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Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Macon Community News

The Macon Newsroom

Oklahoma visit strengthens ties with Muscogee (Creek) Nation

Macon-Bibb delegation visits Okmulgee and Tulsa to foster relationships and cultural understanding ahead of National Park designation
Macon Magazine
More than 50 Macon-Bibb County leaders pose in front of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation’s Council Oak Tree in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the tribe first settled after The Trail of Tears relocated them from the South.

Learning about the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s days east of the Mississippi River is as easy as taking a trip to the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park in east Macon, but traveling to Okmulgee, Oklahoma, tells the rest of the story.

More than two centuries after the Native Americans were forced to leave their homelands, Visit Macon and NewTown Macon organized a recent Intercity Tour to Tulsa designed for local leaders to have a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enrich our perspective on history, culture and the vital importance of preserving and celebrating our shared heritage.”

As the Muscogee (Creek) Nation tour bus pulled up to the River Spirit Casino, a smiling Principal Chief David Hill was waving to his guests. He greeted all of them with a warm handshake as they stepped off the bus.

In each guest room, a welcoming letter stamped with the gold seal of the Nation awaited.

“Our reconnection to our ancestral homelands and the partnership we have forged with the City of Macon has become a priority in our administration, and a point of progress for our Nation. We thank you so much for the eagerness to collaborate and for joining us in taking care of the true Muscogee story of the Southeast.”

Telling the truth about their history is a priority for Hill, who recently was re-elected to a second term along with Second Chief Del Beaver.

Hill’s former chief of staff Tracie Revis, Director of Advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative, helped the Macon visitors trace her tribe’s timeline of triumphs and troubles.

Two years before Macon was founded, the 1821 Treaty of Indian Springs removed the Indigenous people from Georgia to the Alabama border. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 pushed the tribes farther out west.

In 1834, the Creeks took the smoldering coals of their sacred fire carried from the East and established their village around a towering oak tree overlooking the Arkansas River, which is considered the birthplace of Tulsa. They named it Talasi, which means “old town,” the same as their prior home now known as Tallahassee, and eventually morphed into Tulsa.

Muskogee (Creek) Nation Acting Secretary of Culture and Humanities RaeLynn Butler, right, greets Tracie Revis, the Director of Advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative, during the recent Ocmulgee to Okmulgee tour. (Liz Fabian)

The first stop for the tour after landing in Tulsa, was the Council Oak Tree which withstood the centuries through the care of the Nation and now the stewardship of the City of Tulsa. It is still standing after 100 mph winds and urban encroachment that almost resulted in it being cut down for a parking lot.

Muscugee (Creek) Nation Acting Secretary of Culture and Humanities, RaeLynn Butler, explained that the public park still hosts an annual Council Oak Tree Ceremony with tribal leaders.

“To recognize them and honor them for continuing to carry on our culture and our language and our way of life. Because despite 300 years of assimilation and living in a modernized world, we’re lucky to still have our culture and our language,” Butler said. “We’re also very thankful for our traditional, humble people who live very basic lives to maintain our way of life and teach our children and teach the next generation to continue this.”

Beyond the Trail of Tears

The reservation, which includes the cities of Tulsa, Okmulgee and Muskogee, is 3.2 million acres and nearly 4,900 square miles. The Nation provides free healthcare and schooling to its more than 100,000 citizens, about half of which live within the reservation which looks like any other modern community. There are no gates or fences or signs saying you’re entering the reservation.

The Muscogee Creeks continue to struggle for sovereignty within the state government, but received a legal boost from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020. The McGirt decision ruled that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation was not invalidated by Oklahoma becoming a state in 1907.

The Macon-Bibb delegation visits the 1878 Creek Nation Council House in downtown Okmulgee, Oklahoma, during the 2023 Ocmulgee to Okmulgee Tour. (Liz Fabian)

Long before there was Oklahoma, the Muscogee Creeks founded the town of Okmulgee in 1868 and built their Council House as the seat of government where the two legislative branches met.

In 1878, they had outgrown the two-story log cabin and replaced it with the stone building that still stands today.

There, the Macon group learned that the Nation’s struggle for control of their land did not end with the Trail of Tears, for they were forced to vacate the Council House in 1907 to serve as the courthouse for the non-native government of Okmulgee. In 1919, the Nation was paid $100,000 for the building but purchased it back for $3.2 million in 2010.

Five years ago, it was fully restored to reflect the tribe’s early governing years in Oklahoma from 1868 to 1907 when their legislative bodies, the House of Kings and the House of Warriors, passed laws.

The two Muskogee (Creek) houses or government were organized in a similar representative structure to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. The House of Kings gets one representative per tribal town and the House of Warriors has a representative from each tribal town with additional legislators added for every 200 citizens.

Just as Native Americans gathered from across the region at the Earth Lodge on the shores of the Ocmulgee River for centuries, Okmulgee’s Council House was the center of regional government.

The native word “mulga” means “where we come together,” Butler said.

