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Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Expected to Become Georgia’s First National Park

February 19, 2024

In 2020, Revis became the Muscogee Creek Nation’s first female chief of staff—all while battling and beating cancer three times.

Tracie Revis was angry. Not the way you’re angry when someone cuts you off in traffic or gets your latte order wrong.

She was angry like an adopted child who grew up, found her way to her birth parents’ home, and discovered that not only were they long gone, but no one in town remembered much about them. Were they Bill and Sally from Tallahassee? Tom and Jennifer from Alabama? Did it even really matter? They were “People from Before.”

“That’s how it felt,” she says, “returning to my ancestral homeland.”

Revis, 45, was born in Oklahoma to a father who was a full-blood descendent of the Muscogee Creek and Yuchi tribes. Her mother was White. Growing up on the Muscogee Creek reservation, she learned to read and speak her nation’s language. She was given the job of shaking shells at all-night stomp dances (“which are not powwows,” she says). She listened to story after story about the lives of her people back in central Georgia long ago.

They settled there during the Mississippian Period, around 900 CE. Sophisticated builders, they harvested river cane to fortify their clay homes along the Ocmulgee River (in Muscogee, Ocmulgee means bubbling waters). Decade after decade, they hauled 60-pound baskets of dirt inland to create large, flat-topped mounds for rituals and burials. The largest of these, the Great Temple Mound, was built around 1000 CE and looms nine stories tall.

When Spanish settlers arrived in 1540, the Muscogee Creeks traded with them, teaching them to hunt, fish, and trap for hides. More settlers came. By the late 17th century, the tribe had erected a bona fide town along the river to serve as a central trading post. Far and wide, the Ocmulgee River corridor became known as the capital of the Creek Confederacy, which extended across Georgia, Alabama, and North Florida.

But despite the Muscogee Creeks’s prominence, their story was virtually indistinguishable from that of other tribes along the East Coast; that is to say, the land was pulled out from under them. In 1819, surveys were drawn outlining the boundaries of what would soon become Macon—boundaries that laid within Muscogee Creek territory. Two years later, Chief William McIntosh signed the First Treaty of Indian Springs deeding all Creek land in Georgia east of the Flint River—including along the Ocmulgee—to the United States.

“It was illegal,” Revis says. “He did not have the authority to do that.”

Nevertheless, the Muscogee Creeks were moved west to areas around the Chattahoochee River; Macon was founded in 1823 on land they left behind. Eventually, the tribe was forced to walk the Trail of Tears for 10 months until they made it to Oklahoma. Today, they constitute the country’s fourth-largest federally recognized tribe, with nearly 100,000 citizens. Their capital? Okmulgee.

Two years ago, Revis traveled to Macon with a few members of her tribe. She remembers walking the grounds of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park, situated on land that used to be the hub of her ancestors’ cultural life. Now, the place is something of a relic: Turn right at a stoplight 5 minutes from downtown Macon, and you drive past a weathered 19th-century home (once part of a large plantation) that serves as a residence for park staff. Keep going, and you reach a 1951 visitors center where posters and plexiglass displays greet kids on field trips. Outside, paved paths meander around green, earthen mounds. Crickets chirp rapidly in the heat. Faded signs describe the Earth Lodge, the Cornfield Mound, the Temple Mounds. In the 1930s, this was the site of the largest archeological dig in American history, but today, most of the 2.5 million artifacts that were unearthed sit, unresearched, at the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee.

“I remember stopping people who were there and asking, ‘What do you know about the people who lived here?’” Revis says. “And they said, ‘They were Indians.’ I asked, ‘Do you know which Indians?’ ‘No, just Indians.’ My heart broke.”

During the archeological dig of the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the mounds and 700 acres surrounding them a National Monument. In 2019, the National Park Service, in coordination with the Muscogee Creeks, began expanding those boundaries to protect ancient sacred sites; the whole area is now a National Historic Park that spans more than 3,000 acres. Today, Congress is reviewing a bipartisan proposal to redesignate the land as a national park. If and when the bill is finalized and the president signs it, the boundary lines will change again. Depending on what Congress decides, it could include anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 acres, encompassing other public lands along the Ocmulgee River from Macon south to Highway 96, approximately 28 river miles.

This would not be a landmark-filled, activity-packed national park in the vein of Great Smoky Mountains or Yellowstone; its attractions would have more in common with the quiet wildlife refuges of Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley or the shaded, watery trails of Congaree, which became South Carolina’s first national park in 2003. Besides the ancient mounds, it would include wetlands, forested swamps, and public grounds for hunting white-tailed deer, wood ducks, and feral hogs. Birding would be another draw—the area is a major migratory flyway and home to 200 bird species. Its modest pedestrian and water trails would require expansions and improvements to allow more opportunities for biking, boating, and fishing for striped bass and catfish.

The park would be managed by three different groups: the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Muscogee Creek Nation. In some ways, the setup isn’t unprecedented—four other national parks are officially comanaged by Native American tribes, and many more consult with local tribes as needed. But this would be the first park comanaged by a removed Native American tribe.

