“It’s always a touching, moving feeling when you come home.” – Principle Chief David Hill
Byline: Braden Harper/Reporter
MACON, Georgia – The Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park is not an ordinary park. It holds special ties to the generations of Indigenous People that inhabited the land over several thousand years and were removed to Oklahoma. Now, it is annually visited by the modern-day Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Once again, MCN made its homecoming to celebrate the 30th Annual Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration Sept 16-18.
The event was hosted in part by MCN, Ocmulgee Mounds Association and the City of Macon. It featured cultural crafts, storytelling, educational programs, live demonstrations, music and traditional dances.
This year marked a special year for the annual celebration. After not being held for two years due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the 30th anniversary of the festival made a triumphant return. It featured a U.S. Cabinet Member as the keynote speaker, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna). Secretary Haaland’s presence was significant because she is the first Native American to hold a U.S Cabinet position. She currently holds office in the highest position of power held by a Native American.
MCN dignitaries attended opening ceremonies, including Principal Chief David Hill, Second Chief Del Beaver, Ambassador Jonodev Chaudhuri, and members of the National Council. Ceremonial Leaders from the MCN, Eastern Cherokee Band, Yuchi, and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Tribes joined to exhibit cultural dances.
U.S. Senators Raphael Warnock, Jon Ossoff, and U.S. Representative Sanford Bishop were also in attendance.
The two-day celebration began with acknowledgments, remarks and recognition. Ocmulgee Mounds Park Superintendent Carla Beasley began with a warm welcome. Although she had served as park superintendent for the past two years, this was the first year she had overseen the celebration.
“This event is critical. It demonstrates the ongoing vitality of the Indigenous Culture of this park,” Beasley said. “This is the best opportunity for our local community and visitors to see the stories preserved here in this park. They’re not locked in time but part of a historical legacy and vibrant culture.”
Macon Mayor Lester Miller was ecstatic about the celebration’s return.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been together, but it’s been a long time coming,” Mayor Miller said. “Today is about reconciliation. Reconciliation with the past, the present and what we have in store for us for the future.”
Chief Hill spoke on the event’s significance and the MCN’s ties to the Ocmulgee Mounds.
“For three decades now, tribes from all over this area have been coming to this place to celebrate and to share their unique cultures and our collective stories,” Chief Hill said. “Ocmulgee holds deep and special meaning for the Muscogee Creek Nation. According to one of our oral stories, it is a ‘place where Creeks sat down’ and is known as the cradle of the Muscogee Confederacy.”
Ocmulgee is a significant name in Muscogee Culture and History. It means “bubbling waters” and influenced the name of the current capital of the MCN, Okmulgee.
Representative Bishop remarked on Ocmulgee’s unique significance among other historical Indigenous Sites within Georgia.
“The Ocmulgee National Mounds, National Historic Park is one of the great treasures not just in our state but in our entire National Park System,” Senator Ossoff said. “In fact, there are few historic sites in the United States that have evidence of continuous human habitation from so long ago.”
“The hustle and bustle of people, the pride and Indigenous Heritage, and the cultivation of community and the special place are incredibly important in our efforts to nurture our traditions and our connections,” Secretary Haaland said. “Art and crafts are an extension of culture and traditions, and I am proud to be here in person to experience it all with you.”
Secretary Haaland thanked the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park for partnering with MCN to preserve the site. She also discussed the Biden Administration’s call to action in environmental conservation, America the Beautiful.
According to Secretary Haaland, the partnership between the MCN and Ocmulgee National Park Officials recently helped expand the park by 1,000 acres, doubling the park’s size and providing increased protections for the mounds.
“It’s the responsibility we have not only to the ancestors who lived on this land before us but also to the people who will inherit this Earth after us,” Secretary Haaland said.
Secretary Haaland toured the Okefenokee Swamp, another homeland site significant to the Muscogee Nation and other Southeastern tribes. According to Mayor Miller, after talking with Secretary Haaland, although this was her first visit to the Ocmulgee Mounds, it would not be the last time.
Exploring the Park and Breaking Bread
For the MCN, the first item on the trip’s itinerary list was a personal tour of Ocmulgee. Park Rangers diligently shared the geographical marvel and history of the mounds.
Friday evening, the MCN, Macon Leaders, and Secretary Haaland joined in a banquet hosted at Macon’s Historical Terminal Station. It allowed MCN Leaders and Tribal Members to break bread and fellowship together. An Indigenous Fashion show featuring original Indigenous Designs and Models closed out the evening.
Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative Leaders Tracie Revis and Seth Clark hosted the dinner. Revis is an MCN Citizen and previously served as MCN Chief of Staff. They spoke on the importance of preserving the unique ecosystem of the Ocmulgee River and areas.
