Principal Chief Lewis Johnson of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma made a clear distinction Monday, Sept. 18, concerning a gathering to mark the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Moultrie Creek.
“This is not a celebration,” he said, “but it’s a commemoration and it’s an observance of a time, of a people who believed that they had the right to live as the Creator had placed them upon this Earth.”
The small gathering of tribal leaders, state and county officials and others was held at Treaty Park, south of St. Augustine. The 47-acre park is located near the spot where the treaty was signed on Sept. 18, 1823.
Johnson was one of several speakers during the ceremony, which concluded with the raising of five flags, including those for the Seminole Nation and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
The federally recognized Tribes of Florida, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, declined to attend the event.
Andrew K. Frank, director of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Center at Florida State University, said in his remarks that the treaty was pushed by the government of the United States under President James Monroe, not the indigenous people.
“It was one of the many acts of American expansionism and one of the first parts of what we can call the land grab in Florida,” Frank said. “It was one of the first steps toward forced Indian removal.”
In fact, said Frank, the vision of Monroe and others for Florida didn’t include the indigenous people at all. They advocated not just for removal of the people from their ancestral lands, but also their confinement.
However, the treaty also did something else: It confirmed the sovereignty of the Muscogee and Seminole peoples and established obligations for the federal government to follow in future dealings.
“The very treaty that sought to erase Native Americans contained some of the very legal apparatus that helped them assert their authority, retain their dignity and help them survive,” said Frank.
“This treaty was part of some of the darkest days and times in America,” said Principal Chief David Hill of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. “It was the beginning of removal, of wars, death and a lot of pain. This treaty, like many others, was never truly honored. It was part of the policy to eradicate our people. But it didn’t work. We endured.”
RaeLynn A. Butler, historic & cultural preservation manager for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, pointed out that indigenous peoples continue to thrive two centuries after the treaty was signed.
“We want people to know that we’re still here,” she said, “that we are the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.”
Johnson thanked organizers for the invitation to participate in the ceremony. He also expressed his pride in how his people have stood up to their adversity.
He closed on a hopeful note.
“As we reconcile our hearts and our spirits with one another, as we find resolution with one another, then that’s when the blessings of the Creator will continue to pour out on the great United States of America and all the sovereign Indian nations of the Americas, as well,” he said.