Georgia’s first national park?

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In the middle of Georgia, ancient mounds are the centerpiece of a proposed national park and preserve that could protect one of the oldest and most important cultural sites in the eastern United States.

Proposal Ocmulgee Mounds National Park and Preserve is also part of the original homeland of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, whose citizens were forcibly removed and forced to march more than 1,000 miles to Oklahoma. Today, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is the fourth largest tribe in the country, with over 94,000 citizens. Many return to Ocmulgee for pilgrimages or homecomings each year, including their current leader David Hill.

“We can honor these sacred lands with the highest park designation in the country,” says Seth Clark, executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative (ONPPI) and acting mayor of Macon- Bibb. “The forced displacement of people who lived here is one of our original sins. This park is, in part, an act of atonement. The voice of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been absent from conservation in the South for generations. This partnership is an opportunity to finally do things right.

Ocmulgee is as important to this country as Yosemite or Yellowstone, Clark says. It is home to 17,000 years of continuous human history. From 900 to 1100, the first inhabitants of this region maintained a flourishing civilization. The mounds were hand-built sacred sites; the Muscogee people carried at least 10 million baskets filled with dirt and clay to build the sacred mounds. The mounds are surrounded by thousands of other cultural sites that remain largely unprotected.

Ocmulgee was designated a national monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, but only 700 acres were protected. In 2019, Ocmulgee was promoted to National Historic Park status. Earlier this year, ONPPI and its partners acquired new land for the park, more than doubling its size to 1,700 acres.

Now advocates and community leaders are aiming for full national park status and expanding the park to 70,000 acres. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has joined in all efforts since the beginning of the park establishment process and aims to have an equal voice with all partners in the co-management of the final park. The Muscogee Nation has also purchased over 100 acres of land adjacent to the current site which may soon become part of the national park.

“A lot of healing is happening here,” says Tracie Revis, Muscogee citizen and advocacy director for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative. Revis was Chief of Staff to the Senior Chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Hill Nation in Oklahoma. Last year, with Chief Hill’s blessing, she made the difficult decision to move from Oklahoma to central Georgia to focus all of her efforts on Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve.

“It’s an exciting time for us. At Ocmulgee, it won’t just be the park service talking about artifacts. We’re telling our story.”

The National Park Service is expected to complete its three-year feasibility study soon. Georgia congressional leaders have previously expressed support for the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve. Clark hopes Georgia congressional leaders will introduce a bill this spring.

“Now is our time,” Revis says. “There has never been a better time for this to happen.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and National Park Service Director Chuck Sams are Native Americans who have expressed support for the protection of Indigenous lands. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation already has a strong connection to the park. Ocmulgee also enjoys broad support from local leaders and the Macon community. Even nearby Robins Air Force Base supports the park.

The Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve would be unique: it would consist of a 70,000-acre patchwork along the Ocmulgee River that would be co-managed by multiple agencies and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Other national parks have consulted and included Native Americans as co-managers, but never has a park east of the Mississippi been co-created by a Native American nation or tribe. Ocmulgee would be the first park in the East – and one of the only parks in the country – to be co-created and co-managed by indigenous peoples.

Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve would include the Bond Swamp, a biological hotspot that is home to endangered species and a rare population of black bears in central Georgia. The 70,000 acre patchwork of land would also protect the Ocmulgee River Corridor and some of the South’s best hunting and fishing spots. Its dual designation of national park and reserve would allow hunting to continue, which is not generally permitted in national parks.

Ocmulgee will ultimately be a hub for hundreds of miles of cultural and recreational trails across central Georgia and could eventually connect Ocmulgee to the Altamaha River Corridor and public lands along Georgia’s Coastal Plain, providing ecological connectivity. and vital wildlife.

Plans for Ocmulgee also include a Muscogee Creek Cultural Center which will be owned and operated by the Muscogee people. It will celebrate the traditions, dances and songs that Muscogee survivors have kept alive for centuries.

Revis remembers hearing songs at funerals and a song her grandmother used to sing to her. These are songs that were sung by his ancestors on the Trail of Tears. More than 15,000 Aboriginal people died along the way. But the survivors held on.

“We haven’t ceased to exist,” says Revis. “We have not been erased. We are survivors, and it’s a new day for us,” says Revis. “We’re going home.”

Experience it for yourself

Ocmulgee Mounds is already a National Historic Park open to the public. Every September, the park hosts an Ocmulgee Indian celebration. In 2022, the 30th Annual Ocmulgee Indian Celebration will take place on September 17-18 and will include music, dance, crafts, educational programs and storytelling.

Cover photo: The sacred mounds were hand-built by the Muscogee people out of dirt and clay. photo courtesy of Open Space Institute and Mac Stone Photography

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