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The Mayas in North America . . . the Spiritual Path begins

The Mayas in North America . . . the Spiritual Path begins


PART TWO  of the Mayas in North America Series

There is one thing that Southeastern Native American kids have in common . . . as soon as we can walk, we are out wandering in the woods and fields.  That goes for the boys and girls.  Then for the rest of our lives, we find respectable careers or hobbies that conceal our childlike love of nature.

Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are good way for Native kids to conceal their shared preference for the woods over electronic games and dolls. In my case, it is quite ironic that my favorite Boy Scout merit badges were hiking, camping, (American) Indian lore, architecture, archaeology and history.  In fact, I passed the last merit badges necessary for becoming an Eagle Scout in very close vicinity to the Track Rock Terrace Complex.  However, in that era, even the Track Rock petroglyphs were unknown to the general public.

There is also something inexplicable among Southeastern Native American youth.  Within the same family, some siblings will sooner or later feel a spiritual bond with their indigenous ancestors.  Others will not . . . and think their siblings, who do feel the draw . . . at least eccentric, if not worse.

The spiritual draw to one’s ancestors often comes at a specific incident that is always remembered afterwards.  I was 14 and taking my usual afternoon ramble after school, through an old Creek farmstead in Metro Atlanta with a log house dating from the time of the Red Stick War. The Pro-United States Creeks lived in terror of attacks from the Red Sticks, so the cabin had firing ports from the second floor. Within two years, the ancient cabin and farm would be bulldozed without a thought to build the Meadows Elementary School and an apartment complex.

I suddenly had a feeling that I had been in that same place thousands of years earlier.  I looked down and there was a quartz arrowhead from the Archaic Period in the recently plowed cornfield. Actually, it was an atlatl point.   Over the next year, I picked up a box full of “arrowheads” and pieces of Indian pottery from that field.  However, I kept my feelings to myself.

Surrogate parents, uncles and aunts

It is quite common for uncles, aunts and others playing the role of uncles and aunts to take on a major role in the cultural education of a Southeastern Native American youth.  This is exactly what happened when I approached manhood.  It is part of the Spiritual Path.  My first surrogate uncle was a very spiritual Methodist minister with a maverick spirit and a disinterest in church politics . . . which meant that he would always be assigned to small or medium-sized churches, which preferred their preachers to be real Christians, not politicians and frequenters of country clubs.

For those of you, who are younger, I have to explain that what is called “Christianity” in the United States today is not even the same religion that I was raised in. Then, it was unthinkable for a church or church denomination to become involved in partisan politics.    Many denominations, especially the Methodists, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, were at the forefront of bringing social and economic justice to this nation.  We believed that when Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he meant what he said.  Please go to this Beatitudes link, if your only knowledge of the Bible comes from rightwing politicians and talking heads on network news.

It suddenly became a point of pride, rather than shame, to be Native American or have Native American ancestry.  Many denominations established ministries directed at improving the welfare of Native Americans on reservations.  The Methodists shocked conservative members, when it began encouraging Native American congregations to hold services in their own language.  The Methodists even put Creek and Cherokee songs in their new hymnal.

The Rev. Paul Harwell in 1970s clothing

When I was 16, the minister at Red Oak Methodist Church, the Rev. Paul Harwell, said something out of the blue, which launched me firmly on the Spiritual Path . . . “Richard, did you know that you are an American Indian?”

Surprised at him knowing our little family secret, I responded, “Well, they say that one of my great-grandmothers was a Creek Princess.  There is a box of old photos in Granny Ruby’s desk drawer, which has photos of her family dressed like Seminoles and there are a bunch of Indian baskets and bowls around my grandparents’ house.  But when we ask her about them, she won’t answer our questions.  She just says, “I don’t want to talk about it.  They treated us worse than the Coloreds.”

Paul smiled and said, “You have a whole more Creek ancestry than one great grandmother.  You ARE an Indian. Would you like to learn more about your heritage?”

I said, “Yes!”

