Southeastern Indigenous Agriculture . . . Dirty Little Secrets that Your Teacher Never Told You
Native American Heritage Month
This year, our celebration of Native American Heritage Month is focusing on agriculture. We will wrap up the series with articles on self-sustaining agricultural experiments from around the Southeast. However, in doing research for this series, it became very clear that Caucasian anthropologists and historians in the late 20th century created a grossly simplistic understanding of Southeastern indigenous farming techniques . . . then moved on to other things. Unfortunately, since agriculture was so important to the very existence of Southeastern Native peoples, the academicians’ misunderstanding of our agricultural heritage taints their interpretation of everything else.
Think about it . . . all references treat the large scale cultivation of corn, beans and squash, plus the erection of massive mounds, as the litmus tests of “advanced American Indian culture.” The references then tell you than any indigenous culture that did such things had a relatively short life expectancy. Native Americans were too stupid to figure that out?
Then I read the descriptions by archaeologist Robert Wauchope of ancestral Creek towns, which lasted from around 1200 BC to the Great American Holocaust. Hm-m-m, methinks that some academicians got it wrong.
Virtually all references and museums today tell us that our ancestors mainly grew corn, beans and squash. The rest of their food was supposedly obtained by hunting and gathering. The only trade consisted of small amounts impractical “prestige items” that were only owned by powerful chiefs. Funny thing . . . the eyewitness accounts by the French Huguenots at Fort Caroline and the 16th century Spanish explorers tell us a very different story. In fact, the French said that the main cause of warfare back in the 1500s was over control of trade routes!
There is something else. Whereas virtually all oral histories in the Americas are filled with supernatural creatures, omnipotent deities and the names of demagogic rulers, not one supernatural creature or human name is mentioned in any of the Creek migration legends. Only one deity is mentioned . . . the Master of Life. The ancestors of the Creeks were clearly pragmatic, egalitarian peoples, who disdained dictators.
Then we have the discoveries of forensic botanists during the 1990s and 21st century. Southeastern Indians were domesticating and cultivating indigenous plants at least as early as 3500 BC. This process may have begun as early as 5,500 BC for members of the squash and sunflower families. Indian corn was NOT the first crop grown by Southeastern Natives.
Role of gender in Muskogean agriculture
References and anthropology text books state that only the Creek women worked in the agricultural fields. This is not entirely true. The degree of involvement by men in agriculture varied greatly among the branches of the Creek Confederacy. The variations continued into the early 1800s.
The painting above by Jacques Le Moyne portrays Sati-le women and men working in a field near the Satilla River and St. Andrews Sound. Note that the women are planting the seeds, while the men are turning up the soil. After the Spanish established bases on the South Atlantic Coast, the Sati-le moved westward, eventually settling on both sides of the Chattahoochee River near Eufaula, AL and joining the Creek Confederacy. The original Sati-le town of Ufaula, was located on the Upper Satilla River in Southeast Georgia.
For obvious reasons, men and boys did most of the back-breaking work of clearing fields out of forested lands. Bushes, vines and the smaller trees were removed and stacked outright. The bark was peeled from the larger trees so that they would eventually die and produce firewood. The origin of the Creek word for a farm, chopopa (Itsate) and chopofa (Muskogee) is the verb, meaning to peel bark from trees. When the dead vegetation was sufficiently dry, it was burned. The resultant ashes and charcoal made the soil more alkaline and fertile.
Unlike the Sati-le, in most branches of the Creeks, only men planted seeds. There was obvious sexual symbolism in this tradition. In many branches of the Creeks, men helped with the harvest . . . at least with carrying the produce back to the village or town. In those branches of the Creeks with the most recent ties to Mesoamerica . . . the Kusate, Itsate, Tamaule and Kolima . . . the men worked beside the women in the fields throughout the growing season. Benjamin Hawkins, the US Agent to the Southeastern Indians, stated that the Kusate (Cusseta) had by far the most productive agricultural fields, because of the involvement of men.
