Koweta Creek Indian Community: Touring Washington with a different perspective

July 21, 2011

Weegie Clark, a member of the Koweta Indian Community in Oklahoma, wants out of the National Museum of American History. She has had enough of art she thinks she could make herself, enough of the $22 lunches. What she wants right now is to find a piece of shade to people-watch. Perhaps find a good bench on the Mall, “if that is what you call it, but it really doesn’t look like a mall.”

Clark laughs.

“I’m a people person. At home, I can just go out to Wal-Mart and sit in my car and just watch people.”

Washington is slightly better than the Wal-Mart parking lot for people-watching.

Clark, 59, and Bob Davis, 73, chairman of the Koweta community, push on an exit door, but it doesn’t open. A guard points to another door that’s unlocked.

The pair spy a shade-covered bench on the Mall. Before crossing the street, they bump into another member of their tour group who has come on the bus with them from eastern Oklahoma. Jerri Hudson, 78, tells them she and her husband made it uptown to the National Zoo to see one of the pandas eat bamboo.

Clark and Davis are impressed.

“We took a taxi.”

Clark and Davis are more impressed.

“And the taxi driver jumps the meter up $3 when you get in and shut the door,” Hudson says. “It jumps up $2 more when you stop. And you can’t understand a word he’s saying. Then he rolled the window down, and it blew my hair.”

“So the panda saw you on a bad hair day?” Davis says.

Hudson laughs and pats her hair, blond curls now wrapped carefully in a white chiffon scarf.

* * *

Clark and 31 members of the Koweta Indian Community, part of the larger Muscogee (Creek) Nation, have arrived in Washington just this morning. This is the first time many have been to the nation’s capital.

In 38 hours, the group has covered 1,268 miles. They have slept overnight in Nashville and in Staunton, Va. They have stayed up late telling scary stories of mystical “little Indian people” who live in rocks and fields and love dancing but do not like being disturbed. If disturbed, they say, the little people might cast a spell over strangers, and then the strangers might lose their way.

“The little Indian people come out at nighttime, and they run around and play,” Clark whispered on the bus.

She paused for reaction.

“Indians see things other people don’t see,” she said.

Clark wondered what she would see in Washington as the tour bus crossed the line between what she considers two worlds: Indian Country, where history is viewed through the lens of the dominated, and a place where history is told by the victors.

“I’m proud to be American, but I know a lot of things happen to our people that people overlook,” Clark says.

When the bus crossed the Potomac for the first time, the city appeared breathtaking in its splendor, with its monuments carved from stone and gilded lions guarding bridges. Out your left window, their guide said, the South Lawn of the White House. To the right, the Jefferson Memorial. The bus parked outside the Smithsonian’s Castle, and the visitors poured out, eager to visit the National Museum of the American Indian. But that is saved for the third day of their stay.

“The main thing is the native museum,” says Sharon Tiger, 43. “It is supposed to be our history on a national level. I’m hoping it has a lot of information from Oklahoma.”

Clark is eager to see how much their Muscogee (Creek) Nation is represented. The gravel on the Mall crunches beneath her feet. She is wearing Z-Coil shoes with springs under her heels.

“The springs take a load off my back,” she says. “I worked on my feet for 15 years in the foundry. We would have 10 minutes in the morning for a break, 10 minutes for lunch and 10 minutes in the afternoon. By the time I washed my hands, I didn’t have time to eat. I told my grandson I kind of know what prison is like.”

She recently was laid off, but there is always good and bad. “The good thing,” she says, “if I was working I couldn’t have taken this trip.”

She is wearing an olive-green shirt that says: “There was a time when man took no more than he needed. That time is gone. ... And now the waters are polluted, our natural resources are all but gone and creation is dying. It is time to find our way back to the Earth.”

Clark surveys the Mall. “I want to see the Hope Diamond,” she says. “I put on a six-carat diamond once at a pawn shop back home, just to say I put it on.”

Clark and Davis find the Hope Diamond on the second floor at the National Museum of Natural History. Davis moves to the sign that says the 45.52-carat diamond was stolen in 1792, during “week-long looting associated with the French Revolution.” In 1812, a blue diamond “almost certainly the one stolen from the French Crown Jewels turned up in London.” The diamond apparently was sold to King George IV.

Davis takes another peek, then asks a question no one else asks aloud: “Even though it was stolen, they were still selling it?”

Clark shrugs.

They walk downstairs and encounter an exhibit on race, which asks: “Are we so different?”

A sign explains: “All the skin colors, whether light or dark, are due not to race but to adaptation for life under the sun.”

Davis asks aloud: “Is that why Indians from the North are real light-skinned compared to us?”

They move on, to an exhibit on enslaved people, where they stare silently for a long time at the slave quarters.

“They enslaved us by putting us in one place. Who was treated worse: us or black people?” Davis asks, not really expecting an answer.

He stops to think. “I would have to give it to the slaves, because when you take somebody and put them on an auction block and they are sold while their kids are down there crying, well, that’s pretty awful.”

