By Adele Moss
How do we balance multiple needs for land use, when those needs reflect radically different values? While the United States recognizes the importance of preserving historic places, that often excludes sites of Indigenous history. The Ocmulgee Old Fields, outside Macon, Georgia, is an example of an endangered historic site, which has suffered from highway construction since the 1960s. Although certain organizations have sought protection for the Ocmulgee Old Fields as a “sacred” site, the Muscogee people, whose ancestors built the mounds, do not refer to it as a spiritual center. Their perspective is neither vocal nor readily accessible, yet they have fought for the land as a historically important site. As a Christian nation and historic member of the “Five Civilized Tribes,” the Muscogee view of the Ocmulgee Old Fields does not reflect a spiritual cosmology that separates them from the Macon politicians and construction companies. Instead, the Ocmulgee Old Fields represent a dichotomy of perspective, which is at its core, an issue or respect. Simply put, the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) does not respect the need for preservation of Muscogee history and its crucial archeological center.
The Ocmulgee Old Fields stands as a record of human habitation in the region as far back as 17,000 years ago. The current structures, large earthen mounds, served as ceremonial centers, temples, homes and earthlodges, which were built between 900 and 1150 CE (“Ocmulgee National Monument – History & Culture (U.S. National Park Service)”). Although the Muscogee had lost most of their land by 1805, they held the Old Fields as a camp and trading center until they were forcibly removed to Oklahoma in the 1820s and 30s. During the 19th century, railroad lines cut through the Old Fields, until congress deemed two thousand acres of the Old Fields a National Monument. No funds were given for the project, and today the monument encompasses only 702 acres (Corbin).
In 2002 GDOT proposed routing the Fall Line Freeway between the Macon Plateau and Lamar Village sections of the Ocmulgee Old Fields. The Fall Line Freeway, nearly completed, will connect Columbus to Augusta, and Macon politicians are hoping it will run through their city as well. Macon was once a thriving business center, but construction of interstates 75 and 16 drew industry away from the city (Quinn). A connection to the Fall Line Freeway could allow for greater mobility and increased access to jobs for Macon citizens (Quinn). However, according to the National Trust for Preservation, who are campaigning to protect the Old Fields, “the roadway’s primary beneficiary would be the military” because it would “facilitate travel between Fort Benning near Columbus, Robins Air Force Base south of Macon (at Warner Robins) and Fort Gordon near Augusta” (“America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places: Ocmulgee Old Fields Traditional Cultural Property”). Regardless of the highway’s intended beneficiary, there seems to be a general attitude that pits progress and expansion against maintenance of Indigenous lands. Former Bibb County Commission chairman advocated the highway’s construction during his tenure in office, saying, “If our forefathers hadn’t looked to the future and blazed a way to the west, with railroads and roads and interstates, Lord have mercy, we would have had a mess today” (Quinn). Muscogee elders on the other hand, visited the land in the 1990s to assess the situation, and felt that another route could serve the Macon community equally well.
Today, highway construction has come to a standstill around Macon, and the controversy continues. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert asked GDOT to change the route, showing that some Macon politicians want to preserve the Old Fields (“America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places: Ocmulgee Old Fields Traditional Cultural Property”). Local media however, spins the situation in a very different light, tacitly framing the Old Fields as a nuisance in the way of progress. In an October, 2011 article about the Fall Line Freeway, Macon.com reported that there “were concerns from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation based in Oklahoma that didn’t want the Fall Line Freeway path near the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds in east Macon” (Associated Press). Macon.com emphasizes that the Muscogee live in Oklahoma, rather than explaining their historic ties to the Macon region. In doing this, the website seeks to frame them as meddling outsiders. The article also says that the highway will run “near” the mounds, opposed to “through” the mounds. Three days earlier, a Georgia Public Broadcasting article stated, “Another small stretch of road in Macon is still unfinished because it was slated to go through environmentally sensitive land near the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds” (Bennett). Again, the local press says the road will go “near” the mounds. Here there is no mention of the Muscogee people or the historical significance of the site. Instead, they mask it as a purely environmental issue.
