Ocmulgee National Park and Preserve is expected to become Georgia’s first national park

It will be the first national park comanaged by a forcibly removed Native American tribe that lived on the land long ago but has not ever returned
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City leaders have joined with the exiled tribe, based in Oklahoma, in pursuit of a common goal: to welcome a national park that promises a prosperous future for them both.

Photography by Mac Stone

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.

Tracie Revis

Photography by Eley

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.

The River Trail Boardwalk at Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park

Photography by Chris Smith

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.”

The grass-covered Earth Lodge

Photography by Mac Stone

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.

The Great Temple Mound, the tallest mound in the park

Photography by Mac Stone

“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 forested swamps, public grounds, and wetlands, like the Walnut Creek Wetlands, will be other major draws for the park

Photography by Chris Smith

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?

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

Photography by Eley

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.

Ocmulgee park land

Illustration by Abby Leighton

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.”

• • •

More to Explore in Macon
Besides the potential national park, there’s a lot to see and do in the city “where soul lives.” From the historic theater where Otis Redding was discovered to the iconic former home of the Allman Brothers Band, there’s no shortage of significant musical spots to explore. Macon also lays claim to a lively culinary scene and a year-round slate of festivals, including one of the largest cherry blossom fests in the country.

Cultural Spots

Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House
In the early ’70s, members of the Allman Brothers Band lived here with their families and friends. It’s now a popular, memorabilia-filled museum.

Capricorn Sound Studios and Museum
Tour the restored music studios where the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Otis Redding III recorded.

Douglass Theatre
Founded by Charles H. Douglass, Macon’s first Black millionaire, this 1921 venue is where Otis Redding was discovered. Today, it hosts theatrical performances.

The Douglass Theatre

Photo courtesy of the Douglass Theatre

Golden Bough Bookstore
This bookseller specializes in middle Georgia authors and volumes about Southern Americana and the Civil War.

Linwood Cemetery
Dating to 1894, this cemetery serves as the final resting place of several prominent Black Maconites, including Congressman Jefferson Long, the first Black member to address the U.S. House of Representatives.

Luther Williams Field
Watch the Macon Bacon play at the country’s oldest continuously operated Minor League stadium.

Macon Little Theatre
Founded in 1934, the region’s beloved community theater is experiencing a renaissance under the artistic direction of JP Haynie, who left a stage career in New York City to return home and revive the theater.

The Little Richard House
Tour Little Richard’s humble boyhood home in the historic Pleasant Hill neighborhood.

Ocmulgee Heritage Trail
This 13-mile (and growing) trail system runs alongside the Ocmulgee River, winding around parks and historic sites and crisscrossing Ocmulgee Mounds National Historic Park.

Rose Hill Cemetery
Southern rock legend Duane Allman and 600 Civil War soldiers are buried at this 1840 hillside cemetery overlooking the Ocmulgee River.

Tubman African American Museum
The Tubman is the Southeast’s largest museum about the art, history, and culture of African Americans.

Stays

1842 Inn
Situated in a Greek Revival antebellum home, this 19-room bed-and-breakfast features a grand veranda for sipping coffee in the morning, or wine during nightly happy hours.

The 1842 Inn

Photo courtesy of the 1842 Inn

Claystone Park at Lake Tobesofkee
This campground offers full hook-up sites for RVs, plus sandy beaches, off-road bike courses, a marina, and a lakeview restaurant.

Hotel Forty Five
Named for the wedge-shaped property’s 45-degree angles (as well as the innumerable 45 rpm records that represent the city’s musical legacy), this boutique downtown hotel transformed a drab 1940s office building into a modern retreat.

The Woodward Hotel
With just nine rooms, this upscale independent inn features contactless check-in for true privacy. It’s also home to a dimly lit craft cocktail lounge.

Towaliga River Retreat
Situated on the shores of the Ocmulgee River, these rustic river cabins offer easy access to excellent fly-fishing.

Drinks

Black Cat Liquor & Libations
Hidden beneath Kinjo Kitchen & Cocktails, this 31-seat speakeasy shakes up classic cocktails in an upscale setting.

Hightales Rooftop Bar
Located on the top floor of Hotel Forty Five, the indoor-outdoor watering hole is best known for its sweeping downtown views.