If there is any events in my career that can be described as “the big turning points”, it would be receipt of a big box of photocopied Spanish Colonial archives from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2007; Marilyn Rae’s discovery of Charles de Rochefort’s book on 17th century Georgia in 2013; reading Robert Wauchope’s Archaeological Survey of Northern Georgia in 2015 and discovering the lost Creek migration legends in 2015. The little known Spanish archives were sent to me because the archaeologists at the AMNH wanted to be certain that my architectural drawings of Mission Santa Catalina de Guale were accurate. However, they actually opened up a window to a forgotten world that I never knew existed. In each of these paradigms, I came to realize that what was being taught our students in books and classrooms about the past were simplistic facts, mixed with Eurocentric mythology and really dumb speculations made by North American scholars.
The eyewitness accounts in 16th century French and Spanish archives specifically placed Fort Caroline eleven miles inland on the south side of the Altamaha River and the original location of St. Augustine between September 1565 and March 1566 on a peninsula jutting into St. Andrews Sound in Georgia. Both the French and Spanish provided latitudes and longitudes. Nevertheless, the St. Johns River was impassible to all ocean-going vessels until the late 1850s and the larger Spanish galleons could not even enter St. Augustine Bay in Florida. How in the world did Southeastern historians get conned into today’s version of the Fort Caroline and St. Augustine story?
The French and Spanish descriptions of indigenous agriculture on the South Atlantic Coast also provide absolute proof that your history teachers didn’t tell you the whole story. The farthest south that corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and sunflowers could be cultivated on a large scale along the South Atlantic Coast was St. Andrews Sound, Georgia. There was something missing from the soil or in the soil from there southward, which caused these crops to be stunted or not grow at all.
Fort Caroline artist, Jacques Le Moyne, sketched and painted Natives near Fort Caroline, growing large crops of corn and squashes. The 17th century journals of Spanish Franciscan friars at missions near the mouth of the Altamaha River, stated that Spanish authorities forced the mission Indians there to grow large crops of corn and squashes to feed the lazy Spaniards in St. Augustine, because the mission Indians in what is today eastern Florida could not even produce enough vegetables and grains to feed themselves from the soils in that region. That is the proof of where Fort Caroline was located. It also illustrates the wide variety of agricultural practices in the Southeast.
The myth of primitive agriculture
School textbooks, museums and Caucasian academicians tell us: “Native Americans mainly grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins and tobacco. None of the other famous crops of the Americas were grown in the Southeast. There were no domesticated animals and all other food was obtained by gathering, hunting and fishing. American Indians never tasted honey, until Europeans brought honey bees to the Americas.” Where did these myths come from? Certainly, they are not based on the eyewitness accounts of French, Spanish and English explorers.
For starters, Hernando de Soto’s chroniclers described domestic honey bees and honey in the mountainous province of Chiaha in western North Carolina. René de Laudonnière described honey being consumed in the Coastal Plains of South Carolina and Georgia. Charles de Rochefort described honey bees being raised in Northeast Georgia. In fact, the Mayas domesticated an indigenous honey bee and apparently Maya immigrants took those honey bees with them to the Southeast.
Many European explorers reported seeing large fields of sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes, plus domesticated meat dogs, turkeys, marsh hens, ducks and geese. There were fish ponds in most villages, where fish were fed and grown. Explorers in present day South Georgia and southern South Carolina reported seeing large flocks of domesticated chickens. As stated in a previous POOF article, this region of the Creek Confederacy was primarily populated by people from Peru, where there was an indigenous domesticated chicken. To read this article again, go to: American Chickens
There are many other statements about agriculture in contemporary history and anthropology books that don’t jive with scientific facts or historical archives. Current references state that Southeastern Indians only ate wild fruits. From Hernando de Soto to William Bartram, however, we have eyewitness accounts that the ancestors of the Creeks maintained large expanses of berry and fruit tree orchards, kept clean of weeds and insects by domesticated turkeys. The Creeks were particularly fond of strawberries. Their strawberry beds might cover several acres near large towns.