“This land is worthy of a historical conservation, healing, and reconciliation effort. It is that conviction that has brought us here together to break bread,” Clark said.
Upon a previous mound visit, Revis said she experienced a strong connection to the structures.
“I was walking out to the earth lodge, and a familiar smell wafted into my nose,” Revis said. “It was one of the plants we still use today for our ceremonies. I always knew that we came from these lands but stepping foot on the property and smelling our medicines, I was taken aback.”
According to Chief Hill, while the Muscogee People are found in a new region of the country today, their ties to Georgia have never been forgotten.
“Although we call Oklahoma home, our spirit and connections to these lands have never left,” Chief Hill said.
Secretary Haaland exhibited a grateful appreciation for all tribal leaders that attended. She recognized the great leadership and sacrifice it takes to lead a tribe.
“I’ve run for Congress, but I don’t know if I could run for a tribal leadership position. That would be really hard,” Secretary Haaland said jokingly. “I always feel a sense of renewal when I can share a meal in the community with people who share a common purpose of leaving behind a better world for future generations.”
The event saw many Indigenous Vendors across the celebration selling various handmade cultural items. Dan Beaver (Muscogee) set up his craft booth selling handmade plates, boxes and war clubs. He was also seen sharing stories on the significance of the crafts.
Another hit at the celebration was John Brown’s canoe. Brown collaborated on the canoe with his friend Pedro Zepeda (Seminole Tribe of Florida). According to Brown, it is made out of Cyprus and took 11 days to complete.
“His whole family are canoe-makers,” Brown said. “He and I had talked about making one for years.”
Canoe-making is significant for the Muscogee (Creek) people removed from their homeland. According to Brown, it represents resilience.
“We as Muscogee People are from this area, this very side was Muscogee Creeks. This was happening then (canoe-making). This is what they did,” Brown said. “It’s just a symbol to show that the Muscogee People are still alive, we’re still here, we didn’t go away.”
The canoe will be donated to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Park for display. It was instrumental in Brown being selected for the 2022 AARP Native American Elder Award. For Brown, canoe-making is a tradition he does not want to see disappear from his tribe.
“I just want our younger people to see this and to get interested in it,” Brown said. “It’s just like our language, ways, ceremonial dances, and songs. We can’t lose that. It has meaning to me. I take it to heart.”
The Nation exhibited cultural dances and demonstrations throughout the celebration. MCN and Yuchi Ceremonial Ground Members participated in Stomp Dance. Creek and Men and Women were adorned in traditional shirts, vests, hats, and colorful ribbon skirts. The Ocmulgee Grounds were filled with the sounds of singing and shaking shells. After an initial demonstration, the stomp dance was open to anyone.
Dancers from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Tribe performed several dances, including Social, Animal, War, and Spiritual. According to ceremony leader Dan Isaac, the Muscogee People are called the “eldest brother” from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw’s creation story.
“The Muscogee came first from underground,” Isaac said. “The Creator said ‘Muscogee, come on,’ and he came out with his people.”
Issac has been dancing for most of his life. According to him, the youngest age he can remember dancing is four years old. The dances his tribe participates in all have a distinct purpose.
“Spiritual is probably more like what the Stomp Dance is for us. It’s more about prayers. With Animal Dances, we honor animals for their contributions to us, mainly as a source of food and a source of clothing, and shelter. Social is about people interacting, connecting,” Isaac said.
Isaac’s favorite part about the celebration is Stomp Dance and seeing it performed by the Muscogee People. It’s a tradition the Mississippi Band of Choctaws are trying to revive within their tribe.
“When I hear the shells shaking, it makes my spirit wake up,” Isaac said.
For Issac and the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, it is a great honor to participate as a guest in what he called “Muscogee’s homecoming.”
“The territory here is Muscogee territory. During the time of Trail of Tears, they were moved from here, but that does not mean it’s not their home,” Isaac said. “There’s no ‘was.’ It’s still their home.”
“Our stories started here.”
Even though this year marked the 30th anniversary of the park’s Indigenous Celebration, it was still an occasion that bubbled a mixture of complex emotions to the surface.
“Our bonds with our homelands have never been broken,” Chief Hill said. “As I walk these grounds and visit the sites, I feel a deep and moving spiritual connection. Our history is here. Our ancestors are here. Our stories started here. It’s always a touching, moving feeling when you come home,” Chief Hill said.
During Saturday’s opening remarks, Chief Hill shared the emotional experience of showing Secretary Haaland the original home of the Muscogee People. For Chief Hill, emotions were visibly overwhelming as it was hard for him to recount the tragic history of why the Muscogee People no longer inhabit the Ocmulgee Mounds.
