One step closer for Muscogee (Creek) Nation

S.E. Ruckman, Today correspondent
9/8/10

OKMULGEE, Okla. – A marble marker denotes the spot where the last man who was executed in the old Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Timmie Jack, was shot for murder in 1896.

The Euchee man’s trial took place in a two-story stone house known as the Creek Nation Council House. Located in Okmulgee, 40 miles south of Tulsa, it is the same structure the Creek Nation Council voted to buy back in July. Fifteen councilors appropriated more than $3 million in tribal funds to purchase the site from the City of Okmulgee.

Full of history, the Creek Nation Council House is one step closer to being owned again by the tribe that walked the Trail of Tears, dissolved its tribal government and accepted forced land allotments.

The proposal awaits approval by the town’s five-member city council. Approval of the ordinance is expected by September, said Okmulgee city manager, Bob Baxter.

“We know both sides have considered the pros and cons over a long period of time and cooperation is expected by both sides. Economics was certainly a factor in this but not key.”

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it fell out of tribal ownership in 1917. It became a museum site maintained by Creek Council House Museum Association and Okmulgee at the cost of about $147,000 a year. City officials maintain that while the economy was a factor, it was not the driving push for the sale.

Reprinted with permission

This photo shows Timmie Jack, front left, a Creek Nation citizen who was executed on the front lawn of the Council House after a New Year's Eve brawl where he murdered another citizen in 1896. A lighthorseman, he chose his best friend and fellow lighthorseman to be his executioner, in the manner of the day.

Details for the $3.2 million real estate agreement outlines that the Creek Nation allow the city to use the council house image for city tourism and other non-commercial purposes. The municipality will also retain ownership of the contents of a time capsule buried on the site, the agreement reads. Those contents are expected to be unearthed around 2040.

After the 26-member council voted in favor of buying it back, Muscogee (Creek) Nation principal chief, A.D. Ellis, signed the tribal resolution into law in August, solidifying the tribe’s intent to regain the council house. He was also authorized by the council to apply for trust status on the site.

Just three years ago, the tribe made a similar move to buy it back. But with focus on expanding the tribe’s flagship gaming site in Tulsa, the plan stalled. One thing is now certain: Buying back the Creek Council House site means getting back a national treasure, tribal officials said.

Creek councilor Cherrah Ridge said in lean economic times an expenditure of this sort is not a waste of resources. The moment must be seized, she said.

“I look at it like this. How can we afford not to do it. We can’t put a price tag on what means so much to us.”

For the Creeks, the road to the purchase was paved with events that took the site out of their hands, said David Anderson, director of the Council House Museum.

“This is where it happened, where the Creek Nation carried on its government functions in the 1800s.” Presently, the site houses a library, gift shop and displays that recount the time when the tribe arrived near Okmulgee and subsequently built the council house in 1878.

The Creeks are not alone in buying back pieces of history lost along the years to non-tribal interests. The Cherokee Nation, located roughly 90 miles away, acquired its original supreme court building and old penitentiary site in the 1970s from the City of Tahlequah, where the tribe is headquartered.

Losing historical sites to municipal interests was common around the turn of the 19th century after the Act of 1906 legally disintegrated tribal governments in the area that would soon be the state of Oklahoma.

As a museum, the Council House tells a tale about the Creek people. In a drawer on the second floor, a photo of the last executed man shows a solemn portrait with family members. Law abiding and loyal, Jack’s life took a turn that became part of Council House lore.

Jack was convicted by trial after he stabbed a Euchee man in a drunken brawl while attending a New Year’s Eve dance. As was the custom of the day, the condemned could name their executioner. Jack picked Pleasant Berryhill, then Okmulgee County Sheriff and a friend. Jack was released to go home and returned months later for his scheduled execution April 28, 1896.

There was no mad dash to freedom back then. Jack was measured for a new suit coat and a coffin. He then headed to the courthouse with his wife. If Jack had not returned, his clan members would be held liable to take the punishment handed to the killer.

“Back in those days, a man’s word was his bond,” Anderson said.

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