Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with James Sawgrass, August 27, 2016

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:00 - Introducing James Sawgrass, who portrays a Native American of the Muskogee Creek Tribe of the 1740s

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Partial Transcript: This is an unrehearsed oral history interview for the Living History Oral History Project. My name is JD Carruthers.

Segment Synopsis: James Sawgrass says for the past 30 years he has made a living teaching at schools, historic sites, and festivals about the history of his tribe which is the Muskogee Creek Tribe. He says Muskogee means "People of the Swamp." In English they are called Creek due to their living in proximity to waterways. He says he teaches through demonstrations a variety of historical and cultural aspects of Southern Indian tribes including crafts, hunting, survival and foodways. He says his research sources include reading and oral traditions handed down by tribal elders. He says that his appearance is very faithful to the time period he is representing in the 1740s. His reading includes books which date to the period and original source materials such as memoirs and diaries written by both Europeans and Native Americans.

Keywords: Deep Forest Native American Indian Program; Muskogee Creek Tribe; Original sources; Research

Subjects: Creek Indians.; Fort Frederica (Ga.); Fort Frederica National Monument (Ga.); Native American.; Native Americans; Saint Simons Island (Ga. : Island); Saint Simons Island (Ga.)

00:04:01 - Material culture

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Partial Transcript: Now, th--uh, a big piece of this is the, what we would call material culture, so the artifacts you have here.

Segment Synopsis: Sawgrass talks about the artifacts that he uses in his living history interpretive programs. He says he has fabricated some of the items, that his friends have fabricated some, and some are original period pieces. He shows off a stone spear point that was given to him during a school presentation that is a historical period artifact. He relates the discovery of the stone point in a little girl's backyard to the Native American culture that once existed there. He discusses the significance of geographic location to understanding history. He discusses the importance of visual effects of costume, artifacts, and makeup to communicating about the history of Native American peoples. He says living history interpretation is his full-time occupation, and he specializes in educational presentations at shows and schools and festivals. He talks about the seasonal fluctuations in his work, with Fall being the busiest time with high demand. He says during the summers he works at summer camps but that otherwise summer is a slow time due to the hot weather in the southern latitudes.

Keywords: Artifacts

Subjects: Material culture.; Native American.; Native Americans

00:06:57 - Public interest in living history

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Partial Transcript: What do you think is the--how would you characterize the public interest in this kind of activity?

Segment Synopsis: Sawgrass says he has been working in living history for thirty years. He talks about public interest in living history in terms of the historical sites that sponsor events. He says fluctuations in funding or changing management at sites has a major impact on living history presentations. He says this is his first appearance at Fort Frederica in a long time. He says he has portrayed Creek chief Tomochichi at the Horton House (Jekyll Island Georgia) and participated in a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans. He says this event was the first time he ever helped the Americans, and laughs at the irony of being on the same side as Andrew Jackson. He talks about his characterization of Tomochichi and his historical trip to England with an entourage which included Mary Musgrove. He talks about Tomochichi's life and relationships with Mary Musgrove and General James Oglethorpe and his life at Yamacraw Bluff which is now Savannah, Georgia. He points out the foundations of the Mary Musgrove house nearby on the site. He talks about the history of the Yamasee Indians and their involvement in the colonial conflicts between the British and Spanish. He talks about the life of Mary Musgrove and says eastern Native American cultures were matriarchal.

Keywords: Horton House; Muskogee Tribe; Tomochichi; War of 1812; Yamacraw Bluff; Yamasee Indians

Subjects: Fort Frederica (Ga.); Fort Frederica National Monument (Ga.); Jackson, Andrew, 1767-1845.; Jackson, Andrew.; Musgrove, Mary, 1700-1765.; New Orleans, Battle of, New Orleans, La., 1815.; Oglethorpe, James; Oglethorpe, James, 1696-1785.; Saint Simons Island (Ga. : Island); Saint Simons Island (Ga.); United States. National Park Service.

00:11:57 - Living history method

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Partial Transcript: Um, I've--in some of the reading I've done with respect to the method to doing interpretation and presentation, uh, it talks about relating to the audience's personal interest...

Segment Synopsis: Sawgrass talks about his approach to living history interpretation which relies on material culture such as artifacts, tools, and his attire and paint. He says visual impact is a key element of his presentations. He says he often uses a first person voice, and even uses a symbol rendered in paint as a signature or autograph to impress the audience that he cannot actually write. He talks about his medicine wheel symbol which is a common southeast Native American shell art motif. He says he does not mind cross cultural representations or cultural appropriation because there are not many Native Americans who do living history. He says at least some are engaged in presenting Native American history, and suggests that living history interpretation is a way of honoring the culture. He adds that many non-Native Americans can pass for Native Americans. He talks about the various time periods he interprets. He says his current presentation is about 1740, and at a later event he will interpret an earlier tribe called Timucua which greeted the first Spanish explorers. He says many of the Timucua died from disease, war, and slavery, and their survivors became the Seminoles. He describes a much simpler costume for the earlier tribe as well as tattoos. He also talks about interpreting the Removal Period or the Trail of Tears. He talks about his son who is a world champion Native American hoop dancer who will perform at the world championship pow wow event at the Heard Museum. Sawgrass describes pow wows as a festival event that demonstrates continuity between traditional heritage and evolved modern culture. He says pow wows often include historical and heritage elements, but they are not living history events. He talks about western style Native American dancing which is more commonly performed publicly, and eastern style which is rarely performed publicly due to its religious significance. He says his favorite memory presenting Native American history is participating in film productions, including the film at the visitors' center at Fort Frederica, a History Channel production, the "Conquerors" series, and a film called "Liberty."

Keywords: Artifacts; Attire; First person voice; Heard Museum; Medicine wheel; Native dancing; Osceola; Pow wows; Tattoos

Subjects: Cherokee Indians.; Creek Indians.; Fort Frederica National Monument (Ga.); Material culture.; Native American.; Native Americans; Reenactment history; Saint Augustine (Fla.); Seminole Indians.; Timucua Indians.; Trail of Tears, 1838-1839.