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Sacred rites, but on land that's lent

Though a local tribe for years has worshiped on land in Trilby, the site will likely be sold in an auction Saturday.

By MOLLY MOORHEAD
Published August 11, 2006


TRILBY - The monthly stomp is supposed to happen Saturday night.

About 35 members of the East Pasco Muskogee Creek tribe should be gathering at their church in a woodsy spot off the highway to light a fire, don colorful regalia and dance into the night offering prayers to the creator.

But come Saturday, the land that holds their church may belong to someone else, an unknown owner who may not understand their traditions or how hard they've worked to keep them alive.

An auction probably will put that property - and an Indian burial mound believed to be on site - in the hands of the highest bidder.

The Muskogees know they are on borrowed land. The roughly 16 acres on U.S. 301, north of Lacoochee almost to the Hernando County line, belong to Doris Hudson of St. Petersburg. The Indians have worshipped there with her permission since 2000.

Dean Strus, chief of the Muskogee tribe, said Hudson is sympathetic to their cause and offered her land for their use. He said her family has decided to sell. The auction will start at 11 a.m. on the property, according to fliers posted along the highway.

Phone messages left at Hudson's St. Petersburg home were not returned.

The tribe spent months preparing the site for their religious services. Eight hand-built cabins made of pine logs are for sleeping on ceremony weekends. No lights, no water, just four walls, a roof and a dirt floor.

Five wood arbors form the walls of the church: a sandy clearing with a fire in the center and oak trees towering all around. Each arbor houses a clan, with the chief's arbor facing east.

"A lot of people have the impression we worship idols," said Strus, who is 60, with piercing, light blue eyes, deeply tanned skin and the look of a warrior.

"We don't."

They worship God, the creator. They honor Mother Earth. Next are women, Strus said, "the givers of life."

Strus wears his salt-and-pepper hair long in a ponytail. Always has, even in the Army - he just tucked it up under his cap.

He admits to a quick temper, and his hardened looks and gravelly voice don't contradict that.

But all that belies a deep spiritualism.

"It's the songs that you sing and the stomps and the prayers that come from your heart," Strus said of his religion.

For everything they stand to lose, the Muskogees are also modern citizens. Many of them own homes.

"If it were my land and I was selling, I wouldn't want anybody telling me I couldn't do it," said Margaret Bogan, a tribe member and clan mother.

But like the others, she has one persistent question that seems only so far to be answered in undocumented legend: What about the burial mound?

It's a raised spot in the woods where a branchless cedar stands and ground cover grows wild. There is no marker. According to the lore of the Florida Creeks, it is a mound dating to the 1837 battle between Chief Jumper's tribe and American soldiers.

"That's one of our biggest concerns, that they're going to bring a developer in here and try to develop this land and bulldoze that mound," Strus said. "That's my ancestors buried in there."

Bogan, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, is hopeful about finding the documentation to back up the claim. Then, whoever buys the property Saturday would be made aware of state protections for historical sites.

"My concern, as an academic and a citizen of the state of Florida, is if that is anybody's ancestral ground, it needs to be protected," she said. "We're getting really down the wire now to find that out."

If the land sells, Bogan said, the tribe will go back to meeting at Strus' house, a mobile home where they held gatherings and cookouts before they built their church.

"We're not into this big emotional loss of land," said Bogan, 55. "It's their property. We were permitted to use it. It's wonderful we were able to do that."

Strus wears an eagle on a chain around his neck. It's just one of many in his collection of the symbol he treasures.

"It's my way of saying I'm American," he said. "I'm the first American. I'm not trying to cut anybody down, but my people were here first."

He does not plan to attend the auction. It upsets him too much. He toyed with the idea of cutting off electricity in the cookhouse that will be used during the sale. But that's not right, he said, and he won't do it.

Instead he returned to the church last weekend, alone, and made his peace.

"That fire," he said, "I have put to sleep."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at 352 521-6521 or moorhead@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 11, 2006, 06:39:52]


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