Native Americans have a say in plan to expand Ocmulgee National Park in central Georgia
At a time when some culture warriors view the government as the enemy, years of coalition building have eliminated any meaningful opposition to federal management in the dependable Republican center of a long red state. Hunting will always be allowed, even encouraged to prevent feral pigs from destroying the ecosystem. The Georgian Congressional delegation is on board and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been welcomed as a vital partner.
“Our voice, our say, has been everywhere in this whole process for some time now,” said Revis, a Muscogee and Yuchi attorney who moved to Georgia this year to join pro-tem Macon mayor Seth Clark. advocating to give the National Park Service primary authority over the heartland of its people’s ancestral land, which once stretched across Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Alabama.
Unifying a patchwork of state and federally-run lands could help attract a million more visitors each year, spending $187 million hiking, canoeing, hunting, fishing and exploring. Native American history, and generating $30 million in taxes while maintaining 3,000 additional jobs. , according to an economic impact study.
“It’s a game-changer for this region,” Clark said. “Reinventing our economic vitality through a sense of ecotourism is something that I think is just huge for this community.”
While gliding over the surface of the Ocmulgee, kayakers see nothing but woods and wildlife, very occasionally interrupted by a bridge. Few people know that 14 other ceremonial mounds, unexplored and vulnerable, rise from the nearby marshes.
Plans include leaving the wilderness as untouched as possible while building trails and ramps. No land would be taken by eminent domain. Instead, park service oversight would facilitate fundraising to expand boundaries and increase public hunting areas by purchasing private wetlands from willing sellers.
The Okmulgee Tribal Government, Oklahoma, also purchased 130 acres (52.6 hectares) of bottomlands to be surrounded by the park. Principal Chief David Hill said there are no plans to expand it – they want it 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 that this valuable site is protected,” Hill said.
Muscogians say history is fraught with trauma, but also proud of how they now thrive after surviving the Road of Misery, their expression for the Trail of Tears. The forced march ordered by Congress removed 80,000 Native Americans from the eastern United States. Many died of disease, starvation or mistreatment when the federal government broke its promises to care for them in exchange for their land.
White settlers had made their lives unbearable through relentless “expulsion or extermination” campaigns in the 1820s and 1830s. And as soon as the Muscogee, Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other natives left the Deep South , they were replaced by hundreds of thousands of slaves, sold on the rivers by their northern owners to clear the land for cotton.
The settlers kept the place names, not knowing what they meant in the native languages.
Desecrations soon followed at the Ocmulgee Mounds, the spiritual, legislative and economic heart of the Creek Confederacy. The old trees were cleared for a forced labor camp. A massive burial mound was bombed open so a railroad could ship cotton. The ramparts of the civil war then carved out its fields.
About 700 acres (283 hectares) surrounding seven mounds were declared a national monument in 1936. But that hasn’t stopped archaeologists from removing 2.5 million artifacts reflecting 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. Most have not been examined in the archives of the Smithsonian, the parks service and the university.
For decades, the park has been 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, head of historical and cultural preservation for the tribal nation. “They didn’t treat us like people,” she said.
Facts about genocide and survival began to resurface in the 1970s when Revis’ Aunt Addie and other tribal elders returned to Georgia to lead cultural discussions. “That’s really where the first idea for the celebration came from – that we need to change the narrative,” Revis said.
Twenty years of careful collaboration enabled the tribal nation to reunite and rebury the remains of 114 people on the mounds in 2017. And in February, 1,000 acres (404 hectares) of adjoining sacred land was protected, purchased by the government federal Land and Water Conservation Fund at no cost to taxpayers, Haaland said. Expanding it to a park and reserve could protect an additional 85,000 acres (34,400 hectares) downstream.
“We are asked all the time, ‘this is such a beautiful place, why did you all leave?’ We weren’t asked to do it, we were forced to do it,” Hill said. “And that’s 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 it’s still our original home.
Michael Warren is a member of the AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.