Racism is still around, Davis says. “I have to deal with it all the time. I play golf back home, and that’s where I hear it. I feel like I fail the black people when they are talking about them. I don’t laugh at bad things said about them now, but I don’t speak up either.”

Leaving the museum, Clark and Davis notice Martha Squire, another member of their tour, sitting in the shade. Squire, 87, likes to take off on her own.

She finds the Mall’s signs confusing. So far, “I only went to the museum that showed the animals. I was glad they weren’t alive. I was going to go to the history one, but I ... saw the arrow pointed this way, and I came this way but couldn’t find the museum.”

Squire always goes on trips planned by the community. “That’s the only way we are going to get there,” Clark interjects. “We can’t afford to pay by ourselves.”

Squire is retired from Superior Linen laundry in Tulsa.

“I’m Yuchi,” she says. “The white man spells it E-U-C-H-E-E.”

There are not many Yuchi left. “I can count on 10 fingers how many are living,” says Squire, whose three children have died.

The sun beats down. From where they sit, they can see the cool of the Freer Gallery and decide to cross the Mall. Inside the Freer, Clark passes quickly through the famous Peacock Room and takes a seat at “Symphony in Grey: Early Morning, Thames” by James McNeill Whistler.

Clark stares at the dreamlike paintings.

“To me,” Clark says, “they say that is art, but I think I can do that.”

Eva Gay, 62, another member of the Koweta community, tells her, “Picasso and all of them did weird things, and their art is worth millions.”

Clark leaves the Freer and sits on a bench near an ice cream vendor who says he is out of ice cream. A squirrel scurries toward the bench. A reporter shoos it, but the squirrel just stares. Clark is unperturbed. “At home we make squirrel gravy. It’s good. Wilma can make the best squirrel gravy with buttermilk biscuits. She seasons the flour and boils the squirrel at least three hours. Unless you get a young one, it’s tough. Boils it until it’s falling off the bone. But the squirrels here don’t seem to know they can be eaten.”

* * *

The next day, the tourists climb back on the bus at 7 a.m. and pick up their tour guide, Bill Jones, of the Guide Service of Washington, at the Old Post Office Pavilion. They head for the U.S. Capitol. Jones tells them the city’s designer, Pierre L’Enfant, received instructions to “design out of this land a grand city as grand as the ones you knew in Europe.”

Mark Randolph, a member of the Koweta community, wonders how much consideration L’Enfant paid to the people who were here when it was a swamp. “They say nobody was here,” Randolph says. “People were here.”

Jones turns their attention to the statue of Ulysses S. Grant, near the foot of the Capitol. “He was one of our more underestimated presidents,” Jones says. “When the Ku Klux Klan raised its ugly head, he created the Department of Justice to go down and deal with it. His policy of peace was, ‘Bring the Indians to me. Let us discuss.’ ”

Nobody says anything.

“Now, President [Andrew] Jackson,” Jones says, “he was one cruel individual. He started the Trail of Tears. His Indian name was ‘The Knife.’ ”

At the Lincoln Memorial, Randolph stands back. “I mainly think of the presidents as mass murderers,” Randolph says so quietly it appears no one else hears. “Lincoln is mainly thought of as a hero, but he orchestrated the largest mass hangings of Indians in history.”

The next morning, the tour of the National Museum of the American Indian begins on time. Their guide is a young Cherokee woman from Oklahoma.

She shows them the exhibit called “Three Storms,” which represent three man-made storms that hit native cultures: Bibles, treaties and guns. She points to the gun used by the Apache warrior Geronimo. “When most people think of Geronimo, they think of his warrior status, but Geronimo was originally a farmer,” she says. “He had a wife and three children who were killed” in a massacre by Mexicans troops. “That is what convinced him to pick up arms and protect his lands.”

She says the museum wants to display the good and the bad of history. She tells them how disease wiped out thousands of First Nations people. But she says disease was not always intentionally inflicted because Europeans didn’t know how disease spread. But she tells them President Lincoln used disease in the Indian wars. “He gave away blankets marked by smallpox,” the guide says. “And he was responsible for the removal of the Navajo, or Dine, from their homeland in the Southwest. Also, under his presidency we have the largest mass hangings in U.S. history, in which 38 Dakota warriors were hung.”

Randolph stands in the back of the crowd. “That’s what I was saying,” he whispers.

“To give Lincoln a little credit, the original number to be hung was over 200,” the guide says. “But he said that was too many. He did reduce it back to 38.”

She asks whether there are any more questions. No one says anything.

Clark asks: “Is there an exhibit dedicated to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation?”

No, the guide says, not now, but there are plans. She asks whether there are more questions, but there are none. And so the tour group from the Koweta Indian Community of Oklahoma pours into the elevators with etchings of birds on the walls to represent flight, and descend to the cafeteria, where there is a line of tourists out the door.

DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at browndl@washpost.com.

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