Muscogee return South nearly 200 years after forced removal

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Butch McIntosh, left, leads the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Honor Guard during the opening of a two-day festival in Oxford, Ala., on Friday, April 8, 2022. The Muscogee name for the event is "Reyicepes," or "We have come back," signifying an attempt by the nation to re-establish a presence in the Southeast nearly 200 years after ancestors were forced out of the region to make way for white settlers. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

OXFORD, Ala. – Native Americans whose ancestors were forced out of the Southeast almost 200 years ago during a purge that cleared the way for white settlers returned Friday for a two-day festival with a name that sums up its purpose: “We have come back.”

A busload of Muscogee (Creek) Nation citizens and others in vans and cars traveled from their homes in Oklahoma and elsewhere for a celebration in the east Alabama city of Oxford, located on what once was part of Arbeka, a Muscogee community dating back 12,000 years. The people who lived there were forced to move west in 1836 during the “Trail of Tears,” a brutal journey of about 700 miles (1,125 kilometers) during which many died.

Land that once was a village inhabited by an estimated 3,000 people is now the site of a city park with sports fields and a walking trail, said RaeLynn Butler, who manages the nation's historical and preservation department. Tribal citizens gathered there at the start of a two-day event to tell Muscogee stories, sing hymns, explain tribal history and give area residents a chance to meet their leaders.

“We’re trying to reestablish our presence in our homeland," Butler said.

The Muscogee name for the event is “Reyicepes,” or “We have come back.” With the United States currently considering how to best interpret a history that includes the enslavement of Black people and the mistreatment of other minorities, women and Native Americans, the tribe is hoping to tell its own story, Principal Chief David Hill said.

“If you read the history books now it doesn’t really tell you why and how we were removed with the Trail of Tears,” he said. “We didn’t want to leave. We were forced to leave.”

Once among the largest groups in the Southeast, the Muscogee territory included parts of the present-day states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The tribe's last major fighting force was defeated by U.S. troops at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend about 55 miles (88 kilometers) south of Oxford in 1814, leading to its eventual expulsion from the region.

About 23,000 Muscogee were forced out of the Southeast in all, Butler said, and as many as 4,000 died on a journey that included long stretches of walking and rides on barges and riverboats. The deaths continued once people arrived in Oklahoma because so many were seriously ill after the trip.

With about 96,000 enrolled citizens and headquarters in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, the tribe is now one of the largest in the United States. Groups of Muscogee have made trips to the Southeast to reconnect with the region in recent years, including visits to the Horseshoe Bend battlefield, now a historic site, and Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in Macon, Georgia, Butler said.

The weekend festival is different, she said, because tribal leaders developed the idea on their own and the city welcomed the plan. A partnership between the two got started years ago when municipal officials began developing the park on the old village site, discovered artifacts and notified Muscogee leaders, she said.

While a group from the Muscogee Nation visited the park in 2016 after it opened, most citizens haven't.

"This is the first time many people coming have been here," Butler said. "We know these places but we’ve never seen them with our own eyes."

The nation wants to do more to connect with the local community and Muscogee still living in the South, the principal chief said. The nation already is working on educational programs with area schools, Hill said, and there have been discussions about using city-owned land at the park, which includes a reconstructed mound and interpretative signs, for a cultural center.

“We look at it as, ‘If they can’t come to us, we’ll go to them,'” he said.

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Reeves is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.