The Trees Danced for Us

Dwanna L. Robertson

In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, or the Battle of Tohopeka (“the Horseshoe” in Creek), on March 27, 2014 an estimated 300 citizens, descendants, distant relatives, and friends of Muscogee (Creek) Nation (MCN) arrived in Horseshoe Bend National Military Park in Daviston, Alabama. Many Muscogee people came by way of two commercial motor coaches from our nation’s capital in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Others, like me, flew into surrounding airports, then drove rental cars another hour or so. Indeed, Muscogees gathered together from Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, and California. Public relations manager of MCN, Edwin Marshall, remarked that this was "the largest collective movement of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation since removal."

Why did we come? Along the way, each of us expressed the overwhelming need we felt to pay homage to our ancestors who had died opposing the further encroachment of white settlers into Creek Territory. We came to honor the 857 Red Sticks who fought and died to protect and preserve our traditional way of life against the constant encroachment of American culture and incorporation. We came to pay tribute to our Muscogee warriors and the untold numbers of Muscogee women and children whose bodies were left to decay in the fields under the orders of Andrew Jackson.

The commemoration began midmorning at 10:30, around the same time that Jackson and his 3,000 soldiers attacked the fortified village all those years ago. To begin the event, the Native Praise Choir made up of only MCN citizens sang a Creek hymnal.

It was an emotional return to the land of our ancestors. Speaking in our language, Edwin Marshall gave a traditional “long talk” as he carried a red stick, which you can watch here. The war cries delivered by different leaders and members of our ceremonial grounds at the end of his talk greatly moved me and many others.

Then Principal Chief George Tiger spoke what so many of us were thinking, “We’ll never lose the culture and tradition that has been handed down for generations. As I look back today, I truly feel those spirits of those Red Sticks stand with me. As I stand here, the spirit of those who fought so hard are still here.”  

But for me, one of the most beautiful moments happened when Chief Tiger asked us to join him in what what was recorded to be the same Creek hymn as the Red Stick warriors had sung at the inevitable end. With his voice full of emotion and eyes full of tears, Chief sang the Muscogee words that translate to, “All this hurt, all this pain, all this sorrow will no longer be, because I will be at the side of our Creator.” As the crowd joined in, all singing in our language, I began to sob and others began to cry around me. It was the first time a full-blood Muscogee Chief, who speaks and sings in our traditional language, returned to our ancestral homelands since forced removal in the 1830s. This gave testimony to the importance of culture and language preservation. I was never so proud and humbled to be Muscogee. Watch and listen to Chief Tiger here.

Later, we held a public stomp dance in the clearing where the encampment had been—right at the top of the horseshoe –the bend of the river. We did not light a fire. Our sacred fire had gone with us to Indian Territory and would never burn again in Alabama. That was the price the land paid for our leaving. Our leaders clarified time and again that these lands were our ancestral homelands, not our current homelands. Instead, we danced around a small log in the midst of a clearing in the trees.

During several of the dances, I looked up at the trees and thought about the fact that they had not heard these songs in over two hundred years; nor had the ground felt the cadence of our feet; nor had the river moved with the rhythm of the shells shaking. I wondered if it was as healing for the land as it was for us.

After two hours of dancing, I joined the circle for one last song, moving counter-clockwise in time with the others as is our tradition. As I looked up to absorb all that was around this sacred site, I saw the tall trees bending in toward us. There was no crosswind. The trees weren’t swaying side to side, but rather swaying in, then out.

Without thinking, I spoke out loud, “The trees are dancing for us!” Afterwards, as we talked, we discovered most of us had noticed the same thing. The trees danced to the sacred Muscogee ceremonial sounds.

Everywhere we went for the next three days, we were welcomed with great hospitality. Kind people prepared meals, performed an amazing play, and gave a free museum tour just for us. National park supervisors allowed us to fully explore our ancestral homelands without boundaries. Words cannot fully express our gratitude for everyone’s generosity. Yet, the memory forever etched in my mind is the joy expressed by the trees as they danced for us…

Dwanna L. Robertson, citizen of Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is an Assistant Professor at Kansas State University, a regular columnist for ICTMN, and a public sociologist.

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