the Muscogee Creek Nation, and has a Margaritaville theme. (Photo cred: the author).

I didn’t know my family pilgrimage would take us to Margaritaville. I wanted to know more about being a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation and I wanted my kids to know their ancestors, our family history, and what it means to be a Native person. And so I set out, with two of my kids, to find the answers in Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

We had been planning the trip for months. We intended to go last summer during the “Muscogee Festival,” part county fair, part pow-wow, part basketball tournament, and what I thought would be the perfect occasion to learn the real Muscogee culture. That trip got canceled because a freak windstorm passed through days before, knocking out power to our hotel, and setting my cousin on a determined mission to repair downed trees and damaged roofs.

This time, an ice storm hit a couple weeks before. Veterans Day meant the closing of the Muscogee Capital, the Gilherst Museum was closed for remodeling, and Zach had the worst cold of the year. I thought the universe might be telling me something.

The kids insisted. I knew a fantasy fueled their drive. For years, they obsessed over country music, “country” culture, and their connection to the West. Ceci’s collection of cowboy boots grew steadily. Oklahoma fit into this version of themselves, even making their pilgrimage to Stagecoach more “legitimate” somehow. Plus, Zach Bryan. Not my son Zach Brien, but the country phenom by the same name, different spelling, who grew up in the Tulsa area, near our family’s homeplace. It was as if my kid’s name were Elvis Presley and I was taking him to Graceland.

But I wanted the trip to be Indian, not just cowboy. I wanted to be immersed in the culture, see ceremonies, and learn what it’s like to be Muscogee.

We started at the River Spirit Indian Casino. We wanted to support the tribe with our hotel spending. The tribe partnered with Jimmy Buffet and the Margaritaville brand so that the hotel and casino have a Caribbean theme, turquoise and bright pink with photos of tropical water and large-scale LED screens showing waves crashing on white beaches. Strange in the middle of Oklahoma, along the Arkansas River, with its wide, brown, slow-flowing water and the end-of-fall colors along its shores. Was the whole thing a big joke? Let’s get this whole group of people to believe that the banks of the Arkansas are a tropical resort where you get really drunk and lose so much money, that you limp out of here, depressed, hungover, and willing to walk a few hundred miles to start fresh? Sort of a Trail of Tears revenge play.

My kids in front of the (closed) Old Creek Capital building. (Photo cred: the author)

We set out from the Carribean in search of beadwork, baskets, and monuments. We went to the Old Creek Council House, once the seat of the Muscogee Creek Nation in the 1800s after they arrived in Oklahoma. It had been closed for remodeling when I was last there, in 2017. We had checked their website to be sure: Closed for Veterans Day but open the next day. Same with the Red Stick Gallery where Muscogee artists sell art and other items like stickball sticks and ribbon skirts. When we arrived Saturday morning, the Old Council House–closed. The Red Stick Gallery — closed. I sat on the old stone steps and cried. All this way, all this travel, all this effort. I saw Jimmy Buffet’s version of the Muscogee Creek Nation, but I couldn’t see the Muscogee version.

“Mom, it’s ok,” Ceci said, putting her hand on my shoulder. “A dusty old museum isn’t our vibe anyway.”

We met my cousin at a rusty drive-in outside of Beggs, where my grandparents grew up. After a good burger and maybe the best fried okra in Oklahoma, I felt better. We would forge on.

At the Five Tribes Museum, a teenager working the register greeted us with a slight nod of his head. His black hair hung into his face, long and greasy. I noticed a few small sparkles on this nose and cheeks. Buying our tickets we started chatting. He said the Muscogee were paying kids to learn the language. Was he doing it? I asked. Nah, he said. They were decorating for the holidays at the Museum, hanging glittery stars from the ceiling. We walked through the two rooms of the museum, seeing artwork, sculptures, baskets, tools, and some descriptions of each of the “Five Civilized Tribes” as they were once dubbed by the colonizers.

Behind plexiglass was a handwritten “roll” from the 1800s, the government accounting of every native person who had made the grueling trek to Oklahoma. It was a list of people by name, birth date, percentage of Indian blood, and roll number. It reminded me of prisons, where a person’s number is everything, more important than their name. We decided right then to find out about our ancestors going back to those times. It was only a few generations ago that one of our grandmothers was forced to walk from the deep south, over 1,000 miles to Oklahoma.