The reason that the statements about strawberries in historical references are particularly odd is that if one goes into a botanical reference, one learns that virtually all commercial strawberries IN THE WORLD are at least partially descended from the strawberry, cultivated by Muskogeans in the Southeastern USA. Commercial strawberry varieties today are the result of crossing the Muskogean strawberry to regional varieties of strawberries that were acclimated to local growing conditions.
Hernando de Soto Expedition (1539-1543: The boorish conquistadors rarely mentioned agriculture, except when a particular village didn’t have enough corn or beans for them to steal. The chroniclers did mention that while traveling through what is now the State of Georgia, “they never lost sight of houses or cultivated fields.”
The fascinating slip ups on that general characterization of indifference were in the Provinces of Chiaha and Kusa. The De Soto Chronicles stated that the river valleys leading to the capital of Chiaha were filled with cultivated salvia . . . aka chia. Chiaha means “Salvia River” in Itza Maya and Itsate Creek. Chiapas (Mexico) means “Place of the Salvia.” The Chiaha were a major division of the Creek Confederacy. It is almost certain that chia was grown elsewhere in the Southern Highlands and Piedmont.
Hernando de Soto planned to make Kusa in Northwest Georgia the capital of La Florida, because he was not particularly impressed by the region that is now the State of Florida. He was its designated governor and feudal lord, so that was one of his powers.
De Soto’s chroniclers stated that the people of Kusa cultivated enormous fields of corn, but also grew many other vegetables and fruits, plus maintained large fruit and nut orchards. The primary EXPORT of Kusa was butter and oil made from the hickory nut. There were also orchards where nut trees, purple plums, paw paws, mulberries, persimmons, elderberries, grapes, blackberries, raspberries and indigenous sweet apples (Malus glabrata) were grown. Trees bearing the smaller, sourer red plums grew along the borders of fields. Even today, red plums are a common fixture on the edges of cultivated fields in the Southeast.
North American botanists have mistakenly labeled the Biltmore Apple (malus glabrata) grown at Kusa as a crabapple, because they never saw one and their professors told them so. It has different leaves than a North American crabapple and is in fact, identical in appearance and taste to the wild sweet apples of Eurasia. The few remaining trees are in remote sections of the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.
A little known sub-species of copal grows in the Georgia Mountains, east of the site of Kusa. Apparently, the people of Kusa or the Itsate adapted copal to their climate. Copal was grown by the Apalache and Kusa of North Georgia, plus the European settlers, who followed them. It was used for incense, treating headaches and in heavy doses . . . turning people temporarily into zombies. Feral copal can still be found growing near small streams at the edges of pastures.
The stories of “hillbilly zombies” that occasionally appear in the media are actually descriptions of fools, who drank too much copal tea in an effort to trip out. Oh they trip out. They wander across the landscape for about 24 hours in a state of amnesia.
René de Laudonnière (1562-65): The commander of Fort Caroline mentioned the commonly known indigenous vegetables, but also mentioned the consumption of honey. In a widely circulated letter sent back home, one of his colonists mentioned that the Alekmani (Alekoa ~ Alechua), who lived on the north side of the Altamaha River and on St. Catherines Island, specialized in growing medicinal plants.
The Alekmani’s most important tree was the Cinchona, from which quinine is made. It was one of the most important medicines among Southeastern Indians for treating fevers and protozoa infections. Cinchona bark was exported to the Apalache in North Georgia in exchange for greenstone, gold and crystals. The trade made both peoples wealthy. The Alekmani eventually fled the Spanish to live in the eastern end of the Nacoochee Valley in Northeast Georgia. Aleck Mountain on the eastern edge of the Nacoochee Valley is named after them. Alek was also the 18th century Creek word for a medical keeper (doctor).
Juan Pardo (1567-9): Pardo’s chronicler, Juan dela Bandera, mentioned all the standard indigenous crops, but also stated that they passed through a village name Aho (Ajo in Spanish) which specialized in the cultivation of sweet potatoes. Aho is the Creek and Southern Arawak (Peru) word for Sweet Potato.