“That’s how important Macon is because that’s where all the towns would come together and meet, and what a beautiful place to meet, right? The same reason you all enjoy living there is the same reason we lived there and called that home,” said Butler, who has traveled Macon to visit her ancestral homeland.

The 2023 Ocmulgee to Okmulgee Tour traveled on a chartered jet from Middle Georgia Regional Airport to Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Liz Fabian)

Unlike her 8-hour trips on two planes with a layover, the Macon group traveled on a direct chartered flight out of Middle Georgia Regional Airport, where the airport identifier is MCN, which coincidentally is also the abbreviation for Muskogee (Creek) Nation.

As Macon-Bibb County expands the runway and builds new airport facilities, a regular flight between Macon and Tulsa could be possible in the future.

When recently approving $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to subsidize passenger airline service out of Macon, Mayor Lester Miller mentioned Tulsa as a possible route considering the synergy between the communities.

Ryan Logan, the Nation’s director of marketing and tourism, said it’s important to keep the conversations going and strengthen the Ocmulgee to Okmulgee connection and encourage tourists to visit both communities.

“So, it’s so wonderful to have this partnership continuing to grow. Sharing these ideas, fostering this relationship to where we can share things back and forth and really connect us, so it’s been a huge blessing,” Logan said.

During the Macon visit, the Council House was hosting a photography exhibit of the Ocmulgee Mounds.

National Park update

The partnership between the cities would only strengthen if the Ocmulgee Mounds become a national park.

Under the current proposal, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation would co-manage the park and have a say in how their ancestral lands will be treated.

At October’s Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority meeting, Macon Water Authority Chairman Gary Bechtel, left, asks Mayor Pro Tem Seth Clark about regulations governing national parks. (Liz Fabian)

During October’s Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Seth Clark, who is executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park & Preserve Initiative, gave an update on the progress of the legislation before Congress.

Clark missed the first two days of the Oklahoma tour to go to Washington,D.C., to visit with congressional leaders and the White House.

“Everybody was very responsive and very excited to make sure that everybody was communicating,” Clark told the authority.

With unusual bipartisan support, he believes passage is “definitely doable” within the 118th Congress that ends in January of 2025.

Clark said under current projections looking 15 years after achieving national park status, he expects to generate economic growth of $203 million annually, have 2,800 jobs created and bring in $30 million in tax revenue.

“This is legitimately, if we can pull this off, one of the more stabilizing factors in the overall economy,” Clark said.

The expansion would encompass between 20,000-30,000 acres including about 2,800 acres at Ocmulgee Mounds, 6,500 acres of Bond’s Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and about 10,000 more acres stretching down to Ga. 96 and expanding into the floodplain toward Robins Air Force Base and the refuge.

Although the original 2019 park study mapped out land all the way down to Hawkinsville, Clark said the Georgia Department of Natural Resources sent a letter to Congress asking that their management areas not be part of the park, which cut the proposed park in half.

ONPPI has put an option on 1,000 acres for hunting and fishing and will be looking to buy up more from willing sellers, he said.

“If you can hunt in it now, or it was set aside to be able to hunt and fish in it now, you’ll be able to hunt and fish in it afterward,” Clark said.

The plan elevates the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to be a co-manager of the park’s cultural assets.

Growing together

The Nation has seen incredible growth in the four years under Chief Hill, Revis said.

“We had not built a building in 10 years prior to his administration. And since then… I think we’re going on 12 or 13 buildings,” Revis said.

They are working on an outlet mall and other tourism-related businesses across the Arkansas River from their main casino.

The majority of the Nation’s $1.7 billion annual budget, about 90% of revenue, comes from gaming, she said, but they are diversifying.

The Muscogee Creeks’ Looped Square Ranch hosted a brisket lunch for the 2023 Ocmulgee to Okmulgee Tour in Oklahoma in September. (Liz Fabian)

The Nation purchased a more than 5,500-acre ranch and has about 750 heads of cattle that are processed in their own meat-packing plant. Barbecue brisket, served with traditional fry bread and grape dumplings provided lunch for the tour at the Looped Square Ranch.

Revis said the tribe’s recipe dates back to the days of cooking muscadine grapes in Georgia, but Welch’s grape juice is a sweeter substitution in their new land.

The Nation would like to expand the River Spirit Casino and build another tower to add more rooms to the current 483-room hotel.

At the opening reception for the Macon-Bibb tour, Chief Hill expressed a desire to expand their gaming operations in Georgia.

“Maybe we can build something like this in Macon, but we’ll see where it goes from here,” Hill said.

This year began with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation flag being raised in front of Macon City Hall and plans are in the works to add plaques to commemorate the ceremony and display the city’s land acknowledgement recognizing that the current inhabitants were not the original settlers.

The chief said even tribal citizens don’t understand the history of their departure from along the banks of Ocmulgee.

“We’ve also had individuals ask us, ‘It’s such a beautiful place, why did y’all leave?’ not knowing the history. We weren’t asked to leave. We didn’t want to come,” he said. “It definitely helps when we come back to our original homeland to share our history and that’s all we want to do. And also creating that partnership with Macon. It’s been great.”

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.

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