National Native American Month might hit closer to home than some residents of Santa Rosa County realize. Creek Indian Chief Thomas Earl “Blue Eyes” Nichols estimates as many as 10,000 people in the area could be descendants of the Creek Indian Tribes native to the Florida Panhandle.
And for more than two decades, some of those members have met each November to celebrate that heritage during the Creek Indian Celebration Days. This year’s Celebration Days will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 5pm Sunday, November 23 and 24 at Floridatown Park. Booths feature crafts, food, toys and Native American-themed items for sale.
“It’s our chance to get together and basically have a family reunion for our people,” said Nichols, who traces his ancestry back eight generations to the Wards—as in, Ward Basin—of East Milton. He’s also related to the Nichols Family, of Nichols Lake. “It gives us a chance to show off our tribal ways. One of the things I enjoy most is watching the little kids dance. You get them out at a Pow Wow and they’ve never danced before—they start dancing!”
The Pow Wow is an intertribal event featuring authentic clothes, food and dance, including stomp dances and a dance to honor firefighters, police, veterans, and POW/MIAs.
“You’ll actually see we have an honor dance we do for our warriors, people who have fought for America,” Nichols said. “Anyone who protects our people, our country, we honor.”
Educating people about Southeastern Native Americans is important to Nichols, who fears much of the area’s unique heritage is overshadowed by popular images of Native Americans following buffalo herds and wearing headdresses of feathers.
“That’s what the Western Indians did,” Nichols explained. “We dressed nothing like the Western Indians!”
Turbans with plumes and pinched-toe moccasins are more accurate attire for Southeastern Native Americans like the Creek, Seminole and Choctaw, but a variety of Native American regalia can be seen at the Celebration Days. All tribes—and the public—are welcome.
Native American tribes were present around Milton and Pace long before the first European explorers landed in Pensacola. Tribes lived in log cabins, fished and cultivated the land. The first explorers noted their stature and attractive appearance. The Creek Indians faced friction with other tribes as well as encroachment of white settlers on their land, until the Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced the relocation of Native Americans across the Southeast. Members of the Cherokee, Creek (or Muscogee), Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, among others, were forced to relocate to Oklahoma. The high death rates along the relocation route gave it the name “Trail of Tears.” Native Americans did not universally have common civil rights until the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968.
Creek Indians who opted not to relocate in the 1800s went into hiding. Nichols’ ancestors took refuge in local swamps, he explained. If their skin was light, they claimed European ancestry. If their skin was dark, they claimed African ancestry. The resulting intermarriages are one reason so many people may have Creek ancestry locally.
In the 1930s Nichols’ great-grandmother again took to the swamps to avoid being counted in the census. Native Americans who couldn’t avoid census-takers adopted the term “Black Dutch” to hide their ancestry.
Today, the goal is the opposite. Representatives from the Creek Indian Tribe go to schools, universities, convalescent homes and prisons to educate people about their history.
“We want our history to be known, because there are literally thousands of us here,” Nichols said.
The tribe has purchased land north of Willard Norris Road and hopes to someday build a museum. Many artifacts, like tomahawks, war clubs, arrowheads, clothing, bowls and food instruments, are on loan at the Jay Museum.
Floridatown, where the Pow Wow is held, is also an important part of the area’s history. A hurricane in the mid-1990s uncovered an ancient burial ground beneath a washed-out road. The location was documented and reburied.
So head over to Floridatown Park this weekend for a taste of the area’s Native American Heritage—and don’t be afraid to join in the dancing!