Ellijay, Georgia area now has more indigenous Americans than ever
Conversations with Indigenous American immigrants in the Georgia Mountains.
In one of the ironies of our times, many counties in the highlands of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee now have more indigenous Americans than they ever did before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. Of course, most of these indigenous Americans are immigrants from Latin American countries or their first generation children, but they carry more indigenous DNA than typical federally-recognized tribal members in the USA.
The impact is most visible in rural areas such in Gilmer County, where Ellijay is located. Gilmer’s economy is absolutely dependent on indigenous American laborers, who work in the apple and poultry industry. There are currently over 3,000 permanent Latin American residents in the county . . . representing about 12% of the population. Another 1,000 or so Latinos arrive during harvest season.
Over the past 20 years as Dixie’s Latin American population skyrocketed, one of my favorite past times has been to be “nice” to our new neighbors. It is my way of “giving back” for the extreme hospitality and acceptance that the people of Mexico and Guatemala showed me on my four journeys down there. One learns surprising information when you talk to these people. Few Gringos do . . . except to give them work assignments.
Eduardo (photo above) originally from the State of Michoacan, was stunned last autumn when I walked up to him in a Gilmer County orchard and criticized his University of Georgia baseball cap in Spanish. I told him that on my next apple-picking visit to the orchard, I would bring him a Georgia Tech baseball cap. He was really scared at first . . . thinking that I must be a federal law enforcement officer or a local neo-Nazi. No Gringo had ever spoken to him in Spanish before . . . except employees of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
He had to keep on working while we talked, but relaxed considerably when I described my hiking and bus journeys through Michoacan. I had actually been in the small town where he grew up. Initially, Eduardo would not admit that he was Indio. In Mexico, American Indians are considered the bottom of the societal barrel. However, when I began describing the cultural achievements of the Purepeche Civilization, he finally admitted being Purepeche and being able to speak their language fluently. His children are in the Gilmer County Middle School and Gilmer County Elementary.
Eduardo said that he initially began doing farm work seasonally in Arizona and hated it. However, his family needed the money because his father had died. He then worked construction in Texas, but hated it because the summers were so hot and the land was flat. Michoacan looks like the Southern Appalachians and even gets some snow in the winter. When Eduardo heard about a place like home, where the whites did not mistreat you, he took a bus to Ellijay and soon gained permanent residence. I don’t think he is a full citizen. Probably, his limited knowledge of English is the problem. He speaks English better than I speak Spanish, though. LOL
The Mayas in Georgia
In the summer of 2006, while I was doing research on the archaeological sites at Carters Lake, I noticed that MANY Central American Indians, mostly Mayas, spent their Sunday afternoons there . . . picnicking and playing traditional Central American music. Many of their car tags said “Gilmer County.” Local Gringos were horrified at the sight of sub-humans hanging around the picnic shelters and singing foreign songs at THEIR lake, but local deputies told them that no laws were being broken, when people sing songs in Spanish and Maya.
Having been treated especially kindly by the Mayas . . . several families tried to get me to marry their daughters . . . I wanted these newcomers to know that all people in the mountains were not jackasses. I carefully rehearsed a few Guatemalan Maya words.
The next Sunday afternoon, I brought along a Mexican-American lady friend, who worked at the Latino newspaper in Atlanta. We walked up to them and I said in Maya, “Hello . . . How are you? . . . Welcome to our beautiful mountains.”
You would have thought that an extraterrestrial had just stepped out of his flying saucer and spoken to them. They understood me, but apparently the impossibility of a Gringo speaking Maya left them with the conclusion that I was Kukulkan, an angel or minor Maya deity.
They never ceased being freaked out, but my lady friend explained to them in Spanish that they were on a Creek Indian sacred site . . . that the Creek Indians were part Maya . . . and that the Creek Indians were honored that Maya families would want to spend their weekends here.
The Maya families were so freaked out by the experience, there was no chance of us joining in for the festivities, so we walked away.
Second generation Indigenous Americans
Last Saturday, I chatted with Jorge and Pilar, while they were sight-seeing on bicycles along my country lane. They spoke perfect English with very little accent. I noticed that they were wearing tee-shirts from an apple farm store in eastern Gilmer County and guessed right that they worked there during summer vacation from school. They didn’t say if they were “a couple” or just on a casual date. They are Kennesaw University students, but grew up in Gilmer County. Both love the Appalachian Mountains, but have no intentions of moving back to Gilmer County after college. Their preference now is to either live in a Latino area of Atlanta or better still, in Gainesville, which is over 1/2 Latino and near the mountains. They didn’t want me to take their photo, but didn’t say why.
Neither one remembers anything, but living in Ellijay. Both made it clear to me that they were United States citizens, because their parents were citizens. As legal residents, both students are getting their tuition paid by the Hope Scholarship Program from the State of Georgia. This is a sore subject now at Kennesaw because the Trump Administration is trying to deport a young lady at Kennesaw University, who was brought into the United States illegally as a newborn baby. She has no family in Mexico and speaks minimal Spanish.
Jorge’s family are Huastecs from the State of Tamaulipas. His mother knows how to speak Huasteca, but he doesn’t. He does not like going back to Mexico to visit relatives. He said that their home town is dirty, poor, uneducated and in terror of the drug cartels. He obviously resented even being considered a Mexican-American. Jorge insists that his friends at school call him George.
Pilar was born in a town in Michoacan that I love . . . Patzcuaro. However, she remembers little about it. She is very proud to be Purepeche and was wearing Native American jewelry. She was much more interested in the research I do than Jorge. She said that after graduation from Kennesaw State in Education, she would like to spend enough time in Michoacan to become fluent in Purepeche. She added that she would love to become an archaeologist, but her family did not have the money to put her through graduate school.
Pilar told me something interesting. She said that there are actually three Latin American communities in North Georgia, who have little to do with each other. The laborers in the poultry industry are often from Central America. They only work and socialize with other Central Americans and so typically know very little English.
The apple industry workers are mostly Mexican-Americans and have been in Georgia a long time. They have developed friendships with the white farmers and learned rudimentary English. The United States born generation is actually intermarrying with working class whites. They have been mountaineers for thousands of years and have no intention of leaving the Georgia Mountains.
Long time Latin American residents, who have become US citizens form a third clique. They are plant managers and foremen or else have started their own businesses. Some are even professionals, such as teachers and doctors. They mingle with the Gringos and try to be as “Americanized” as possible. They do not want to live near large concentrations of Latin Americans.
I told her that the exactly same thing happened to the Creek People of Georgia. I don’t know, if she understood what I meant. Maybe someday she will get that anthropology degree. Multi-cultural people like her are badly needed in the Southeast’s universities.
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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history.Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.
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