Florida tribe seeks federal status

Sunday, August 18, 2002

BRUCE, Fla. -- Allen Thomas gave up a good-paying job and comfortable South Florida lifestyle for virtual poverty when he came to the rural Panhandle five years ago in search of his Native American roots.

Thomas now serves on the tribal council of the Muscogee Nation of Florida, which is continuing a 22-year battle for federal recognition while reviving and preserving the religion, language and culture it had nearly lost.

That effort includes a recent name change from Florida Tribe of Eastern Creek Indians. Creek is the English name given Muscogees long ago due to the many creeks on tribal lands across the South.

"The biggest wall that we've been butting our head against is the old law of Florida, which did not allow Indians to live in Florida," Thomas said.

Legislation passed in 1853 required that all Indians and "half-breeds" be sent west of the Mississippi River except for those "residing among whites."

Many Muscogees avoided relocation by living among whites or clustered in remote communities such as Bruce, where no one enforced the law.

Bruce, the tribe's headquarters, is a Walton County crossroads in a pine forest halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee. Legend has it the community was named for a surveyor's dog, said Ann Tucker, the tribe's acting chief.

The Muscogee Nation has about 1,100 members in four townships scattered across the Panhandle and one in central Florida.

If federal recognition is granted, it would be only the third tribe with that status in Florida, second in size to the Seminoles but larger than the Miccosukees, both in South Florida.

Some Muscogees in the western tip of the Panhandle are members of a federally recognized tribe in Alabama, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.

"Federal recognition is everything to us," Tucker said. "It's our sovereignty. It's our rights to protect our people."

Recognition would lead to health care and housing assistance and jobs, Tucker said. The tribe would qualify for minority contracts and tax benefits for businesses.

The drive for recognition began in 1980, but it has been sidetracked by changes in federal policy, genealogical research, computer failures and lack of know-how, Tucker said. This year, the tribe finally completed its application.

It may be several more years, however, before a decision is made because the Bureau of Indian Affairs has a backlog of applications and the Muscogee Nation is 25th in line, Tucker said.

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