Revis is proud of this superlative. “Listen,” she says, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

• • •

Revis has always had something to prove. As a kid, some people said her skin was too light. Others called it too dark. She was told she shouldn’t bother going to college “because most Indians drop out,” she recalls. Her dad had attended a government-run boarding school meant to assimilate him into American culture. Who was she to think she’d go further?

But she did go further, much further in fact, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and a law degree from the University of Kansas. In 2018, she was named gaming commissioner for the Muscogee Creek Nation; in 2020, she became the tribe’s first female chief of staff—all while battling and beating cancer three times. (“That’s another plot twist,” she says wryly.) She thought her toughest challenges were behind her, but then Muscogee Creek Principal Chief David Hill asked if she would move to Macon and advocate for Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve on behalf of the tribe.

She didn’t know anyone in Macon. She had never lived east of the Mississippi. When she thought of Ocmulgee, she thought of trauma—her ancestors’ and her own. But Hill was persuasive. “He knows how important our ancestral lands are,” she says. “He knows we protect our people in the ground by protecting and having a voice in our sites.” So, in 2022, she packed up her sedan and drove 900 miles to serve as the sole representative of a people many had forgotten in a place the entire country might soon be talking about.

Her primary role now is to work with local officials to lobby Congress for the park’s approval, as well as her tribe’s role as comanagers. “We’re extremely fortunate to have her,” says Seth Clark, Macon’s mayor pro tempore and executive director of the Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve Initiative. “Her perspective is vital.”

Like Revis, Clark considers the push to turn Ocmulgee into a national park very personal. An eighth-generation Maconite, he grew up hunting and fishing in the area’s swamps and forests, just like his father and grandfather before him. “It’s my heaven,” he says, “the place I go for peace.” He’s passionate about protecting it through redesignation so no development will ever encroach its borders. “It means that my kids and their kids and their kids can all enjoy this land exactly the way I got to.”

Should the national park be approved, Clark and Revis both say Muscogee Nation is well suited to help restore the land, which has experienced significant erosion as the result of stormwater runoff and nearby development. Clark points to the tribe’s track record of successfully managing thousands of acres of cattle ranchland in Oklahoma. Revis says her people understand the Ocmulgee’s ecology—including methods for bringing back its diminished rivercane, an important soil stabilizer. In addition, they will also be able to identify and preserve the hundreds of unprotected Muscogee sites that will likely fall inside the national park boundaries. “My goal is to foster a cultural community that knows how to help,” she says. “This will create opportunities, jobs, resources for us. But to be clear: This isn’t like, Hey everybody! Let’s move back!”

She’s still getting used to the fact she’s back. Sometimes she gets small reassurances she’s on the right track. Like walking along the river and smelling a familiar medicinal plant root her people brought with them to Oklahoma. Or taking Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, herself a Native American, on a tour of the area. “Because of erosion, some of the land has been raped down to the clay,” Revis says. Haaland leaned down, pulled out her medicine pouch, and poured some of its contents on the earth. “As we’re walking away, she says to me, ‘They’re still here. Your ancestors are still here. The land has and will bring back who it needs to restore it.’”

• • •

National parks are big business, often flipping the light switch on the communities that touch them. According to a study by the National Parks Conservation Association, Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve could inject $233 million into the region in its first 15 years. Park visitation would likely jump from 155,000 people annually to more than a million. “That’s a humongous influx,” Macon Mayor Lester Miller says.

While Macon is not the only city that would be impacted—places like Bon Aire, Calhoun, Cordele, Hawkinsville, Perry, and Warner Robins all stand to benefit—it would be the gateway city to the park’s crown jewel, the ancient mounds. “We want to be the Jackson Hole of the South,” Clark says. In other words, he wants Macon to be as closely associated with Ocmulgee as Jackson Hole is with Grand Teton.

Its proximity will help, as will its efforts to integrate Muscogee Nation into the fabric of the town. In 2023, the Muscogee Creek flag was raised above city hall. Downtown street signs will soon be written in both English and Muscogee. Each September, Macon hosts the Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration, one of the country’s largest events honoring Southeastern Native American culture.

Macon has also signified its eagerness for a national park with cash. In 2022, the city acquired 21 acres of land outside the park’s current back entrance for $14 million, with the goal of turning it into the main entryway corridor with hotels, an event space, and a tribal cultural center. It has also invested considerable resources into preparing for a massive increase in visitors, from building roads to pursuing new hotels to clearing spaces for parking lots. “This park is the number one action item on our agenda,” Miller says. “It’s just so worth it. It’s vitally important.”

He and Clark acknowledge that the park isn’t yet a done deal; it could get pushed into future legislation, then bogged down by election-cycle politics. But the time and taxpayer dollars they have spent pushing for the park were not a gamble, they insist. Rather, they were necessary steps to show Congress that their community has the means and the will to do whatever it takes to get the national park designation. “We believe that ecotourism is how middle Georgia reimagines its economy,” Clark says.

It has certainly helped Revis reimagine the land of her ancestors. “What this national park will do is truly mend this community,” she says. “For those who don’t know our stories, it will help them start learning them. For our people in Oklahoma, it lets them feel comfortable coming back and opening up and sharing their experiences and truly creating one big community. This is about more than writing policy. It’s creating a healing in this land.”