MACON, Ga. (AP) — When Tracy Reavis climbs the Great Temple Mound, which rises nine stories above the Okmulgee River in modern-day Georgia, she is following in the footsteps of her Muscovy ancestors who were forcibly removed to Oklahoma 200 years ago.

“This is a magnificent, wonderful land. The rivers here are beautiful, Reavis said recently, looking out over the forest canopy at a distant green horizon, broken only by the Macon skyline, just across the water. “We believe that those ancestors remained here, their songs remained, their words remained, their tears remained. And that’s why we talk to them. You know, we still honor those who have passed away.”

If approved by Congress after a three-year federal review that ends this fall, the Macon Mounds would serve as the gateway to the new Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve, protecting 54 river miles of floodplain that are home to nearly 900 other cultural and historic sites. value have been determined.

The effort to expand an existing historic park at the mound site is in line with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s “Tribal Homeland Initiative,” which supports fundraising for land purchases and requires federal managers to seek indigenous knowledge about resources.

“This type of land acquisition represents the best of what our conservation efforts should look like: collaborative, inclusive, locally driven and in support of the priorities of our nation’s tribal peoples,” Haaland said at the 30th annual Okmulgee Indigenous Celebration last weekend. .

Ailey Phillips, 18, chases after her brother Noah, 19, and his raccoon tail hat as part of their traditional raccoon dance Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Macon, Georgia. The teenagers are members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and performed at the 30th annual Okmulgee Native American Celebration at the Okmulgee Mounds. (AP Photo/Michael Warren)AP

In an era when some cultural advocates see government as the enemy, years of coalition building have eliminated any significant opposition to federal rule in the long-red state’s staunch Republican heartland. Hunting will still be allowed, even encouraged, to prevent feral pigs from destroying the ecosystem. A delegation from the Georgia Congress is present and the Muskogee (Creek) Nation is welcomed as an important partner.

“Our voice, our opinion, has been heard in this whole process for some time now,” said Reavis, a Muskogee and Yuchie lawyer who moved to Georgia this year to join Seth Clark, the mayor of Macon, in advocating the National Park Service’s primary authority over the heartland of her people’s ancestors, which once stretched across Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Alabama.

Combining state and federal lands could help attract a million visitors each year, spending a combined $187 million on hiking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, and learning about Native American history, and generating $30 million in tax revenue, keeping another 3,000 jobs places, the economic impact study showed.

“It’s been a game changer for this region,” Clark said. “Rethinking our economic viability through an ecotourism experience is something that I just think is huge for this community.”

The Muscogee have their say in a national park plan for Georgia

The landscape is seen from the top of the Great Temple Mound, a nine-story earthen structure that gave Native Americans a 360-degree view of their territory before they were forcibly removed in the 1820s, in Macon, Georgia, on August 22, 2022. (AP Photo /Sharon Johnson),AP

Gliding along the surface of the Okmulgee, kayakers see nothing but forests and wildlife, interrupted by the occasional bridge. Few people know that 14 more unexplored and vulnerable ceremonial mounds rise near the marshes.

Plans call for leaving as much of the wilderness intact as possible, as well as building trails and ramps. No land will be taken by eminent domain. Instead, park service oversight would help raise money to expand boundaries and increase public hunting areas by purchasing private wetlands from willing sellers.

The tribal government in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, also bought 130 acres (52.6 hectares) of bottomland to be surrounded by the park. Chief executive David Hill said there are no plans for development – they want it preserved so their 97,000 citizens will always have their place in the cradle of their culture.

“Our story is here. Our ancestors are here. This is where our stories began. And we are committed to ensuring that this cherished place is protected,” Hill said.

People from the Moscow region say the story is filled with trauma, but they are also proud of how they are now thriving after surviving the Road of Misfortunes, their phrase for the Trail of Tears. A forced march ordered by Congress removed 80,000 Native Americans from the eastern United States. Many died of disease, starvation, or abuse when the federal government broke its promises to care for them in exchange for their lands.

White settlers made their lives unbearable through relentless “expulsion or extermination” campaigns in the 1820s and 1830s. And once the Muscogees, Seminoles, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and other natives left the Deep South, they were replaced by hundreds of thousands of slaves, whom northern owners sold down the rivers to clear the land of cotton.

Settlers kept toponyms without knowing what they mean in their native languages.

Desecrations soon followed at Okmulgee Mounds, the spiritual, legislative, and economic center of the Creek Confederacy. The old trees were cut down for a slave labor camp. A huge burial mound was blown up for the railroad to carry cotton. The prongs of the Civil War later cut his fields.

About 700 acres (283 hectares) surrounding the seven mounds were designated a national monument in 1936. But that didn’t stop archaeologists from removing 2.5 million artifacts that reflect 17,000 years of continuous human habitation. Most remain unexplored in Smithsonian, Park Service, and university archives.

For decades, the park was advertised with postcards featuring a naked skeleton. It turned out to be the skull of one person and the bones of another, said Raelyn Butler, the tribe’s manager of historic and cultural preservation. “They didn’t treat us like human beings,” she said.

Facts about the genocide and survival began to emerge 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 have to change the narrative,” Revis said.

Twenty years of painstaking cooperation allowed the tribal nation to reunite and rebury the remains of 114 people in the burial mounds in 2017. And in February of this year, the adjacent 1,000 acres (404 hectares) of sacred land were protected, purchased by the federal Land and Water Conservation Service at no cost to taxpayers, Haaland said. Expansion of this park and preserve could protect another 85,000 acres (34,400 hectares) downstream.

“We get asked all the time, ‘It’s such a beautiful place, why did you all leave?’ We weren’t asked – we were forced,” Hill said. “And this is what we want to prevent in the future – what we do now is for our future generations. I don’t want them to go through that. So Oklahoma is home, but it’s still our original home.”

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