“We weren’t asked to leave. We were forced to leave,” Chief Hill said.
Along Secretary Haaland’s tour, she marveled at the mounds’ rich history and culture.
“As I walked among those ancient structures, I thought about the ancestors that lived sustainably on this land,” Secretary Haaland said. “Each mound was placed with purpose and represents this continent’s first architects, soil specialists, engineers, and experts. They left those structures so we could learn from them.”
According to Secretary Haaland, as a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe, she shares a collective personal experience.
“I can similarly picture my ancestors living among the structures. I feel the presence of knowledge and sacrifice they endured to ensure I could be here today,” Secretary Haaland said.
According to Second Chief Beaver, the annual visit is not something that should be taken for granted. It’s something special that should be fully experienced.
“We have a lot of our citizens that never have made it back,” Second Chief Beaver said. “We tell them to soak in the moment to what this means.”
The event’s purpose was not just for the Indigenous Tribes from the area. It was also an opportunity for visitors to learn more about the tribes themselves.
“If you have a question, ask a question,” Second Chief Beaver said. “That’s what we’re here to do. We’re here to educate. We’re here to tell our story. If anybody’s going to tell our story, it will be us.”
Brown said he has mixed emotions everytime he comes home to the homelands.
“Our ancestors went through so much for me to stand here today,” Brown said. “If it wasn’t for what they went through and did, we may not be doing this today.”
A Familial Location
While it was not the first time visiting the park for Principal Chief Hill or Second Chief Beaver, for them, it is always an exceptional experience any chance they get to visit. For the celebration, they were both accompanied by their families.
For Second Chief Beaver, this year’s significance was astounding. Secretary Haaland’s presence brought forth a level of national recognition the celebration had not seen before.
“It’s special that we get out as a community, come back to our homelands, and just being able to be with each other,” Second Chief Beaver said. “There’s really been a major emphasis and focus on making sure that these lands are recognized as our lands.”
As the highlight of many Muscogee Gatherings, Second Chief Beaver’s favorite part about the celebration was seeing Muscogee people come together. To him, the event felt comfortably familiar.
“It’s being able to share this experience with our people,” Second Chief Beaver said. “It’s always nice where you can go to a place outside of Oklahoma, off the reservation, and you feel like home because you see people you know.”
Chief Hill agreed the Ocmulgee Mounds is a place of familial significance. Seeing the mounds is his favorite part of the experience.
“Even though we did move to a new location in Oklahoma, our heart is still here,” Chief Hill said.
Many visitors across the grounds explored and enjoyed the celebration with their families. Christine O’Meara enjoyed the celebration’s social aspects.
“My favorite part of the celebration is being outside, listening to the stories and the music and talking with people,” O’Meara said.
For Ivo Huahua, it marked his first time at the celebration, as well as Macon. He enjoyed learning about the celebration’s cultures.
“I’ve learned a lot so far walking around all these vendors and talking to them,” Hauhau said. “It feels like a regular day with the family, the vibe of just sharing with people.”
Jo Sheetz and Cameron Pennybacker were happy to see the return of the MCN after a two-year absence.
“It’s been energized in a new way with the possibility of upgrading the park system what it means for that to be co-lead. I love that it might set an international best practice standard about co-leadership, stewardship,” Pennybaker said. “I find a remarkable measure of grace from the Muscogee Nation.”
Sheetz’s favorite celebration aspect was touring the earth mound and watching the dancers. For Pennybaker, it was seeing the exuberant partnership between Georgia Leaders and the MCN.
“It seems like there are a lot of synergies and skilled leadership. Both from the Nation and Ocmulgee Heritage Group,” Pennybaker said.
Chief Hill said it’s our responsibility to protect these lands. It is a responsibility the current stewards of the land take to heart. For Park Superintendent Beasley, she had to hold back waves of emotions while describing her role as a protector of the Ocmulgee Mounds.
“It’s hard. It’s a huge responsibility. It’s not like any other park I’ve been in,” Park Superintendent Beasley said. “This is different. This is a living culture. This is somebody’s house that I’m taking care of. I’m taking care of their home.”
The Ocmulgee Mound National Park oversees the Ocmulgee Oil Fields, the Macon Reserve, and a visiting center museum. According to Superintendent Beasley, after the recent acquisition of more land to the park, it has now expanded to 1800 acres.
“They all share the same heart,” Chief Hill said. “Once you tell them and explain the history, they have been really supportive.”
According to Chief Hill, there is interest in developing a Muscogee presence in Macon.
“We’re also looking to expand as far as having an office here,” Chief Hill said. “Just having that partnership to grow, it takes everyone.”