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Why Ocmulgee’s Future Is Important to Your Tribe

When I first started studying the architecture and urban development of Ocmulgee, two National Park Service rangers discussed their theories on the town with me.  They believed that Ocmulgee was the multi-ethnic “Super-Walmart” of the Southeast, whose impact was significant to the heritage of most tribes in the Southeast.  At the time, all I knew was that I had always been told that it was the “Creek Mother Town” and all archeological texts described Ocmulgee as a small, isolated site that had no satellite villages and little impact on the remainder of North America.  The theories of the rangers seemed far-fetched.

Model of the Ocmulgee Acropolis

Model of the Ocmulgee Acropolis on display at the Capitol of the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Okmulgee, Oklahoma

Each Autumn Equinox, Ocmulgee National Monument sponsors the Southeastern Native American Festival.  In addition, representatives of seven federally-recognized tribes are consulted by the staff of Ocmulgee concerning programs and planned improvements in the archaeological zone.  This regional approach is reflective of the staff’s belief that it was once a regional cultural capital.

The more I learned about the multiple archaeological sites in the Ocmulgee Bottoms and the real pre-Colonial history of the Southeast, the more that “Super-Walmart” idea made sense.  Yes, the Muskogee-dominated Creek Confederacy had come into existence at Ichesi (or Achesi) which was once a suburb of the Ocmulgee Acropolis.  However, several other ethnic groups can also trace their heritage to Ocmulgee.  The Yuchi were there.  Some ancestors of the Shawnee were there. The Itsate Creeks were there, big time. The Toasi (Arawaks) were there.  Cofitachite, who became some of the ancestors of the Cherokees, were there. Some ancestors of the Chickasaws probably lived there, too.

Apparently, some Guanahatabey from western Cuba were at Browns Mount, which will be part of the proposed national park.1  Calusa from southern Florida were also probably there.  Probably, indigenous immigrants from northwestern Mexico were at the 28 mound town site downstream.  Even the king of Highland Apalache in North Georgia told an English visitor in 1653 that his culture began on the Lower Ocmulgee River in province that the Apalache called Amana.

It was obvious that the perspective of archaeologists from other areas of the USA toward Ocmulgee was based on an inaccurate understanding of what their peers actually discovered in the 1930s.  Ocmulgee was a multi-ethnic megapolis that stretched at least 14 miles [22.5 km] down the Ocmulgee River – perhaps 38 miles [61 km]. Traders went out from Ocmulgee to most of Southeastern North America to sell the seeds of Mesoamerican crops and spread new ideas about religion and political organization.  Architecture and town planning concepts that incubated at Ocmulgee were, within a few decades, found in central Alabama (Bessemer Site) and north central Tennessee (Mound Bottom Site).

Most importantly, recent excavations at Cahokia have determined that all the cultural trademarks of the “Mississippian Culture” were at Ocmulgee 150 years before they appeared in Cahokia. [900 AD versus 1050 AD]  By 1100 AD these cultural concepts has spread to such diverse regions as southern Ohio, western Virginia, Kentucky, eastern Oklahoma and eastern Texas.

The first national park to honor the USA’s Southeastern Native American heritage

Members of both the Democratic and Republican Parties in Congress have introduced the Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park Boundary Revision Act of 2014. [HR 4991 ~ SR 2580].  The bills change the name of Ocmulgee from a National Monument to a National Park and expand its maximum area to 20,000 acres [8094 ha].   These bipartisan bills also authorize a study to determine if expansion of the park to 30,000 acres [16187 ha] along a corridor between Macon, GA and Hawkinsville, GA is desirable and feasible.

Between now and November 10, 2014, Congressional committees will decide if the bills will be considered for a package of bipartisan bills to be forwarded to committees and ultimately passed by acclamation. We urge you to contact your Representatives and Senators in Congress ASAP to express support for these bills.

Elevation of Ocmulgee National Monument to the status of Ocmulgee National Historic Park will also be a wake-up call to academia that Ocmulgee Bottoms is a very important cultural heritage site of national significance.  Remember that 28 mound town site downstream from Ocmulgee that few people even know about?  Knowledge of such major suburbs will radically change the understanding of our Native American heritage in the Southeast.

  1. See:  A New Understanding of Ocmulgee National Monument

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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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