Arthur Kelly’s Sweet Potato Fiasco: After studying town sites along the middle and lower Chattahoochee River between 1948 and 1969, archaeologist Arthur Kelly became convinced that the Woodland Peoples in the Creek Motherland were farmers, not hunter-gatherers, as presumed by the rest of his profession. There was no other way that he could explain the presence of large villages, even towns, plus large mounds in the riverine bottomlands of Georgia, during the Middle Woodland Period.
The main hang-up to Kelly’s theory was the lack of large scale cultivation of corn and beans until very late in the Woodland Period. At the time, all of his peers equated corn and bean cultivation to the arrival of agriculture. This was in 1969 . . . about 25 years before botanists realized that what they had labeled “weed seeds” were actually indigenous cultivated plants.
Kelly found four varieties of feral, indigenous sweet potatoes, growing in the Chattahoochee Valley near a large Woodland Period town. He postulated that the indigenous sweet potato was the staple crop of the Creek’s ancestors, prior to the arrival of maize. Unfortunately, Dr. Kelly, like virtually all Dixie archaeologists even today, was an ignoramus when it came to American Indigenous languages. Had he known that Swift Creek pottery appeared first in the part of Peru where sweet potatoes were domesticated, plus that the Creek and Peruvian Arawak word for sweet potato were the same, he would have had “some ground to stand on.”
Unfortunately, earlier in the year, Kelly had publicly announced that he had found artifacts in Georgia that were either made in Mesoamerica or copies of Mesoamerican artifacts. He was deemed criminally insane by his peers in Georgia and convicted by the high priests of Anthropos of two counts of high treason, plus blasphemy against Satan. Kelly was forced to resign his faculty position, shunned by his professional peers in Georgia for the rest of his life and cut off from funds to carry out archaeological digs.
British colonists: The early colonists in Georgia were surprised to see the Creek and Uchee Indians, living near the Georgia coast growing cacao (chocolate), pineapples, oranges and lemons. The cacao trees and pineapple plants, were genetically altered sub-species that had much earlier been selectively adapted to the coastal climate of Georgia. It would be impossible to grow a cacao tree or pineapple plant on the Georgia coast, directly transplanted from the tropics.
The cultivation of citrus trees dated back only about a century. By the early 1700s all Creek towns had peach orchards and melon patches. The citrus fruits, peaches and melons were crops from Spain that originated in the Middle East. The Creeks covertly obtained them from Spanish mission gardens, without the knowledge of the friars.
Agricultural techniques appropriate to geographical conditions
Despite what the history books say, there were many variations of Southeastern agriculture, which were geared to local geography and climate. The consistent “fact” that the Southeastern Indians were all either subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherer-gardeners at the time of European Contact is just not true for Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, western North Carolina and much of South Carolina. We have eyewitness accounts from René de Laudonnière, Charles de Rochefort and James E. Oglethorpe (leader of Savannah) that Proto-Creek provinces often produced a surplus of one or more crops then traded the surpluses to provinces in warmer or colder climates, where other crops grew better.
South Atlantic Coastal farmsteads
The peoples of coastal regions often had dual residences. During much of the year, the majority of people lived in family farmsteads near the marshes, where they tended large gardens and fished in the marshes. The families primarily planted, cultivated and harvested the vegetables for their own needs. Very little Indian corn was grown, since Live Oak acorns were their main source of carbohydrates. Some families gardened at the mother village, but maintained a fish camp near the marshes. During hurricane season, they moved inland and hunted. From after hurricane season through winter, they lived in central villages. Here they gathered enormous quantities of Live Oak acorns, plus fished and hunted from large canoes in the ocean.
Riverine Delta Communal Farming
Dense populations were located adjacent to the mouths of major rivers, from the St. Marys River northward. These rivers brought nutrients from the Appalachian Mountains and Southern Piedmont then deposited them on islands within the river deltas. Spring floods annually rejuvenated the soils, making possible continuous intensive agriculture over many centuries.