Prior to entering the Emory University Theology School, Paul had studied anthropology.  I don’t recall if it was a major or a minor.   As part of his education, he had worked one summer on a archaeological site on the coast of Peru.  Soon after his “You’re a Creek Indian” conversation with me, he gave a slide show to the Methodist Youth Fellowship.  Guess where he worked?

Caral in Paracus!


Who would have dreamed that in 2013, that word would have incredible meaning for understanding the true history of the Southeastern United States?  Only then would I learn that Paracus was the ethnic origin of the elite among the ancestors of the Creeks and Seminoles.

For the next six years, Paul would invite me to accompany him and his offspring on field trips to Creek heritage sites around North Georgia. These trips continued after he was transferred to a church in Rome, GA and I was in college.

The outing to Sandtown: On a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1967, Rev. Harwell drove his teenage offspring and I to the confluence of the Chattahoochee River and Utoy Creek.   Giant earth movers would start destroying the landscape on Monday.   He wanted to show us the Civil War fortifications and the site of Sandtown village, before they were destroyed.

There really was not much at Sandtown to see.  The landscape looked like a World War I battlefield from all the pits dug by artifact poachers.  Only one mound was still visible on the north side of Utoy Creek and it had been plowed down to being barely a bump in the landscape.  There were other bumps on the south side of the creek, but according to a just published archaeology book, these were probably natural features, created by innumerable floods.

Paul showed us the spot where a teenage Confederate sniper had been summarily executed after being captured by Union cavalrymen, because he had 14 notches on his rifle stock. He showed us the breastworks along the river and creek, plus an unnatural hill that others called an Indian mound, but Paul thought was an artillery emplacement.

Paul also showed us the rusting barbwire fence line in a pasture at the northern tip of Sandtown, which marked the last northern boundary of the Creek Nation between 1821 and 1827.  One side was lower than the other, because it had been plowed longer.

While we walked over the surface of the land south of Utoy Creek, I picked up a bag full of shiny, black potsherds that had complex, three dimensional designs on them.  This was Swift Creek pottery, but we teenagers didn’t know anything about that.  The experience was just a break between the more serious demands of dating, sports and classes – in that order.  Of course, I had no idea that this afternoon jaunt, so long ago, would radically change the direction of my life.

Dr. Arthur Kelly and the Mayan Connection

Arthur Kelly at Site 9FU14

Two years later, I noticed a small card on the bulletin board at Georgia Tech’s College of Architecture.  Dr. Arthur Kelly from the University of Georgia was directing anthropology students at Georgia State University in the excavation of the Sandtown Site, which I had visited with Paul Harwell.  David Barrow, a long-time member of POOF, was one of those students.

Dr. Kelly needed a volunteer to prepare an ink line on mylar site plan of the American Indian village, his team uncovered.  There was no money involved, but I thought it represented a grand opportunity for me to meet artsy girls.  There were only 124 female students at Georgia Tech at that time.  The previous year there had been only 28 coeds at Tech.

See for the full story on the Sandtown Archaeological Project.

Kelly asked me to meet him at the Anthropology Department at Georgia State University. By spring of 1969, most of the dramatic work of revealing a lost village had been done.  The excavation work was phasing out.  The only major task ahead was exploration of the small mound.  After Larry Meier revealed the mound to media, night time poachers dug into it.   The archaeological team was forced to erect a fence around it.  Meanwhile the lab work continued on the artifacts unearthed.  Kelly was looking for proof that the people in this village had been farmers.

Despite the attraction of the coeds, I probably would have not preceded any further, if I had not visited the site as a teenager.  Being so busy with school work, I would never have paid any attention the newspaper articles, if I hadn’t already known the archaeological site.

I called the UGA Anthropology Department.  Apparently, it was the first call that they had ever received on the note.  I heard a man in the background telling the secretary to set up an interview ASAP.   She asked me if I could meet Dr. Kelly at Georgia State’s Anthropology Department in two days.  This was a problem, because I had 48 hours of class a week, while Liberal Arts students typically had 15 hours. Nevertheless, I set up the appointment when I was supposed to be in a design lab and then feigned a family emergency with the professor.

