The Poarch Creek Indians are Alabama’s only federally recognized tribe, and tribal members elected Stephanie A. Bryan their first-ever female leader in 2014. Her title is Tribal Chair and CEO, so she is head of a sovereign nation with close to 2,900 members and around 400 acres of reservation land while also overseeing diverse business holdings. Long years of poverty preceded the tribe’s current success, and Bryan does not have to think back too far to remember her own years raising a family, working two jobs and going to college. We talked to her about these parallel journeys. – Sallie Owen Gowan
The State of Alabama recently marked 200 years of statehood, but Creek connections go back much further. Would you walk us through some history?
The Poarch Creek Indians have a rich heritage as descendants of the original Creek Nation, which once covered almost all of Alabama and Georgia, tracing its roots to the Paleo period. The ancestors of the Poarch Creek Indians lived along the Alabama River, including areas from Wetumpka south to the Tensaw settlement. Unlike many eastern tribes, the Poarch Creeks were not removed from their tribal lands and have lived here for over 200 years in and around the reservation in Poarch, Alabama.
What languages do you speak?
I speak a little bit of Creek and a lot of deep South English! One of the things that I am proudest of is that we have made a huge effort to reconnect with our Creek language and other parts of our Indian culture that were almost lost over the centuries. It is truly music to my ears to hear our little ones speaking in the language of our ancestors.
Tell us about your growing up years.
I am a proud Alabamian, born and bred. I’ve always lived in the Poarch and Atmore area, and I love still being able to call this little slice of heaven “home.” Growing up, we lived on a little dirt road in a simple house with a front porch that was a gathering place for generations of family and friends. I honestly never knew we were poor because we had plenty of the things that really mattered – love, support, a deep connection to each other and our extended family as members of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.
I am a product of our small town’s schools. I began kindergarten at Head Start in the Poarch Community, and then continued on to Huxford Elementary and Escambia County Middle School. I graduated from Escambia County High. To be honest, I did not have the money to go off to a four-year university, and that is one of the reasons I am so committed to offering scholarships to our tribal members. I was very fortunate that I could further my education at two wonderful community colleges: Jefferson Davis in Brewton and Faulkner State in Bay Minette.
What is your typical day like?
Well, there is no typical day, but I can tell you I usually start early and end late. I always have a full agenda of government business to attend to as well as work that relates to our gaming and other businesses. But I am the leader of a Tribe of people, and that means I spend a lot of time talking and trying to help folks directly.
Tell us about your family and how you find work/life balance.
It’s hard to believe that I married my wonderful husband, Keith Bryan, almost 30 years ago. Our three children and 10 grandchildren are incredible blessings in our lives, and we are lucky that they all live close by in Atmore, Spanish Fort and just down the road in Byrneville, Florida.
Keith and I have a home in Orange Beach, Alabama. It is a wonderful place to spend time together and with our extended family. And I just really love sitting and listening to the ocean while reading a book. That quiet time rejuvenates me. The other thing that allows me to completely take my mind off work and my other responsibilities is cruising in the boat. I think all of us need to take breaks from technology and be present in the moment, and being on the water really allows me to do that.
What motivates you to get up in the morning?
I decided to go into public service because I wanted to help our people have better lives, and that is what still gets me out of bed, raring to go every day. I have a real passion to help others – our Tribal members and our neighbors – and I am focused on providing the tools they need to succeed and helping support and inspire them to go do great things in the world.ν