The closest modern example of this kind of agriculture is an Israeli kibbutz. The art of Jacques LeMoyne suggests that all the planting, cultivation and harvesting was done communally at these large delta towns. Leaders would divide up the harvest, each according to their need.
Yama Agriculture in the Lower Coastal Plains
Yama is a Totonac-Creek word meaning the same as “slash and burn agriculture” or milpa in Yucatec Maya. It is undoubtedly the source of the word Yamasee. In Yama agriculture, all the vegetation in a selected plot is cut down. When the dead vegetation is sufficiently dry, it is burned. The ashes and charcoal made the soil sufficiently fertile and alkaline to support farming activities from one to five seasons, depending on the original acidity and fertility of the soil.
Most people in this region lived in relatively small villages. A larger village, perhaps with some modest mounds, served as the regional capital. Each spring, families or small bands of families would go out into the dense, swampy woodlands and clear out garden plots. These plots were cultivated for a few seasons, when their fertility wore out.
I strongly suspect that the Coastal Plain villages also gardened in raised beds like the Mayas and Amazonians. However, only a minuscule number of villages (practically none) in the Atlantic Coastal Plain have been fully studied and absolutely no archaeologists were looking for evidence of raised beds or biochar agriculture. Both yamas and raised beds were cultivated by the Seminoles after they were forced into central and southern Florida.
Upland Farmstead Agriculture
This was the most widely practiced agriculture in the Creek Motherland, since in Piedmont, Upper Coastal Plain and Southern Highlands, riverine and creek bottomlands were often too narrow to support major villages. Most of the population lived in family farmsteads or very small hamlets. Such settlements generally lasted a generation or less in time. The available bottomlands were cultivated. The fringes of the bottomlands were planted in various berries. Nut and fruit trees were cultivated on the slopes of hills. They were fertilized with ashes, kitchen wastes, urine, topsoil from elsewhere and sometimes human fecal matter. Certain vegetables were cultivated in raised beds near the houses, which were intensely fertilized.
The capitals of provinces, where farmstead agriculture was practiced, might have substantial mounds, but were relatively small in area. For example, the capital of the Okvte (Shoulderbone Mounds) in Hancock County, GA covers a little over 4.5 acres, but has very large pyramidal mounds. This is the town of “Ocute,” which was visited by the De Soto Expedition in March 1540.
Whitewater Riverine Agriculture
The Apalache, Koweta and Cusate Creeks liked to place their towns along whitewater rivers. They usually did not build large mounds and so most of their towns have either been missed by archeologists or else only superficially investigated, because they were assumed to be small villages. Charles de Rochefort stated that Apalache towns often stretched for two to three miles along rivers. That is exactly what archeologist Robert Wauchope and POOF’s own researchers have found. Because the flood plains were relatively narrow, but frequently fertilized by floods, the Apalache found that by dispersing their farmsteads along river corridors, they achieve sustainability. This also maximized the number of fish traps.
Most Apalache villages remained in the range of 1-200 people. Surplus populations moved elsewhere and founded new villages. This explains how villages along the Chattahoochee, Upper Etowah, Upper Ocmulgee and Upper Oconee Rivers, could remain occupied for 1000 to 1800 years.
Inland Riverine Allotment Agriculture
Large towns were concentrated in the broad river bottomlands around the Fall Line and immediately downstream from the mountains. The only exception to this general rule was on the Lower Chattahoochee River, where the largest towns and densest population were between Columbus southward to the confluence of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers.
The ancestors of the Creeks in the major river bottomlands created a compromise between family farms and Pre-Columbian kibbutzim that very possibly is unique in the Americans. All agricultural land was owned communally by the women. The council of clan mothers administered this land and had veto power over any changes or sales associated with it.
Each spring, highly skilled Creek surveyors would stake out agricultural allotments within the bottomlands and fringe areas of the flood plains. Typically families would be assigned multiple tracts of varying quality. The largest extended families would receive the most land. All the produce from their allotment would become their food for the year. However, the women were also expected to work on communal allotments, which provided food for the elite families and professional members of the community like doctors, professional soldiers, construction managers, architects, priests, time keepers and surveyors.