On the designated afternoon, I rode a MARTA bus downtown and eventually found my way to the Anthropology Department.   Dr. Kelly was in the office of a GSU anthropology professor.  They were looking at artifacts and photos of artifacts.  The office desk was covered with pieces of old pottery.  The professors proceeded to tell me all the English names of the pottery styles and stone artifacts that had been made by Indians . . . ad nauseam.

I told them, “Wow, that’s interesting!” . . . but was thinking . . . “Okay, when do get to meet the archaeology coeds?”

It was initially obvious that Dr. Kelly was accustomed to being sharper than everyone around him.  That would not have been the case at Georgia Tech, but I could see why the other archaeologists might be jealous of him.  I showed them some ink architectural site plans that I had done in class.  That got me the non-paying job.

Kelly explained that Great Southwest Corporation and the Fulton County Building Inspection Dept. had demanded a precise as-built site plan in ink on mylar plastic and at a certain scale.  He had never in his career been required to do such a thing . . . even by the National Park Service.  They had refused to accept the pencil and ball point pen sketches that archaeologists normally created back then.  Surveying firms had demanded $5000 or more to re-survey the site and produce the plat.  That’s the equivalent of about $30,000 today.   There was no money in the team’s almost expended budget to pay surveyors.

The archaeologists were not being persecuted. They were working on a construction site with a building permit.  What the client and county building officials requested was standard procedure in the construction industry.

Before I left to gawk at Georgia State coeds,  Dr. Kelly said, “Hey Richard.  You’re an architecture student so you might be interested in these special artifacts from the Chattahoochee River in Southwest Georgia . . . not the site where you will be working.”

Kelly pointed out some photos of bowls, figurines and a cylindrical seal, plus picked up a cylindrical seal.   He mentioned the Mandeville site and pointed to another location near Attapulgus, GA.  He said, “I think that these were made in Mesoamerica . . . or at least are copies of artifacts from Mesoamerica.”  I pretended to be interested, but such things really had no relevance to my dream of becoming another Frank Lloyd Wright . . . or better still . . . John Portman, the mega-successful architect-developer.

A few weeks later, Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist, John Pennington, wrote an article about Kelly’s interpretation of these artifacts.  That article got Kelly in big, big trouble with his peers in the archaeology profession.  They set about a scheme to destroy him.


Georgia State University students at the 9FU14 archeological site on the Chattahoochee River

Deja vu

As you will read in the series, “Excavating a Lost World 10 Miles from Downtown Atlanta,”  Dr. Kelly asked me to do a favor for him din June 1969. The Great Southwest Corporation had banned the archaeology students from the dig site on weekends because of some wild “hippy” parties.  Kelly asked me to check out a garbage midden that had been exposed by a flash flood on Utoy Creek.   I invited Susan Muse, who was also part Creek and attended Red Oak Methodist, to accompany me. 

We quickly realized that this was a Deptford-Swift Creek Cultures burial mound and ceased all disturbance of the site.  However, soon after we witnessed a crime being committed that was intended to frame Dr. Kelly.  Our testimony probably saved Dr. Kelly from being charged with several felonies.

Dr. Kelly was extremely grateful for his butt being saved by our testimony.  He and my faculty advistor, Architect Ike Saporta, President of the Atlanta Archaeological Society, were the primary reasons that I was awarded a fellowship to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico.  Exactly a year after I had been poking around a previously unknown burial mound on Utoy Creek, near Six Flags Over Georgia . . . I was on a jet bound for Mexico City.

The Spiritual Path can be strange indeed.  Forty years later, in late 2010, I ran into Susan Muse in Blairsville, GA . . . while I was in my homeless period.  I didn’t tell her I was homeless. I told her that I was doing field research for Roger Kennedy . . . which was true.  She told me that many of our classmates at Lakeshore High had moved from the Atlanta Area to the Georgia Mountains during the “Back to Nature” Movement.  I told her I had moved to the Asheville Area and started the first federally licensed goat cheese creamery in the nation.  She laughed . . . goats?   I thought you would end up in Buckhead.

I laughed back, “Well, actually . . . that is where I was living before moving to Asheville.”