The Muscogee reaction to highway threats against the Ocmulgee Old Fields is not nearly as vocal as the perspective of the highway proponents. Although numerous conservation organizations frame this as an issue of sacred land and sacrilegious desecration, the Muscogee do not see it that way. The nation’s official website does not mention the controversy over the Old Fields, but does convey a strong tie to the site through imagery and an explanation of their history. The website’s banner is a picture of the Old Fields, and the building that houses the National Council Offices and Judicial Offices at the Tribal headquarters is a modern day interpretation of an earth-mound structure. When examining the Muscogee’s view of their own history, it becomes clear that as a Christianized nation no longer engaged in indigenous religion, the mounds serve as icons of the great civilization from which they descend. Their website states, “The Muscogee (Creek) people are descendents of a remarkable culture that, before 1500 AD, spanned all the region known today as the Southeastern United States. Early ancestors of the Muscogee constructed magnificent earthen pyramids along the rivers of this region as part of their elaborate ceremonial complexes” (“Muscogee (Creek) Nation History”). Through such statements, it is clear that preservation of the mounds equates to preservation of a proud history, rather than the reclamation of a religious center. “As a culturally distinct people the Muscogee are also aware of the necessity for knowing and understanding their extraordinary historical and cultural inheritance” (“Muscogee (Creek) Nation History”).
The phenomenon of calling the Ocmulgee Old Fields a “sacred site” is historically accurate in that the mounds originally functioned as ceremonial centers, however it ignores the modern day reality of the Muscogee. The Muscogee were among the five tribes that the American government attempted to “civilize,” meaning they established private property laws, built Western homes, converted to Christianity and owned slaves. In addition to the ways in which the Muscogee were forcibly assimilated into American culture, they were also removed from their ancestral homeland. It is therefore no surprise that the Muscogee view the Old Fields as a place of lineage and legacy, rather than a spiritual center. In several studies recently conducted on Muscogee views of death and the afterlife, there is no acknowledgement of the Old Field tombs as important to contemporary understandings of death. The Old Fields no longer plays that role in Muscogee life. However, that is not to say that their concept of the land equates to a Western concept.
Mayor Reichert compared building a highway through Ocmulgee to building a highway through Arlington Cemetery (“America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places: Ocmulgee Old Fields Traditional Cultural Property”). This is what GDOT and other Macon politicians do not understand. Even if they recognized that for the Muscogee, the Old Fields is akin to Arlington Cemetery, there is an attitude of conquest that negates cultural sensitivity. The problem is that in our culture at large, Indigenous historical sites do not demand the same respect as American historical sites. When it comes to expansion and construction, the American government has never stopped trampling on Indigenous land
“America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places: Ocmulgee Old Fields Traditional Cultural Property.” PreservationNation Homepage – National Trust for Historic Preservation. National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <http://www.preservationnation.org>.
Associated Press. “Fall Line Freeway Work in Midstate Counties Gets $29M from GDOT.” News, Sports and Weather for Macon and Warner Robins, GA| The Telegraph & Macon.com. Macon.com, 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <http://macon.com>.
Bennett, Josephine. “Fall Line Freeway Progressing.” GPB Home. Georgia Public Broadcasting, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <http://www.gpb.org/news/2011/10/19/fall-line-freeway-progressing>.
Corbin, Amy. “Ocmulgee Old Fields.” Sacred Lands Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 1 Oct. 2001. Web. 3 Nov. 2011. <http://www.sacredland.org/ocmulgee/>.
“Muscogee (Creek) Nation History.” Themuscogeecreeknation.com. Muscogee (Creek) Nation, 2008. Web. 04 Nov. 2011. <http://www.muscogeenation-nsn.gov>.
“Ocmulgee National Monument – History & Culture (U.S. National Park Service).” U.S. National Park Service – Experience Your America. 30 Sept. 2010. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://www.nps.gov/ocmu/historyculture/index.htm>.
Quinn, Christopher. “Mounds of Controversy: Is Sacred Tribal Land in the Path of Progress?” Atlanta Journal-Constitution (April 14, 2002): IC. Print.