Text by Kaylee Salter/
Photos courtesy of Megan Zamoro
Stephanie A. Bryan is a proud wife, mother, and the first chairwoman of the only federally recognized Native American tribe in Alabama: The Poarch Band of Creek Indians. She has worked with her community for over twenty years and has served on the tribal council since 2006. I, like Bryan, am also a proud tribal member. Although she is a family friend, I knew little about her. She shares with me her most fond memories and some of her more trying times.
Bryan was born and raised on the Poarch Creek Indian Reservation in south Alabama, near the city of Atmore. She regularly attended church with her mother Julie Ann who worked at the Head Start schoolhouse next to her childhood home. Bryan recalls her days as a young, “snotty-nosed girl” playing under the table while tribal administrators were preparing documents for federal recognition. She was shy and scared to run for tribal princess, but she loved Stomp Dancing and River Dancing, the cultural aspects of our heritage, so she ran for it. She won, but she wanted to crown her sister instead.
“We had family… and we enjoyed our land. We’d get out there and play stickball. Pow Wow was a big homecoming for us, I mean, we loved it! We loved our native dance, we’d chase the greasy pig, and fire-pit roast Indian corn.” She grew up always involved in the community.
She would help her Uncle John “The Corn Man” hoe the garden and pick fresh vegetables to take to the elders.
“I knew as a little girl that I enjoyed helping people,” Bryan said.
It left her with a burning sensation.
Her uncle served the council for about 28 years. She likes to say “he put Poarch on the map.” Her grandfather also served on the tribal council in the 1960s and her mother served on the education advisory board. It was in her blood to serve civically and give back to Poarch.
Bryan was once deemed the “poor little Indian girl from Poarch,” but said she never felt that way. She leaned on the biblical scripture “we are all created equal.”
“We had love and we had unity as a community… something money can’t buy,” she said. “It’s who we are… we stuck together, and we loved each other, and when one person had something to eat, we all had something to eat.”
Bryan worked two to three jobs while attending college as a single parent with support from mothers, sisters, and friends from Poarch who came together to help her and babysit. She was determined to do great things and give back despite how tough the times felt.
Before her work on the council, she co-wrote one of the first child-care grants to help tribal parents with similar struggles. She also worked on multiple housing grants to aid with substandard housing. In 2006, Bryan decided it was time to serve in a leadership role. She was first elected as a general council member. Afterward, several fellow council members suggested she serve as tribal vice-chair, even though it was her first year on the council. When the vote for vice-chair ended in a tie, the council flipped a coin to determine the winner; Bryan won.
Bryan approached her role as vice-chair with determination and passion. She also served as chair of a newly expanding gaming commission. The Poarch Band of Creek Indians opened their first casino in 2009 and have since expanded to over 11 operations.
In 2014, when the incumbent chair retired, she wondered if seeking tribal chair was the next logical step in her leadership career. She felt that God had placed her so far for a reason, and she had seen the tribe grow so much since she had been involved; this might be the step she should take to give even more back to her community. She decided to run for the office, but not without opposition.
A former leader said a woman should not be at the top of our tribe.
“Well they don’t know our history,” Bryan said. “Women were very much leaders.”
Bryan credits another female tribal member, Debby Hughes, for teaching the tribe’s culture.
“We didn’t have what we have today, but she did try to teach us language. What she knew, she would teach us about our existence,” said Bryan.
She proudly mentions many other women of the tribe in saying “these women all worked hard… frying the chicken around the wash pot to send Chief Calvin to Washington… they were so happy and so proud to just be involved.”
Bryan was elected as tribal chair in 2014. It was her time to give back, to ensure a sustainable future for her tribe and to take care of the people that took care of her. She said she always wanted to do what is best for the tribe. It is what her elders instilled in her and what she hopes to instill in the future generations at Poarch.
Bryan encourages others to listen to the elders talk.
“They would tell us to take advantage of opportunity, not entitlement, and to cherish our Creek culture,” Bryan said. “Most of all, they would say to remain humble in our community and prosperity.”
Bryan remains chairwoman of the Poarch Creek Indians, representing our small community across the nation, and working throughout Indian country. From “the poor little Indian girl from Poarch” to the first tribal chairwoman, she is grateful that people have faith in her and her leadership. She said it is because of who she is and what she has always been taught to stand for.
“Integrity is in the core … making tough decisions is hard,” she said. “A good leader tells people what they need to hear, not want to hear.”
She prays God allows her to do this.
When Chairwoman Bryan was elected, I remember wondering if women could be elected. I was an impressionable sixteen-year-old. I am empowered to still see her at the top of our tribe and reminded that women have a place wherever they choose to make it. She has inspired me to honor our ancestry and to be the change I wish to see in our community.
Student Biography: Kaylee Salter is an undergraduate student at Kennesaw State University. She intends to graduate in Spring 2022 with a bachelor’s in psychology. She has always been intrigued by human
behavior and hopes to apply her knowledge in helping at-risk populations through organizations such as AmeriCorps. For fun, she has worked as a background actor on over fifty productions filming in Atlanta. She enjoys traveling, spending time with her dog, Manny, and learning film photography.
Women’s Leadership through Virtual Exchange: Youth Sharing Digital Stories (WLVE) is a project engaging 100 undergraduate and graduate students from Hassan II University Casablanca with 100 undergraduate students from Kennesaw State University in a unique cross-cultural virtual exchange experience focused on better understanding women’s leadership through research, analysis, and digital storytelling. This virtual classroom-based project will collect biographical stories of successful women leaders in both countries written by the students and publish them online on Bokeh Focus.