The Indigenous People of Georgia
One summer when I was in elementary school, my parents took me to see Unto These Hills, an outdoor historical drama in Cherokee, North Carolina. It tells the history of the Cherokee Nation and what became known as the Trail of Tears, when the Cherokees and many other native tribes were forcibly banished to lands west of the Mississippi in the 1830s. I thought this removal was so terribly sad and unjust. I cried and cried my own, small trail of tears back to our car.
Like most Georgia children, I grew up learning in school that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, and that as Europeans came to these shores, we were mostly nice to the Native people we found here. We needed their land, and provided them with new places to live, called reservations. Today, some individuals who identify as Native reside in Georgia, and constitute about 1.5 percent of our total population. However, we do have a rich history of proud tribes, of which most Georgians have only a passing knowledge.
Although we have no federally recognized tribes or reservations in Georgia, we do have three state recognized tribes: Cherokee of Georgia Tribal Council, Georgia Tribe for Eastern Cherokee, and Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe. A division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns has links with descriptions of the three state recognized tribes.
Numerous tribes and clans have lived on land we now call Georgia, with thousands of Native people. Through the centuries, this population dwindled through illnesses introduced by white colonizers, wars, self-removal (some Creek and other tribes fled to Florida while it was still controlled by the Spanish in an attempt to escape colonists). Then in the 1830s, the federal and state governments forced removal to the west in the Trail of Tears.
The small minority who remained either hid their ancestry, or intermarried. Jane Winkler, a member of the Beaver Creek Indians of South Carolina and a volunteer with the Cherokee of Georgia Tribal Council says that Native people residing in Georgia often would use the term Black Irish, or Black Dutch to explain their darker skin tone, and many intermarried. “Those whose families have lived in Southeast Georgia for more than 100 years most likely have American Indian ancestry in their family,” she says.
Georgia’s history reflects both accommodation and cooperation by Native people, first with white settlers, and later the state and federal governments. But there was also proud resistance, fierce battles, and determination by Native people to preserve their land and identities. This link gives a flavor of the long, complex and proud history of the Muskogee tribe, as just one example.
Remaining in Georgia after this sad history, despite such a small surviving Native population, are a surprising number of historical sites that reflect the robust and large Native population of the past. These sites are maintained primarily by state and federal agencies, or one of the tribes. The Georgia Council on American Indian Concerns has a web page with a map and descriptions of some of the sites. The largest is the Ocmulgee National Historical Park just east of Macon. The National Park Service is currently considering an expansion of this park to include an additional 100,000 acres stretching along 50 miles of the Ocmulgee River between Macon and Hawkinsville. This area was once heavily populated by a variety of Indigenous tribes through the centuries, mostly under the loose umbrella of the Muskogee Creek.
One of the major concerns of Native people today, in Georgia and nationally, is preservation of historic lands and culture, including specific sites, language, and arts. “Issues today that we care about are preservation of our culture and historic sites,” says Winkler.
There are also a range of social problems that have developed among Native people, especially those relocated to reservations in the west, including poverty, education and substance abuse. But those in Georgia who trace their ancestry to Native tribes are somewhat invisible in the civic life of this state. The recent installation of a monument to Chief Tomochichi at Atlantic Station prompted an informative opinion article about the importance of recognizing the roles of Native people in the history of this state. Authors Malinda Maynor Lowery, a citizen of the Lumbee Nation and Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, and Beth Michel, a citizen of the Tohono O’odham Nation and associate dean of admissions at Emory University, point out that Tomochichi probably relied heavily on a Creek woman, Mary Musgrove, to translate and negotiate between Tomochichi and Oglethorpe in the early 1700s.
One particularly troubling concern today is the large number of missing or murdered Indigenous women. This is happening across the nation, not only those states with large Native populations. This excellent article from Scalawag Magazine discusses the national issue, but centers on murdered women of the Lumbee Tribe in Southeast North Carolina. An organization, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, USA, has additional information.
Another concern in Georgia is the lack of civic involvement and voting. Maria McCormick, Principal Chief of the Lower Muskogee Creek Tribe developed a youth program to encourage Native people to get involved in the electoral process. “In this past election runoff we helped people get to the polls or with their absentee ballots. In rural areas, the internet is a problem and many of the elders don’t have computers or printers at home. So, the youth were able to help with things like that.” She explained that now they are seeing how they can help with redistricting and getting people registered to vote.
“It’s important that we realize that we’re like anybody else. We need to make sure that our children are well educated, we need to make sure that there’s economic development so that we can employ our children and make sure they have good medical [insurance] when they need to go to the doctor,” McCormick says. “We need to get out and vote for people who will really work for what is important to us.”
And to end this brief and incomplete glance at Native people of Georgia, here is a treat from a recent New Yorker Magazine: The poem Without by the current U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation. It includes an audio of her reading this poem.