While the produce within allotments was assigned to specific households, the work in most, but not all towns, was done communally. Perhaps the women and girls figured out that it was more fun to do weeding, if they could chat together while they worked.
Biochar soil islands
This is a tradition from the Upper Amazon Basin that was also practiced by the Mayas living in the Chiapas Highlands and probably at raised beds in the Maya Lowlands. It involves the application of ashes, charcoal, kitchen waste and potsherds to the soil. The combination of these ingredients cause special fungi and bacteria to grow, which make the soil incredibly fertile.
The only definite example known currently was at Rembert Mounds on the Savannah River in present day Elbert County, GA. There were at least four of these biochar platforms. They varied from 8 to 12 feet high and covered areas varying from two football fields to half of a football field. The black soil in these platforms was all hauled away by white settlers by the early 1800s, but there were probably more at other town sites in the Lower Southeast. Archaeologists have not really been looking for them.
Agricultural terrace complexes
The archaeological profession in the Southeast did not recognize the existence of Pre-European agricultural terraces in Southeast until 2012, when the People of One Fire raised the issue of the Track Rock Ruins. We recently stumbled upon a 1991 archaeological report on a virtually unknown terrace complex, northeast of Macon, GA. The archaeologist noted the presence of Native American artifacts on and in the soil, but stated, “This is obviously a Historic Period site, not Native American, because it contains earthen terraces.”
In 2001, professional archaeologists had taken soil samples of a single terrace among several hundred. The charcoal in the oldest layer of soil dated at least back to 1018 AD. The soil was applied in three widely dispersed time periods and contained some potsherds from both the Woodland and Mississippian Periods. The Woodland Period potsherds were Napier Style, which dates from 600 AD to 800 AD. The mixture of charcoal and potsherds is absolute proof that these terraces contained biochar soil.
Since that time, 14 terrace complexes with stone retaining walls have been identified in North Georgia by researchers for the People of One Fire. They can be found as far south as near the Fall Line, but are in a corridor that is roughly parallel to the Chattahoochee River. It is quite probable that many more terrace complexes were formed with logs, which have long decayed into loam. Use of LIDAR and infrared scans will identify these sites, if their general location is known. Otherwise, there is the almost impossible task of scanning every acre of land to look for evidence of ruins.
The collapse of communal agriculture
The communal agricultural traditions fell apart during the boom times of the deer skin trade . . . roughly 1690 to 1740 . . . the cohesion of Muskogean communities disintegrated. Virtually all deer and fur-bearing animals were quickly exterminated near villages. The hunters were no longer killing mature male deer for meat, but were killing deer of all ages for their skins, so the deer population declined precipitously. Men were forced to be gone from home for longer and longer periods. This put stresses on marriages and forced women to spend increasingly less time on farming as they did chores like firewood gathering, previously done by men. Iron and copper cookware relieved them of the time-consuming tasks of making pottery. However, women were significantly involved with the processing of hides and furs.
Muskogean societies became less egalitarian. The most successful hunters and trappers were able to obtain the most European items for their families. The successful hunters also needed barns, bigger than their houses, to store the skins, furs and munitions. There was an abundance of meat so the quantity and diversity of vegetables and fruits declined.
Apparently, it was in this period of time, when many households shifted from being participants in communal farming efforts to cultivating large gardens near their houses. In the eyewitness accounts of the mid-1700s, one no longer hears of vast cultivated fields, extending for many miles. A way of life was gone with the wind.
However, the Muskogean peoples had not quite forgotten their agricultural skills. When Creek villages were pushed southward into Central Florida and re-labeled Seminoles, they quickly learned how to cultivate exotic tropical fruits and vegetables that the Spanish had imported from other colonies. By the mid-1800s, the Seminoles were growing melons, tropical squashes, pineapples, citrus fruits and mangos on a sufficient scale to export them to towns in other parts of Florida.
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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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