Susan explained that she had lived in Blairsville for most of her adult life, but had to move a couple of years earlier to nearby Blue Ridge due to incessant threats from Neo-Nazi groups and the occult in the Blairsville Area.  She said that several of our classmates at Lakeshore High School had been through the same ordeal.   I told her that the same things had been happening to me since 1999. Were we on the “hit list” of those who want a fascist society in the United States?   She grimaced and shook her head . . . whispering, “It sure seems like it.”

I never saw Susan again.  When I would email her, suggesting that we get together with other former high school classmates, living in the Blairsville area . . . she would put me off . . .  saying that she did not feel well right now . . . maybe later.   Susan Muse died at the exact same moment that filming began for the Travel Channel program on Track Rock Gap began. It was the only commercial TV crew that the US Forest Service Office in Gainesville, GA allowed on the archaeological site.

Marble statues of slaves

Again, the Spiritual Path steps into the picture.  It so happened that the Mexican Consul in Atlanta was an architecture graduated of Georgia Tech.  Instead of me going to Mexico as an anonymous young Gringo student, he arranged for me to get the VIP treatment.   World famous archaeologists, Román Piña Chán and Ignacio Bernal, were to be my fellowship coordinators.   The fellowship would begin by the two famous men giving me a royal tour of all six floors of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City . . . which would be my base of operations.  The Mexican Consul suggested that it was customary in Latin America for students to give books to their professors in such situations.

Within five minutes into the tour, Ignacio Bernal, Director of the Institutio Nacional de Anthropologia E Historia, realized that I was not a rich Gringo, whose parents had donated to the INAH, but rather a young Mestizo Gringo architecture student, who knew very little Spanish.  He looked at his watch . . . yelled “Idiotas!” and walked away.  I never saw him again.

Dr. Román Piña Chán – INAH de Mexico

At the end of the tour, I gave both books to Dr. Piña Chán.  Unlike Bernal, he obviously like me.   He was half Maya and told me that he wanted to provide all of the opportunities possible for a Gringo mestizo to learn about the real Mexico. Piña Chán was director of this museum and had to leave immediately for a lunch meeting with some government officials.  He told me to come back in a couple of days after he had the time to review my fellowship prospectus.

Actually, I returned to his office much sooner than expected.  Just as I was about to get into Gionela Soto-Quinard’s Volkswagen Bug to return to her family’s house in Colonia Nueva Santa Maria, Dr. Piña Chán’s beautiful graduate assistant, Alejandra, hollered for me to come back inside the museum.  He had cancelled his appointment with the government officials. Her boss wanted me to have lunch with him in his office, so he could ask me questions about the books, I gave him.  

Dr. Piña Chán told me that the art at the archaeological sites in Georgia and Alabama was very similar to that of the Toltecs.  He pointed out glyphs from Etowah Mounds that were identical to those at Tula, the capital of the Toltecs.  On the other hand, the ceramics in the Southeast were very different than those in Mexico.  He said that this style of pottery seemed to have come from a land faraway from North America.  He was not specific.   He then speculated that perhaps, most of the immigrants from Mexico to Georgia were men, since the women made the utilitarian pottery.   Note that even in 1970,  Mexican archaeologists took for granted the fact that at least some Mesoamericans had kicked off the “Southeastern Mound Building Culture.”   It was never a “theory” to them.

Maya slaves and commoners wore simple turbans like the Creeks’ ancestors.

Piña Chán stated the copper art in Georgia was vastly superior to any copper art created in Mexico.  He was puzzled why the Georgia Indians did not create art from gold.   I told him that there was lots of gold near Etowah Mounds, but I did not know why the ancestors of the Creek Indians never produced gold art works.

Then he came to the photos of the famous marble statues found at Etowah Mounds and was visibly puzzled.  He exclaimed, “¿Ricardo, por qué tus indios en Georgia hicieron estatuas de mármol de esclavos?  Alejandra translated, “Ricardo, why did your Indians in Georgia make marble statues of slaves?”

I would have no answer for the esteemed Mexican intellectual until 40 years later.






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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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