My cousin Jamie, the unofficial Oklahoma family glue, surfaced an old list of relatives, just their names and roll numbers, some dates. My grandma, Betty Jo, her parents, Lillian (1890–1960) and Andrew Fleetwood (1887–1954), Lillian’s parents, Adaline (1875–1937) and Billy Bruner (1863–1910), and even Adaline’s parents, Edward and Coody Flanders. That almost gets us back to the Trail of Tears, which for the Muscogee Creek people occurred 1836–1837. About 22,000 Muscogee Creeks lived in the Southeast in 1832. After their forced removal, mostly by foot over 1,000 miles, less than 14,000 remained.

I held the paper with my family’s names, the dates they were born and they died, and their roll numbers. I pictured them walking away from their lush, humid homeland, toward the dry prairie of Oklahoma, mourning their homes, their past, and so many of their family who had died and who had been killed. Maybe they saw Oklahoma as a fresh start; maybe they were so busy surviving that they didn’t have the energy to grieve.

Sadness permeates the whole area, ghosts of people wandering the land that was never really theirs. Even in this place, this “Indian Territory” promised to them, Native people were not safe. My great-grandfather would sit up at night with a rifle in his hand, watching and waiting for the KKK. They had been threatening Native families in the area. He decided it was safer for my grandmother and her eight siblings to stay to themselves. It was safer to distance themselves from their Indian relatives and from the tribe even when one of our relatives was the Chief. Currently, the Second Chief’s name is Bruner, he must be a distant cousin. We’re all related somehow, my cousin Jamie said.

Jamie and her family live on some of the land allotted to my great-grandmother, Lillian and her family when they arrived in Oklahoma. The point was to make the Native people farmers and individualists, breaking up their communal structure in order to assimilate them into American culture. It also was a convenient way to take “Indian Territory’ and make it available to the white settlers. Even the allotted land was more easily taken from Native families at cheap prices.

Our family cemetary where ancestors — going back to the Trail of Tears — are buried. (Photo cred: the author)

Next to Jamie’s ranch, our ancestors are buried. A rusty sign in an overhead arch announced our arrival at The Bruner Fleetwood Cemetary. Right there are Lillian, Billy, Andrew, Adaline, and many others from our family. They rest there under the oak trees, next to the pecans and the thicket turning yellow and orange in the dry creek bed. Across the road are hills of green pasture and a pristine red barn, once our family’s property too, but not anymore.

Jamie suggested we go check out her barn. We sat around in mismatched folding chairs, among an old boat, four-wheelers, tools, and a couple of old office chairs scattered around. The fridge was full of deer meat and beer. My kids shot guns into a bullseye set up on some hay bales, as I sat visiting over a cold one. I’m not sure my kids had even seen a gun before. Their love of country was leveling up.

Jamie’s grandson showed my kids how to ride the four-wheeler. It’s real heavy, he said. No power steering there. They drove off into the sunset, literally. I could hear them hooting as I watched them ride through the hay pasture into the golden sky.

I went to Oklahoma to learn about being Muscogee. To see the real way, which in my mind involved drums, a pow-wow circle, and a ribbon skirt. What I found was a feeling. To feel Muscogee is to feel human, and of course, that’s complicated beyond explanation. But I’ll try.

To feel Native is to feel like the universe might be conspiring against you, and yet you go on.

To feel Muscogee is to feel respect and connection to the land, but with a sense of not quite belonging there either. To feel Muscogee is to feel upset at political rivals, disappointed at the government, and sometimes to feel displaced, anxious, and worried.

To be Muscogee means to laugh at the ridiculousness of commercial fantasies we are sold–like a spot in Tulsa can look and feel like a tropical vacation. To laugh, period. To feel satisfaction just to sit and watch the sun go down over a field of hay, a field your grandma’s grandma’s grandma’s grandma, walked from Georgia to live and farm on. It means drinking a cold beer with your cousins, taking a ride on the four-wheeler, and talking about this year’s pecans, watching him refill the deer stations with corn. It feels like walking out to the sacred space where your ancestor are, feel their presence in the oak trees that grew there long before they were born. It feels like gratitude that your second-cousin’s widow, now 80-something, still mows the grasses of the cemetery to show respect for those ancestors, to keep this small slice of land, green and alive and growing. Just like the small Indian slice of me.

Watching the sunset on our family’s “alloted” land in Oklahoma (Photo cred: the author)

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Shanti Bright Brien
Real
Writer for

Author of Almost Innocent. Lawyer to criminals, mother of mayhem, daughter of cowboys and Indians. Champion of equity and fairness.