Fall Line Brewing Co.
The brewery and tap room offers 24 beers on tap and a full-service menu.

Longleaf Distilling Co.
Tour this distillery, which produces everything from vodka to bourbon, then sidle up for cocktails and apps at the bar.

The Monkey’s Paw Tiki Lounge
Call ahead to make a reservation at this secret rum-focused bar above Downtown Grill.

Reboot Retrocade & Bar
Order a cocktail from the full-service bar, then play vintage arcade and pinball games.

The Society Garden
This dog-friendly beer garden and cocktail bar features live music on weekends.

Eats

Dovetail
Sourcing much of its menu from regional purveyors, this Southern fine-dining restaurant is located in a rustic-chic downtown space.

H&H
Founded in 1959, this soul-food institution is where Inez Hill and Louise Hudson fed members of the Allman Brothers Band before they hit it big.

Kinjo Kitchen + Cocktails
Asian cuisine meets comfort food at this upscale restaurant, known for dishes like a Korean fried-chicken sandwich.

The Korean fried chicken sandwich at Kinjo Kitchen + Cocktails

Photo courtesy of Kinjo Kitchen + Cocktails

Loom
This retro-chic restaurant on the ground floor of Hotel Forty Five serves Southern classics like pecan-crusted redfish.

Nu-Way Weiners
Have a seat at the stainless lunch counter and order a chili dog (or two) at this old-fashioned restaurant, which opened in 1916 and now has six Macon locations.

Pearl Passionate Cuisine and Cocktails
From coconut-curry shrimp to duck-and-sausage gumbo, the wide range of dishes at this sunny bistro are far more varied than one might expect within its intimate, European-style setting.

Yollah
This trendy eatery features a Latin-inspired menu (chorizo empanadas, stuffed poblanos) and creative cocktails.

Z Beans Cafe
Founded by a Mercer business student, this multi-location coffee bar and cafe is known for its roasted Ecuadorian beans and tasty breakfast sandwiches.

Music Venues

Capitol Theatre
Check out acts from folk artists to tribute bands at this restored 1916 theater in downtown Macon.

The Grand Opera House
When it was built in 1884, this opera house had the largest stage in the country. It’s now Mercer University’s performing arts center.

Grant’s Lounge
See jazz pianists, country crooners, and Southern rock artists perform at the historic venue where Lynyrd Skynyrd got its start.

Shops

Ingleside Village Antique Centre
Browse for furniture, rugs, lamps, and art at this cozy mainstay.

Head Over Heels
This women’s shoe boutique carries trendy heels, comfortable flats, and purses galore.

Ocmulgee Outfitters
Browse for fly-fishing equipment, try a personalized backpack fitting, and sign up for a group hike.

Previews Interiors & Antiques
Spanning 6,000 square feet, this destination home store sells vintage furniture, modern accents, and everything in between.

Sorella
Owned by a pair of local sisters, this high-end boutique carries brands like Veronica Beard and L’Agence.

Events

International Cherry Blossom Festival
Macon turns pink during this large-scale festival showcasing the city’s 350,000 Yoshino cherry trees. March 15–24, 2024

Yoshino cherry trees in Bloom in Macon

Photo courtesy of Visit Macon

King of Soul Music Festival
Otis Redding got his start in Macon, and this music festival held close to his birthday (September 9) benefits his namesake foundation. September 6–7, 2024

Pan African Festival of Georgia
Held by the Tubman Museum, this event celebrates the foods, music, dances, and storytelling of the African diaspora. April 27–28, 2024

Bragg Jam
What began as a local jam session to honor two local musicians killed in a car wreck has evolved into a city-wide music festival benefiting the Ocmulgee Heritage Trail. July 27, 2024

Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration
One of the country’s largest celebrations of Southeastern Native American culture, this Muscogee Nation–sponsored event is held on the grounds of Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park. September 2024

An indigenous dancer at the Ocmulgee Indigenous Celebration

Photo via OcmulgeeMounds.org

Coming Soon

Macon Centreplex
The former Macon Mall will soon become the world’s largest pickleball facility (tournaments begin in early 2024); it will also showcase Georgia’s second-largest outdoor amphitheater beginning this spring.

Otis Redding Center for the Arts
Opening in late 2024, this downtown youth music education center will feature an outdoor amphitheater for student performances.

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Southbound.

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