When Tracie Revis climbs the Great Temple Mount, which rises nine stories above the Ocmulgee River in present-day central Georgia, she follows in the footsteps of her Muscogean ancestors who were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma 200 years ago.
“This is a lush and beautiful land. The rivers are beautiful here,” Ms. Revis said recently as she gazed over the forest canopy at a distant green horizon, broken only by the Macon skyline, just across the water. “We believe that those ancestors are still here, their songs are still here, their words are still here, their tears are still here. And so we speak to them. You know, we still honor those who have passed.”
If approved by Congress after a three-year federal review concludes this fall, the mounds in Macon would serve as the gateway to a new Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve, protecting 54 river miles of floodplain where nearly 900 more sites of cultural or historical importance has been identified.
Efforts to expand an existing historic park on the site of the mounds are in keeping with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s “Tribal Native Lands Initiative,” which supports fundraising to purchase land and requires federal administrators to seek indigenous knowledge about resources.
“This type of land acquisition represents the best of what our conservation efforts should be: collaborative, inclusive, locally led, and in support of the priorities of our country’s tribal nations,” Ms. Haaland said at the 30th. th Annual Ocmulgee Indian Celebration last weekend. .
In an era when some culture warriors see government as the enemy, years of coalition building have eliminated any meaningful opposition to federal management in the reliably Republican center of a long-red state. Hunting will still be allowed, even encouraged to prevent wild boar from destroying the ecosystem. The Georgia Congressional delegation is on board, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been welcomed as an essential partner.
“Our voice, our opinion has been around this whole process for a while now,” said Ms. Revis, an attorney from Muscogee and Yuchi who moved to Georgia this year to join Macon Mayor Pro Tem Seth Clark at the defense of giving the National Park Service primary authority over the heartland of his people’s ancestral land, which once spanned Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama.
Unifying a patchwork of state- and federally-managed land could help attract an additional million visitors each year, spending a total of $187 million while hiking, canoeing, hunting, fishing and learning about the history of the Native Americans, and generate $30 million in taxes while supporting 3,000 more jobs, an economic impact study found.
“It’s a game changer for this region,” Clark said. “Reimagining our economic vitality through a sense of ecotourism is something that I think is huge for this community.”
Gliding over the surface of Ocmulgee, kayakers can see nothing but forest and wildlife, interrupted very occasionally by a bridge. Little do they know that 14 more unexplored and vulnerable ceremonial mounds rise from the nearby swamps.
Plans call for leaving the wilderness as untouched as possible while building trails and access ramps. No land would be expropriated through eminent domain. Instead, park service oversight would make it easier to raise money to expand boundaries and increase public hunting areas by purchasing private wetlands from willing sellers.
The tribal government of Okmulgee, Oklahoma also purchased 130 acres (52.6 hectares) of lowland to surround with the park. Principal Chief David Hill said there are no plans to develop it; they want it to be preserved so that their 97,000 citizens will always have a place of their own in the cradle of their culture.
“Our story is here. Our ancestors are here. Our stories started here. And we are committed to ensuring this precious site is protected,” said Mr. Hill.
Muscogeans say history is riddled with trauma, but they also take pride in how they are now thriving after surviving the Road to Misery, their catchphrase for the Road of Tears. The congressionally ordered forced march removed 80,000 Native Americans from the eastern United States. Many died after the federal government broke promises to take care of them in exchange for their land.
White settlers had made their lives unbearable through relentless “drive out or exterminate” campaigns in the 1820s and 1830s. And as soon as Muscogee, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other natives disappeared from the Deep South, they were replaced by hundreds of thousands of slaves, sold downriver by their northern owners to clear land for cotton.
The settlers kept the place names, not knowing what they meant in the native languages.
Desecrations quickly followed in the Ocmulgee Mounds, the spiritual, legislative, and economic heart of the Creek Confederacy. The old trees were cut down for a labor camp. A huge burial mound was opened for a railroad to ship cotton. Later, the battlements of the Civil War carved its fields.
Roughly 700 acres surrounding seven mounds were declared a national monument in 1936. But that didn’t stop archaeologists from removing 2.5 million artifacts reflecting 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. Most remain unexamined in the archives of the Smithsonian, the park service, and the university.
For decades, the park was promoted with postcards featuring an exposed skeleton. It turned out to be the skull of one person and the bones of another, said Raelynn Butler, historic and cultural preservation manager for the tribal nation. “They didn’t treat us like people,” she said.
Facts about the genocide and survival began to resurface in the 1970s when Mrs. Revis’s aunt Addie and other tribal elders traveled back to Georgia to lead cultural discussions. “That’s really where the first idea of the celebration came from: that we have to change the narrative,” said Ms. Revis.
Twenty years of arduous collaboration allowed the tribal nation to gather and reburie the remains of 114 people in the mounds in 2017. And this February, 1,000 adjoining acres of sacred land, purchased by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, were protected. without cost. to taxpayers, Haaland said. Expanding this into a park and preserve could protect another 85,000 acres downstream.
“We get asked all the time, ‘This is such a beautiful place, why did everyone leave?’ We were not asked to do it, we were forced to do it,” Hill said. “And that is what we want to prevent in the future: the things we do now, are for our future generations. I don’t want them to go through that. So Oklahoma is our home, but this is still our original home.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.